The Wild Geese Review
Colonel Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) is flown secretly into Britain where he meets billionaire Matherson (Stewart Granger). Matherson has a proposition: take a troop of mercenary soldiers, drop them into Africa, and deliver supposedly-dead politician Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) to Matherson. Faulkner recruits master planner Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and pilot Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), the soldiers are recruited and the mission begins. At first all goes well, but then the soldiers are double-crossed and have to get out of Africa or die…
Every film fan has their guilty pleasures and The Wild Geese is one of mine. I first saw it on its original release, three days after my fourteenth birthday. It was the first AA-certificate I ever saw in the cinema. (For those outside the UK or too young to remember it, the AA certificate restricted attendance to those aged fourteen years and over. It was replaced by the 15 certificate in 1982.)
Although we now look back on the 1970s as some kind of golden age, especially in Hollywood, it certainly didn’t look like it at the time. It’s a sad fact that many of the films we look upon as masterpieces or near-masterpieces weren’t ones that wide audiences went to see. The British film industry was in a worse state. Apart from soft porn and some interesting low-budget horrors, James Bond was pretty much the only game in town…plus the occasional big production like this one, squarely aimed at the international mass market. Apart from some contemporary profanity (much of it coming from Jack Watson’s sergeant major) and some brief moments of graphic violence, this is the kind of dads-and-lads action movie that could have been made ten or fifteen years before. Needless to say it cleaned up at the box office. Lloyd and Moore, with different co-stars, tried to repeat the formula, toned down to PG level, with The Sea Wolves two years later, but with less success. By then, it all possibly seemed a bit too old-fashioned. A barely related and pretty bad sequel, Wild Geese II, followed in 1985, where the mercenaries try to spring Rudolf Hess from Spandau Prison.
Reginald Rose, author of 12 Angry Men, would seem to be a curious choice to write a film like this. Adapting a novel by Daniel Carney, he certainly does an efficient job, giving a high-powered cast some good lines. He also works in a subplot concerning the relationship of Limbani and white supremacist South African Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger). The two men move from mutual contempt to mutual respect, allowing Rose to deliver an unambiguous integrationalist message. (This is the sort of character-development stuff that would tend to be cut out as action movies became significantly more fast-forward in the next decade.) This was strong stuff for a big commercial movie in 1978 when apartheid was at its height in South Africa, and rather belies the reputation this movie has for political incorrectness. The Wild Geese is hardly PC, but that reputation isn’t really justified. Producer Euan Lloyd had partly covered himself with the involvement of black South African actors Ntshona and John Kani (whose anti-apartheid credentials were impeccable, often starring together on the London stage in Athol Fugard plays like Sizwe Banzi is Dead), not to mention the black Caribbean-British singer Joan Armatrading performing over the opening credits. The African politics in this film don’t bear much examination – they’re just the backdrop for an action movie – and it is true that the morality of mercenary soldiering is never questioned. Another 1970s indicator is the virtual lack of women in the film, something which probably wouldn’t be allowed by head office nowadays. Top-billed actress is Rosalind Lloyd (Euan’s daughter) in a two-scene role as Heather, a croupier who is in love with Sean Fynn and who gets beaten up for protecting him. In fact the real love interest in this film is between Rafer Janders and his son Emile (played with excessive cuteness by Paul Spurrier).
Efficiency is the watchword for this movie: efficient if not inspired. Andrew V. McLaglen will never go down as one of the great stylists, and given worse material than this he could turn in a terrible movie. But he’s on good form here, keeping up a brisk pace so that the film feels shorter than its actually quite lengthy running time. Here he’s working with a somewhat overqualified cast. Burton and Harris turn in professional performances, getting by pretty much on their considerable presence alone. Much has been said of Roger Moore’s eyebrows-only acting technique. He’s a male example of what is often said about certain actresses: that you can get by on good looks and minimal actual talent. He still has his looks in this film, shot between James Bond assignments, enough to convince that a younger woman like Heather might still make allowances for him. He also gets a surprisingly nasty early scene where he kills two minor Mafiosi by forcing them to eat strychnine-laced cocaine. (Interestingly, this scene is given to Rafer Janders in the novel – was it transferred to Shawn Fynn because Moore was a bigger star than Harris?) The Wild Geese is a film of staunch professionalism rather than any great inspiration, but it does its job and it certainly entertains for the two hours it’s on.
Mosaic’s DVD has an anamorphic transfer in the correct ratio of 1.85:1. Jack Hildyard’s camerawork is another 70s indicator: the picture has a slight yellowish tinge to it, especially in the skintones, but that is how the film has always looked. The transfer is a good one, though a little soft in places, and not without some artefacting in the night scenes.
Dolby sound was in its infancy in 1978, and The Wild Geese was shown virtually everywhere in plain mono. According to the IMDB, though, a print with a four-track magnetic stereo soundtrack was shown at the London premiere. That mix is presumably the source of the current DVD soundtrack, which is Dolby Surround. It’s not the most adventurous mix, being mostly monophonic with the left, right and surrounds being given over to Roy Budd’s stirring music score. Some ambience and directional effects appear from time to time, but much of this track comes through the centre speaker. With a lot of gunfire and explosions this could well be a candidate for a 5.1 remix, and if the film had been made five or so years later it might well have got one. But for whatever reasons, the DVD producers have elected to leave the soundtrack as it is, and I’d rather not have original tracks tampered with without the authorisation of the filmmakers. As it is, it sounds fine, crisp with a good dynamic range, though maybe not one for showing off expensive sound systems.
The DVD is encoded for Region 2 only. There are twenty chapter stops but regrettably no subtitles.
The extras omit such basics as the original trailer and cast/crew biographies, but otherwise there is some decent material here. The audio commentary features Euan Lloyd and Roger Moore, with John Glen (second-unit director here, prior to directing five Bond movies). The commentary has a moderator, journalist Jonathan Sothcott, who does a good job of keeping up the pace and avoiding rambling. Lloyd gets to speak the most, but the other two are not neglected, and the result is an entertaining and interesting commentary.
“The Last of the Gentleman Producers” is a profile of Euan Lloyd, covering the whole of his career, featuring interviews with Lloyd himself along with people who have worked with him, including Moore, Ingrid Pitt, Griffith, John Glen, Rosalind Lloyd, Joan Armatrading, Norman Spencer and Sir Sydney Samuelson. Linda Hayden narrates. It’s a little uncritical, but watchable enough. It’s 16:9 anamorphic and runs 37:21. The film extracts seem to be 4:3 transfers stretched sideways to fit the 16:9 frame. There is also some on-set footage from the African locations of The Wild Geese.
The remaining extra is a Movietonews feature on the Royal Charity Premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square. The Stars’ Organisation for Spastics (yet another 70s indicator: it would certainly not be called that nowadays) was the main beneficiary, and attendees over than cast and crew included the Duchess of Kent, Joanna Lumley, Hayley Mills and her other half Leigh Lawson. The premiere was followed by a party at the Dorchester Hotel. The featurette is 4:3 non-anamorphic and runs 7:15.
Old-fashioned then as now, The Wild Geese still stands up well as the kind of all-star action movie they do make every now and again. If you like this sort of thing, then the DVD is worth having.