When the British film industry fell into a state of near-total collapse, one reaction was all-star adventure epics, from The Wild Geese and its follow-up, The Sea Wolves: The Last Charge of the Calcutta Light Horse (1980) to Escape to Athena (1979), North Sea Hijiack / ffolkes (1980), to partly British ventures like A Bridge Too Far (1977) and Victory (1981). Many of the stars and supporting actors in The Wild Geese turned up in one or more of these films, too.
In The Wild Geese, Richard Burton stars as Col. Faulkner, a mercenary hired by Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to fly into "Zembala," in Africa and rescue a deposed president, Julius Limbali (Winston Ntshona), thought dead but actually held in a remote political prison. After recruiting Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), South African Pieter Coetze (Hardy Kruger) and about 50 others, the men are trained and in no time parachute into Zembala.
The picture follows the tried-and-true formula successfully mined in films like Gunga Din (1939), The Guns of Navarone (1961), and The Dirty Dozen (1967), with the usual mix of male-bonding, hoary military stereotypes, detailed briefings, last-minute snafus, double-crosses, and apocalyptic shoot-outs. The film does well in all these departments, particularly in keeping the viewer interested with a building momentum leading to several terrifically tense action set pieces.
Reginald Rose's script, from Daniel Carney's novel, cleverly varies the motivations of the mercenaries: some are in it to support the high-living to which they have become accustomed, while others are aging career soldiers looking for one last great adventure. Still others believe in the cause, while some desperately need the money to meet next month's rent or to secure a quiet retirement. Similarly, the script doesn't ignore or condone the inherent moral contradictions of mercenary life. The characters talk about, criticize and defend their chosen profession (and, in one case, their racism), and while the film ultimately comes off as naive, it's certainly not fascist as contemporary protestors assumed.
The other great joy of The Wild Geese is seeing so many fine British and Irish stars and character actors gathered together in one film, where each has his own little moment (often several) to shine. Some have argued that Richard Burton is miscast, and while it's true his health was beginning its long, sad descent, it's basically a variation of his thinking man's soldier in the not dissimilar Where Eagles Dare (1969), in which he was also very good. Apparently neither Burton nor Richard Harris were permitted to drink during production - production insurance types having apparently stepped in and insisted on a dry set - but their characters certainly drink a lot on camera, and their old comrade chemistry belies the fact that this was their only film together. Harris's character is given a son, Emile (Paul Spurrier), and it's to Harris's credit that what might have been a mawkish relationship comes off as genuinely touching.
Roger Moore was in the midst of his seven-film run as James Bond, but the film wisely brushes aside any such comparisons with that character right away, with Shawn Fynn's introduction. Having hired himself out on what he thought was an assignment to smuggle money into England, Fynn realizes that in fact he's been carrying cyanide-laced heroin, and in a surprisingly grim scene at gunpoint forces kingpin Sonny (David Ladd) to eat the stuff. Several of Moore's Bond colleagues worked on the picture: Maurice Binder did the titles, John Glen was its editor, Syd Cain did the production design, and Bob Simmons had a hand in the stuntwork.
The picture abounds in familiar character actors: among others Frank Finlay turns up as an Irish missionary, Kenneth Griffith plays an outrageously gay medical officer, Jack Watson and Ronald Fraser have good scenes as mercenaries, while Patrick Allen, Barry Foster, and Terence Longdon are effective as mysterious government types.
Video & Audio
The Wild Geese was shot in spherical Panavision for 1.85:1 release. The DVD is correctly matted but not enhanced (and thus not quite "remastered to its full glory!"), a real shame as the image is otherwise pristine. The is a little bit of digital break-up here and there, but it's not bad. The DVD runs just shy of 129 minutes, five minutes shy of most listed running times, suggesting this is a sped-up PAL conversion. Another oddity is that in one of the documentaries a key scene is shown to be taking place pre-dawn, but the feature isn't printed that way, with the same footage appearing in full daylight. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix brings out the music and effects tracks a little too strong and tends to drown out the dialogue, but is full of gusto. There are no subtitle options.
Despite the shortcomings on the transfer, the DVD is otherwise packed with extras, and fans of the film won't be disappointed here. First is The Last of the Gentleman Producers, a 37-minute 2003 documentary on producer Euan Lloyd, in which he discusses his career and is joined by Roger Moore, an unrecognizable Ingrid Pitt, actor Kenneth Griffith, actress-daughter Rosalind Lloyd, editor John Glen, title song singer Joan Armatrading, producer Norman Spencer, and Film Services' Sydney Samuelson. The show includes clips and other tantalizing footage from Lloyd's career, including excerpts or stills from such films as Poppies Are Also Flowers (1966), Shalako (1968), Paper Tiger (1975), and others. The entire documentary is matted for 16:9 presentation but is not enhanced. Curiously, full frame clips are horizontally stretched as well, creating a real eye-straining effect certainly not intended.
Next is Wild Geese Premiere Footage, which runs seven minutes, is 4:3 standard format, and is in excellent condition with good color. The film was apparently made for theatrical release by British Movietone News, and is a star-studded charity gathering at the Leicester Square Theater sponsored by the Variety Club.
Next is Stars' War: The Flight of the Wild Geese, a 24-minute behind-the-scenes film shot in 1978 and thankfully featuring interviews with several stars that have since passed away, including Burton and Harris. The show is better than most such films, offering a detailed look at the difficulties of mounting a major production in far-off Transvaal.
What's billed as a Radio Spot is actually a full 40 minutes of radio interviews with the cast. Good stuff, and a sharp contrast to the basically worthless Star Biographies, which aren't. Downright baffling is an Interactive Combat Menu which offers clips from the film under such categories as "bazooka" and "knife in the chest."
A detailed Audio Commentary Track finds historian Jonathan Sothcott interviewing producer Euan Lloyd and Roger Moore was much more inviting. Finally, and frustratingly, a Theatrical Trailer, complete with text and narration, is presented in 16:9 format, showing off what the film should have looked like.
The Wild Geese is a pleasant surprise for those, including this reviewer, that missed it during its scattershot release in 1978. (Allied Artists, the U.S. distributor, went bankrupt around this time.) The DVD falls short in the transfer, but compensates in other ways, making this a Recommended title.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf - The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune and Taschen's forthcoming Cinema Nippon. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.