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Movies about mercenaries have an enduring popularity, as the combat subgenre gives armchair soldiers a sense of adventure different from a war movie. Mercenaries get to have all the fun, behaving like criminals on a deadly caper, without the usual restraints of army life. I imagine somebody must peel potatoes in a mercenary group, but you don't see it in the movies.
Low-budget practitioners and Euro-thriller producers turn out plenty of these hard-bitten, cynical action pictures, but the mainstream classic titles are probably Jack Cardiff's Dark of the Sun and John Irvin's The Dogs of War. A popular cult attraction is producer Euan Lloyd's The Wild Geese from the late 1970s, when interest in mercenaries resulted in a dedicated magazine called Soldier of Fortune. Based on a book by Daniel Carney, The Wild Geese can boast a dream cast of big stars: Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris. The producer's biggest feat may have been signing all that expensive talent -- and keeping some of them sober long enough to make the movie. Severin's new Blu-ray delivers a perfect copy of an action favorite that has so far been seen only in compromised video editions.
A coup in an African country has ousted and imprisoned the idealistic President Limbani (Winston Ntshona), threatening the access of underhanded English businessman Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to the country's copper reserves. Matherson hires ace mercenary Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) to facilitate a counter-coup by rescuing Limbani. With half a million dollars of Matherson's money to spread around, Faulkner hires his old buddies Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore) and Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), as well as the experienced South African Pieter Cotetzee (Hardy Kruger). Top sergeant Sandy Young (Jack Watson) and gay medic Arthur Witty (Kenneth Griffith) enlist as well. Parachuting in with 50 picked troops, the strike force frees Limbani and seizes the airport for their timely getaway, only to discover that Matherson has made a better deal with the new government. With the strike team's extraction airplane recalled, they are forced to make a run for the South of the country: their only hope is that the nation will rally behind its beloved leader Limbani.
Action movie fans can't get enough of pictures like The Wild Geese, which delivers big stars, uncomplicated combat scenes and broad characters. The soldiers for hire do their work because fighting is what they like, they hate civilian jobs and they need the money. The mission is its own reward for the top men, who leave dull jobs and angry wives to risk their necks in Africa. A combat fantasy that blames Africa for the political vacuum left by departing European administrators, The Wild Geese isn't concerned that its heroes are facilitating continued economic exploitation of the region. Soldiers don't have to worry about that kind of thing.
Armchair commandos need their fantasies, it seems. After the death of his wife Richard Burton hates being retired. Richard Harris is a single father with a cute little boy in boarding school. Roger Moore is reduced to moonlighting as a mob courier, but murders his slimy Mafia employer (David Ladd), who has given him heroin to smuggle. Only Moore seems even remotely fit enough to undertake such a demanding mission -- after years spent in drinking, Burton and Harris each look at least ten years older than their actual ages. Tucked into the cast list for international box office, the talented Hardy Kruger plays a South African who initially treats the black leader Limbani with contempt. A few trailside chats later, generations of black/white antagonism evaporate. Kruger decides that maybe Limbani is the hope for Africa's future after all. If we could only induce Israelis and Palestinians to fight together on a mercenary mission, the troubles of the Middle East might be solved as well.
The film spends more time on character than action. The taking of the African prison and airport are perfunctory scenes with plenty of shooting but little tension. One novel idea sees Hardy Kruger killing several guards silently with a crossbow. The overland escape is a series of generic shootouts as government troops and airplanes zero in on Richard Burton's dwindling force. There is plenty of time for all the stars to debate their choices and personal differences. The pace also slows to dole out sympathetic death scenes for a long list of special supporting personalities, while surviving mercenaries offer gestures of respect, etc. Considering the venal nature of their enterprise -- they're called mercenaries, after all -- the depth of the buddy love in this group reaches absurd levels. The Wild Geese dishes out parallel lines of ruthlessness and sentiment.
In the post-studio environment, 1970s filmgoers were impressed by wild independent showmen like Joseph E. Levine, who floated the gargantuan production A Bridge Too Far by pre-selling distribution rights and luring top stars with generous salary offers. Levine's production may have been overblown, but it is also an artistic picture about a tragic military failure. The Wild Geese has no such ambitions. The screenplay by the celebrated Reginald Rose (Twelve Angry Men, Man of the West) is strictly formulaic. Director Andrew V. McLaglen made some of the dullest westerns of the 1960s despite the presence of stars like John Wayne and James Stewart. His dialogue scenes are indifferent coverage, leaving the action work to John Glen and assistant director Derek Cracknell. Given the depressed state of the UK film industry producer Lloyd was able to back up his stellar cast with top technical talent -- cameraman Jack Hildyard, James Bond editor & second unit director John Glen and production designer Syd Cain. Yet the movie isn't particularly attractive looking and the editing is standard issue.
Just the same, The Wild Geese delivers the military action fans crave along with an ending that's satisfyingly upbeat, considering the body count. Almost every actor with a line to deliver is a notable name: Percy Herbert, Jeff Corey, Patrick Allen, Ronald Fraser, Barry Foster, Frank Finlay, Ken Gampu. It is undeniably enjoyable to see Richard Burton and Richard Harris exerting themselves in highly physical roles. Burton even takes a turn carrying Winston Ntshona around on his back, if only for a few steps. The show has a dedicated following.
Severin's Blu-ray + DVD Combo of The Wild Geese contains an excellent transfer of this tale of aging soldiers of fortune. Colors are good and the widescreen image is much more satisfying than old flat cable TV prints. We learn in the extras that The Wild Geese did well overseas but stumbled in the U.S. when its distributor Allied Artists suddenly went belly up. Most of us caught it on cable screenings. Euan Lloyd's follow-up The Sea Wolves enjoyed a much bigger theatrical presence here.
Fans of The Wild Geese will be pleased with Severin's generous extras. A series of featurettes use interview material with many of the film's participants, all of whom express praise for producer Lloyd. Director McLaglen and Military Advisor Mike Hoare get separate honorariums, while a lengthy show on the producer will have you searching the IMDB for award winners among his films. An admirably resourceful showman, Lloyd stayed active in a tough decade for UK filmmakers. Roger Moore, singer Joan Armatrading and actress Ingrid Pitt appear, as well as Euan Lloyd himself.
A feature commentary moderated by Jonathan Southcott features input from Lloyd, Moore and John Glen. Finishing the extras are an original promo featurette, newsreel footage of a Royal Charity Premiere and a theatrical trailer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Wild Geese Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.