The Dogs of War

Cry ‘Havoc!,’ and let slip the dogs of war

The Dogs of War (1980) starts with a bang, as a bunch of hardened mercenaries flee a Central American hellhole while a ferocious battle erupts around them. Back home, disenchanted Shannon (Christopher Walken) intends to call time on his past vocation, especially since the continual skirmishes have taken their toll on his body. He still loves ex-wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams), and hopes they can rekindle what they once had. Yet he struggles to settle back into an ordinary humdrum existence, missing the camaraderie and inherent risks that come with the job. So when the mysterious Endean (Hugh Millais) turns up on his doorstep, offering ostensibly a simple reconnaissance mission overseas, Shannon jumps at the chance.

This is another one of those damaged and sinister characters that Walken has built up a reputation for portraying over the years. Shannon is not likeable, a tough gun-for-hire who will meddle in other country’s affairs, and kill with few questions asked – especially if the price is right. It remains intriguing though, as we are drawn into his murky world.

There are some potent early scenes, as Shannon explores the fictitious West African State of Zangaro, so vividly brought to life by veteran DoP Jack Cardiff. There’s a very tangible sense of oppression, as a threatening military presence dominates the dusty rundown streets, ready to viciously beat anyone who fails to comply. A British Company has developed a keen mining interest in the Country, but before they are able to invest, ruling despot President Kimba (Ilario Bisi Pedro) must be removed from power – and Shannon has to to determine if a coup is possible.

Shannon has entered Zangaro on the pretence of being a nature photographer, there simply to shoot rare birds. There’s an amusing sequence where that cover is put to the test – and he compliantly reels off the scientific names of numerous species with such conviction that the military are hoodwinked. It’s a testament to Shannon’s rigorous planning that he’s not instantly caught out – and something about Walken’s distinctive style of delivery that makes this moment stick in the mind. Not everyone believes he’s a twitcher though, least of all boozy resident news hack North (Colin Blakely), who’s determined to expose the truth behind the Country’s brutal regime. The scenes that Shannon and North share together as they forge an unlikely alliance make the first half of the film most rewarding. There are some sharp lines of dialogue – from a script by Gary DeVore and George Malko, effortlessly delivered by the two actors.

The Dogs of War is freely adapted from the 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth, in which the author draws upon his journalistic experiences reporting on the Biafran War several years before. The filmmakers have attempted to condense all the intricacies of Forsyth’s plotting into a 2 hour film, jettisoning much of the rich backstory in favour of a more streamlined narrative. Anyone hoping for a straight action film will feel short-changed, since a large portion of the film is devoted to Shannon meticulously planning to overthrow Kimba. We follow him as he hand picks his team, procures all the necessary munitions and arranges the logistics of smuggling everything into Zangaro.

With Forsyth’s writing, it’s all about the minutiae and build-up – and it worked brilliantly with The Day of The Jackal, an earlier big screen adaptation of his work. Strangely, The Dogs of War loses its grip in the second half, becoming far less compelling, not helped by introducing some very thin characters who we learn little about – and care even less. Tom Berenger and Paul Freeman appear playing fellow mercs – both hugely talented actors, though you would never know based on the evidence here.

This marked director John Irvins first big screen endeavour. The former documentarian had acquired a solid track record, having previously directed the acclaimed BBC adaptation of John Le Carrés Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1979).  Norman Jewison was originally slated to direct The Dogs of War, stepping aside instead to become a producer. Michael Cimino was also attached to the project during its early development. It’s surprising that the film becomes so lethargic, given the credentials of all those involved. I’ve often wondered whether it would have worked better as a mini-series, where it was given more of a chance to breath, with all the exposition found in the novel restored.

You know the film is in trouble when the most interesting facet later in the story is Shannon’s weapon of choice: the XM-18. It’s a fearsome looking multi-projectile launcher (based on a 1930s Manville gun), and makes a destructive entrance during some abrupt eleventh hour pyrotechnics. Regrettably, besides Walken – who’s always fascinating to watch, there’s not quite enough else in The Dogs of War to leave a lasting impression.

The Disc

The Dogs of War makes its UK debut on Blu-ray from Eureka!. The disc is identical in content to an earlier limited edition US release from Twilight Time – now OOP.

The image, presented in 1.85:1, is noticeably sharper than the original DVD released by MGM back in 2002. Closeup shots in particular show off plenty of fine detail. The film was predominately shot in Belize and the atmospheric photography by Jack Cardiff is nicely captured in this new 1080p presentation.

The original 2.0 audio is retained, which copes effectively with all the dialogue, as well as being suitably punchy for those furious battle sequences that bookend the film. English subtitles are included.

A key selling point is that this new release includes both the US cut (104 mins) and the longer international cut (119 mins). Both versions come with problems of their own. The shorter cut attempts to improve the pace and get to the climatic action faster. However, I urge you to watch the longer version instead, which contains some very worthy character development. I enjoyed an emotional extended scene between Shannon and his wife Jessie, where he tries to win her back.


The disc extras are a let-down with only an original trailer (as per the Twilight Time edition).

There is a collector’s booklet (first pressing only), which includes colour stills and an original review by the late great Pauline Kael – who was clearly a fan of the film.

David P

Updated: Oct 15, 2019

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