The Wild Geese
Some films defy time. Made in 1978, The Wild Geese is one of them. Based on an allegedly factual incident when a plane full of white mercenaries made an emergency landing in Rhodesia with an unnamed, dying African leader aboard (long rumored to be Moise Tshombe), the film is a faintly ludicrous, determinedly non-PC, Boy’s Own tale of derring-do in Darkest Africa, it is perhaps the quintessential men-on-a-mission movie and if you were a boy growing up in the early-mid ‘80s (like Yorkies, The Wild Geese wasn’t for girls), as video started to boom and VHS battled Betamax for mastery of our living rooms, The Wild Geese was essential viewing, its defining action scenes acted out in schoolyards across the country.
Seasoned, old-school mercenary Colonel Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) is hired by wealthy British industrialist Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to engineer a little regime change in a Central African military dictatorship and safeguard British mining interests by rescuing deposed democratically-elected president Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) before he’s executed.
After recruiting master tactician and single dad Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), pilot and ladies man Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), South African Bush expert Pieter Coetze (Hardy Kruger) and 50 other superannuated ex-squaddies, Faulkner and his men, codenamed ‘Wild Geese’ parachute into enemy territory and snatch Limbani with relative ease. However, back in Blighty, the treacherous Matheson has just done a deal with the vicious dictatorship and no longer needs the mercenaries or their prize. Double-crossed and abandoned, stranded in a hostile country with no means of escape, the hopelessly outnumbered Wild Geese are forced to fight to the bloody death…
Early on in the film, when the suave Matheson offers Richard Burton’s cynical, world-weary Faulkner a drink with the words “You drink whiskey, I believe. Soda or water?” only to receive the curt reply “Large and straight,” you know exactly what kind of film The Wild Geese is: it’s a man’s film (in the same way that anything with Sarah Jessica Parker or Katherine Heigl is a woman’s film) and unashamedly so. In fact, the cast is almost entirely male. They really don’t make them like this anymore. Starring some of the British acting profession’s most legendary hellraisers, it’s a rip-roaring epic adventure which, in amongst the bloody action scenes, is also a surprisingly thoughtful meditation on mercenary life, neither condoning or ignoring the inherent moral and philosophical contradictions of a lifestyle that the protagonists both celebrate and criticise. The Wild Geese may not be the most intelligent movie ever made but it’s certainly smarter and more introspective than The Expendables 2.
Yes, it’s politically mixed up, an odd cocktail of right-wing rhetoric and wooly liberalism but it dares to pick at and expose the festering scab of colonialism and racism. Despite being filmed in South Africa at the height of Apartheid it’s anti-Apartheid message is clear and unsubtle particularly in the dialogue scenes between Ntshona’s African leader and Kruger’s South African Boer, an institutionalised racist whose slow realisation of another’s humanity is the social conscience of the film.
But it’s the action scenes that your inner 10-year-old thrills to. The tough guy dialogue. The macho fatalism of men ready to lay down their lives for their friends or for pay. Jaded, cynical antiheroes redeeming themselves, bad men coming good. Like The Dirty Dozen before it, The Wild Geese is just one of those films that makes men of a certain age blub. If you don’t get misty during the scene where the wounded soldier is limping down the runway after the escaping plane he’s just missed, begging for his best mate to finish him off before the bad guys with machetes get him, if you don’t feel a tear nipping the corner of your eye, then you are dead inside.
Or a woman.
Andrew V. McLaglen
Reginald Rose from the novel by Daniel Carney
Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, Stewart Granger, Hardy Kruger, Jack Watson, Winston Ntshona
Action, War, Thriller
Runtime:2 hours 15 minutes