Original release: July 7th, 1978
Running time: 134 minutes
Director: Andrew V. McLaglen
Writers: Reginald Rose, Daniel Carney (novel)
Cast: Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, Hardy Krüger
As the Second World War tit had been drained hollow by British films glorifying every aspect of the Good War, a series of more cynical and brutal films came along glorifying mercenaries, such as The Dogs Of War, and culminating in the bloodless television series The A-Team, and which is now enjoying a renaissance with the bewildering popularity of The Expendables. The Wild Geese tells the story of a band of British mercenaries who, in the hire of a multinational company headed by Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger), are to parachute into a corrupt African state to rescue the legitimate president Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) who is being held captive.
Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton) is the tough career soldier who assembles his crack team of soldiers of fortune, including the star fire power of Roger Moore (Shawn Fynn), Richard Harris (Rafar Janders) and Hardy Kruger (Pieter Coetzee), all of whom play the red bereted officers. The plot follows a fairly straightforward men-on-a-mission structure with recruitment, training, planning, initial success taking us much the way through the film, without too many surprises.
The production however was controversial, primarily due to shooting being located in apartheid South Africa as well as suspicion that the plot—white mercenaries interfering in an African nation’s internal affairs—was in all likelihood going to be racist. Such fears were not unfounded. The script was based on Rodhesian author Daniel Carney’s then unpublished novel, The Thin White Line, which the filmmakers quite wisely changed to its present title.
The Wild Geese also endeavours to make its troop of mercenaries an inclusive bunch with a black soldier Sgt. Jesse Blake (John Kani) featuring prominently in all the action scenes, an openly gay character, Witty (Kenneth Griffith) and a South African Boer in Pieter Coetzee (played by Kruger). It’s Pieter who represents the bad conscience of the film. His transformation from racist Boer to self-sacrificing believer, however, is marred by the fact that he carries Limbani on his back for much of the film, proving a literal visualization of the White Man’s Burden metaphor, which despite its softening round the edges, the film fully endorsees.
The film represents a post-colonial fantasy and must have held some of the similar appeal as Zulu in showing workman like bravery in the face of insuperable odds.
Its premiere was picketed, but this did not significantly impact on its popularity in Europe, where it was a significant hit. In the States, the lack of a single American star and the bankruptcy of the Allied Artists studio conspired to make the film a commercial flop.
It was popular on television, where I saw a slightly edited version for the first time on ITV as part of their Autumnal Thursday night big film season, which that year also included Jaws. As a kid, I loved it and re-watching it I was surprised how well it held up. This is mainly due to the star power on show. Burton is glorious, downing Granger’s whisky and barking ‘Another’—‘Feel free with my whisky’—‘I will. Another.’ By now, he had made so many rotten films not much was expected of him, but he always brought a truth and fire to his performances and The Wild Geese wouldn’t be the film it is without his glowering pent up rage against the fading of the light at its centre.
Despite being in the wild man stage of his career, Richard Harris has a quieter, sadder role to play, the idealist who just wants a quiet life bringing up his son and Roger Moore (celebrating his 50th birthday on set) is content to quip well inside his comfort zone. But the veteran actors play together with an obvious affection, humour and ease. Frank Finlay even turns up for a cameo as an Irish missionary.
The film’s action is also highly effective. Unlike our irony saturated, semi-parodic CGI romps, The Wild Geese is all practical effects, blood squibs and characters that you genuinely care about. The dodgy-ness of its politics aside (and I grant for many that will be far too much of an ask) the film represents one of Britain’s better genre entries of the late seventies.
John Bleasdale is a writer based in Italy. He has published on films at various internet sites and his writing can be found, along with blog posts, collected at johnbleasdale.com.
He has also contributed chapters to the American Hollywood and American Independent volumes of the World Directory of Cinema: (Intellect), Terrence Malick: Films and Philosophy (Continuum) and World Film Locations: Venice (Intellect). You can also follow him on Twitter @drjonty.