‘There’s a special clause in my contract that says my liver is to be buried separately with full honours.’
Probably the apex of the genre of British machismo which strings out between the oeuvres on paperback racks and film of Alistair MacLean and Andy McNab, this 1978 epic from producer auteur Euan Lloyd and hired gun helmsman Andrew V. McLaglen is an endearing, if ramshackle mix of the shoddy and the exciting. Films like this always had posters featuring paintings of big, battered movie star heads five times the size of the explosions, aircraft and battles. That approach pays off with iconic, if ridiculous turns from the overqualified but boozy likes of Richard Burton and Richard Harris, breezy and insufficiently hard Roger Moore (who has a cigar in lieu of a character trait) and happy-to-be-in-the-company Hardy Kruger (qualifying the picture as international), while the most memorable turns come from the lower ranks, with Kenneth Griffith enthusiastically terrible as a stereotype gay battlefield medic (the camp is shrill, but it was modestly innovative to include a gay character in the macho rainbow alliance along with blacks, jocks, cockneys, etc) and Jack Watson giving the all-round best performance as the shouty drill sergeant.
A British-based copper company run by a smooth baddie (Stewart Granger) with government ties (Patrick Allen, Barry Foster) recruits Colonel Allen Faulkner (Burton), who’s a hopeless alkie except when he has a mission, to assemble a mercenary team and parachute into a made-up African nation to rescue the imprisoned president (Winston Ntshona) so a wicked usurper can be ousted. Naturally, once a surgical strike has liberated the Mandela-like leader, the copper company comes to an arrangement with the usurper, and the mercs are left to be cut to pieces by the elite ‘Simba’ regiment, and suffer the expected losses while trying to get out of the country to the safety (!) of Rhodesia. Part of the excruciating appeal is the film’s attempt – courtesy of script input from Reginald Rose – to come to grips with African politics, which includes a few pithy, prophetic exchanges between the South African racist who reforms (Kruger) and the ailing black politician he has to carry piggy-back across the country. Naturally, this co-exists with Boys’ Own paper stuff in which the handsome, smiling whites (with a few token black soldiers) take out African sentries with poisoned crossbow bolts or sudden throat-slitting, cyanide is puffed into the mosquito netting of enemy troops and hordes of black extras are mowed down or blown up. We’re told that the Simbas are responsible for all manner of atrocities, so that’s all right then – and Faulkner is really, really upset when he has to shoot his wounded comrades so they won’t fall into the enemy’s torturing hands (it’s the gay guy who gets macheted to pieces).
Burton and Harris are, of course, ideally cast as sotten has-beens desperate for one last shot at glory, but McLaglen isn’t the man to spur these talents into rising from their career troughs to deliver the blazing work they were capable of even when things weren’t going well. And Moore is just out for a lark. Also on board: Ronald Fraser (as ‘Jock’), Frank Finlay (as a fighting Oirish bush priest), Rosalind Lloyd (the producer’s daughter), African regulars John Kani and Ken Gampu, Percy Herbert, Brook Williams, Terence Longdon, Patrick Holt, Valerie Leon (as a croupier), Jeff Corey and David Ladd (as the mafia), Ingmar Bergman’s daughter Anna (as a hooker), child actor Paul Spurrier (who grew up to write and direct the Anglo-Thai horror P), Suzanne Danielle and stunt supremo Bob Simmons. McLaglen had done a lot of okayish Westerns (Chisum, etc) and knows how to strafe a bridge or stage a gun battle, but the moments of gore and realism don’t really lend weight to the basic tosh of the storyline, and whenever the film tries to be significant it just turns gigglesome.