As a boy I used to positively devour westerns and war movies. My friends were pretty much the same, and I can still see us, in the schoolyard or on the way home, re-enacting the action scenes from whatever movie we had seen on the telly the night before; this was back when there were only three channels (actually four in Northern Ireland) so what one had seen, all had seen. Every once in a while you got lucky and you had the chance to go to the cinema and see a big new movie. That afforded you a certain kudos as you were then in the enviable position of being able to relate all the gory details to your mates. What we all yearned for were movies with plenty of guns, explosions, daring escapes and as little mushy romantic nonsense as possible. Such was the case with The Wild Geese (1978), a film that seemed just perfect when I first saw it on release. Looking back on it now, I no longer think it’s perfect but it still retains the power to charm me, and the passing of time hasn’t made it any less fun to watch.
The story has Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton), an ageing mercenary soldier, arriving in London for a clandestine meeting with millionaire businessman Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). The purpose of the meeting is to arrange a raid into a fictitious African nation to free from prison a deposed leader who is facing imminent death. This will require the recruitment of the necessary personnel and the formulation of a viable plan for a rapid extraction. Too much focus on the behind-the-scenes stuff can easily scupper this kind of movie, but the finding and hiring of the officers (Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger) and men is carried off in an entertaining way and never slows down the pace. Soon the action has moved to the training camp in Africa, where the RSM (Jack Watson) gets to deliver some marvellously insulting language to the biggest names in 1970s cinema as he kicks, bullies and cajoles his out-of-condition squad into shape. The mission itself starts off well and everything looks like it may run according to schedule, but some devious machinations back in London ensures that the mercenaries will be abandoned to the tender mercies of a ruthless dictator and his Simba battalion. With their rescue flight aborted, and facing certain death, they have no choice but to trek across hostile country with the vague idea of maybe stirring up civil unrest on the way. Under constant attack, Faulkner leads his ever diminishing force south to an abandoned airfield where their last chance for salvation appears in the form of an old, beat-up, twin-engine Dakota. The climax is pure blood and thunder stuff, with Faulkner’s men making their desperate dash for freedom as the air is filled with lead and the ancient plane chugs and sputters in the background.
Andrew McLaglen was arguably at his best when directing this kind of Boy’s Own adventure, and he managed some quite effective scenes here. The action set pieces are all well handled, the stand outs being the scene where a jet strafes and bombs the mercenary column while it’s stalled on an exposed bridge, the parachute jump sequence, and the bloody but exciting climax. The movie runs well over two hours but McLaglen controlled the pace so well that it seems a lot less. The stars of The Wild Geese were all getting a bit long in the tooth for this kind of exertion but the four leads give amiable enough performances and seem very comfortable around each other. While Burton definitely looks the worse for wear, that weary quality kind of fits the role he’s playing. The old-time soldier of fortune looking for a last big score in a world that’s changing around him plays like an amalgam of Burton’s own character and that of Mike Hoare, who served as technical adviser on the film. Neither Harris nor Moore really have to stretch themselves in the acting department but both at least give the impression they were having a hell of a lot of fun. Hardy Kruger gets a bit more to do as the crossbow wielding Afrikaaner who has his preconceptions challenged and finds himself rethinking his position and prejudices. Stewart Granger has only a small part yet he brings an oily condescension to the part of the duplicitous Matherson that makes for a great screen villain.
The Wild Geese has been out on DVD for a while now, and the R2 disc from Mosaic presents the film pretty well. The transfer is anamorphic and quite clean. There’s an entertaining commentary track featuring Roger Moore and producer Euan Lloyd, and a documentary on Lloyd’s career. All told, it’s not a bad package and provides good value. There is a new edition slated for release in March but I doubt if it will add anything new, we’ll see. This isn’t a very deep or serious movie, but it is entertaining, and if you want something that will recall memories of far-off schooldays and more innocent times The Wild Geese is just the ticket.