Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Starring: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger, Stewart Granger, Winston Ntshona, Barry Foster, Frank Finley
Written by: Reginard Rose and (based on the novel) Daniel Carney
Running Time: 134 mins
Original UK Cert: AA
Original UK Release: 7th July 1978
There are a succession of films that have grown in popularity since their releases and The Wild Geese is one of them. At the time, it did moderate box office, even with the three leads being big screen draws. One of the problems which stilted the film making more money was its links with the then-white government of South Africa. The World Premiere in London was marred by protesters of the Anti-Apartheid movement, angry that the producers that the film had been made and the negative portrayal of black Africans, even though they hadn’t even seen the film.
However, years have gone by and the film is one that, when mentioned, most will say “Yes, I like that!” even though it is very violent, has some choice expletives and a usual downbeat ending that the 70’s cinema was so famous for. It is a cracking adventure yarn which is lifted by the presence of hellraisers Richard Burton and Richard Harris and a much tougher character from the then James Bond, Roger Moore. What more could you want?
Merchant banker Matheson hires top mercenary Colonel Faulkner to get together a top team of soldiers and rescue an imprisoned politician from Africa in order to overthrow a violent dictator. Falukner pulls in his friends, Capt. Rafer Janders and Lt. Shawn Flynn along with a mix bunch of fellow soldiers, mostly aging. The mission, they believe will be a simple in-and-out extraction of President Limbani but they soon find they’ve been double-crossed and are left in the middle of Central Africa desperately trying to escape.
The plot isn’t wildly original for a war film yet moving it to a more modern setting and a time when civil wars in Africa were constantly in the news, made the film more prevalent. Director Andrew V. McLaglan was no stranger to action films, having cut his teeth on TV shows like Rawhide and Gunsmoke, before moving on to make a series of westerns with John Wayne. The big set pieces, the silent attack on the compound where Limbani is held, the bridge attack and the explosive finale, are both gripping and well executed, helped by second unit director, editor and later Bond director John Glen.
What pushes the film along, apart from the action sequences are some nicely placed humour. The training scene, where the troop are pushed to the limit by the aging but unforgiving Sergeant Major Sandy Young, is a hoot and the dialogue is littered with throwaway one-liners that, unless you are listening very carefully, you may miss them.
The real joy is watching Burton, Harris and Moore working together. Richard Burton, as Faulkner, turned the role down at first, due to the glorification of mercenaries and even filming he was never fully happy. Harris was given a contract in which he wasn’t allowed alcohol on set due to his reputation of causing trouble when drunk and Moore, most surprisingly, asked to have less dialogue in the scenes with his fellow leads, something unheard of for such a big star (and at the time, Moore, coming off three Bond films, was the biggest name attached).
Yet when the three are on-screen together, the film is lifted up from being just another action adventure. There’s a real sense of friendship, of three actors who know their craft. You feel completely at ease when playing out the more wordy scenes and instead of slowing things down, they somehow make you want more.
Along with the array of British stalwarts (Stewart Granger, Frank Finley in a cameo as an Irish Priest, the underrated Jack Watson as Sandy) the film has plenty to enjoy and it’s no wonder it has grown to almost cult status. There’s a couple of missteps (the Mafia thugs after Flynn are a little cardboard) and the little boy playing Harris’s son is, well, terrible but these can be forgiven for an overall rollicking boy’s own adventure with a cast who aren’t taking things too seriously.
A sequel, Wild Geese II, was made but none of the original cast wanted to be involved and it actually made this look like a masterpiece.
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