The Wild Geese Review
Reginald Rose, the Emmy-winning and Oscar-nominated author of 12 Angry Men, saw his career take an unexpected turn in the late seventies. Impressed by the depth of characterisation he’d leant to the various jurors in his most famous work, British producer Euan Lloyd decided he’d found just the man for his latest project. Lloyd had recently purchased the rights to a novel by Daniel Carney and was keen to turn it into a feature. This was the tale of a group of mercenaries on a mission in Africa – it was also pure boys’ own adventure and clearly influenced by The Dirty Dozen. In the first half the team are assembled and trained. In the second they spring into action. All of which translates, quite nicely, into two-hours-plus of big screen entertainment.
The twist is that the various mercenaries’ best years are behind them. Successful military careers now over, these men have become widowers, single parents and alcoholics, leaving only a trail of failed relationships. Some keep themselves busy with spurious activities, others have settled down for the quiet life, though all very clearly miss their years in the armed forces. Rose’s task was flesh these characters out, especially as Lloyd had high hopes when it came to the actors who would portray them. Burt Lancaster was approached early on for the lead, but ultimately dropped in favour of Richard Burton. Joining him were Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger plus plenty of familiar British faces: Barry Foster, Ronald Fraser, Frank Finlay and so forth. Stewart Granger, meanwhile, was installed as the villain of the piece.
Of course, many of these performers were well versed in boys’ own adventures. Burton had done his fair share of war movies, including Where Eagles Dare, and narrated Zulu, whilst Moore was in the midst of portraying James Bond. Harris’ contributions included The Heroes of Telemark and the Alistair MacLean adaptation, Golden Rendezvous. The latter, incidentally, was financed and partially shot in South Africa as was Game of Vultures, another Harris adventure pic from the late seventies. Such associations almost cost him the gig on The Wild Geese – plus the legendary boozing which had occurred on set and proved problematic – until his agent eventually talked Lloyd around. As it turns out the drinking of Harris, Burton et al was barely an issue (save for one solitary incident, so Lloyd informs us on the commentary) despite what you would expect. That hasn’t prevented the parodies, however, such as Harry Enfield’s Norbert Smith, a Life from 1989 which reconceives the film as The Dogs of Death starring Richard Smashed and Dick Booze.
To be honest, it is quite easy to take the piss. Burton was in his early fifties at the time, as was Harris, with Moore edging ever closer to his own half-century. Seeing them get their hands dirty does have its chucklesome moments, though The Wild Geese is reasonably aware of its own silliness. I’d argue that it’s played about 85% straight or at least until the point where its knowingness never becomes arch or tongue-in-cheek. Indeed, there probably isn’t enough depth to allow for such an approach; despite the occasional gory close-up or spot of fruity language which ensured an AA certificate on first release (nowadays translated to a 15), there is something rather juvenile about proceedings. This is fantasy land for big kids complete with ridiculous moments of heroism and sentimental death scenes.
With that said, such properties do provide their own charm, likewise some of the more outdated attitudes on display. Kruger’s character allows for a little moral and political discussion, but only of the shallowest variety. Meanwhile, Kenneth Griffith’s homosexual medic Witty is treated as source for much mirth (“Move it or I will sew up your arsehole,” screams Jack Watson’s RSM at one point). For the most part such additions are simply ill-conceived – a sign of the times, if you will – although the embarrassed chuckles they inspire are arguably all part of the fun.
It’s the qualities elsewhere that ensure we don’t mind laughing. Burton, Harris, Moore and the rest are all professional enough to turn in solid performances. Indeed, the likes of Griffith arguably put in way more than their characters deserve. Similarly, Rose’s screenplay is polished enough to ensure the two-and-a-bit hours fly by without a single dip and ably complemented by Andrew V. McLaglen’s direction. Admittedly McLaglen (son of Victor) was never the greatest of directors with much of his work best described as fair to middling. His John Wayne and James Stewart pictures, in particular, tend to fall among their leads’ lesser work (no-one ever singles out Hellfighters or The Rare Breed). However, with The Wild Geese he simply keeps things ticking along and that’s all this material needs. Certainly, audiences seemed to agree, prompting a whole series of spin-offs, rip-offs and similar over the next few years. Moore, Rose, Lloyd and McLaglen reteamed for The Sea Wolves in 1980, whilst Rose and Lloyd also collaborated on Who Dares Wins and Wild Geese II (with a completely different cast). Italian producers also got in the act with Codename: Wild Geese, a completely unrelated movie that stole all of the key plot points and none of its qualities. For the curious (or perhaps that should be the adventurous) it’s also included on this disc.
The Wild Geese was previously issued onto Blu-ray in Germany in 2010. That disc attracted some criticism for its less than perfect presentation and unfortunately those problems appear to have crossed over here. Whilst the colours are strong and the film comes correctly framed we also have an image that is somewhat lacking in detail. I suspect the materials used when mastering the film to HD were somewhat grainy resulting in some excessive noise reduction. Unfortunately it’s taken a lot of the fine detail with it making the reddened faces of Burton, Harris and the rest also a touch waxen.
The soundtrack appears as LPCM stereo with optional English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing. It’s a touch weedy in places (some of the explosions don’t explode quite as much as you’d expect), but the dialogue is audible throughout and Roy Budd’s score (and Joan Armatrading’s theme song) is sufficiently handled. According to the IMDb, The Wild Geese played in four-track stereo for its London premiere but was mostly shown with a plain mono soundtrack.
As with the old Mosaic DVD released in 2004, we find a commentary track by Lloyd, Moore and John Glen (who served as editor and second unit director) and an old Movietone News piece on the premiere among the extras. The former makes for an interesting listen, with plenty of anecdotes ensuring the two-hours-plus rarely flags. Lloyd talks the most and has a tendency to name drop (John Ford, Richard Widmark and Joseph Cotten being just three of the people he used to rub shoulders with in the seventies), though Moore and Glen get their input too. Random piece of trivia: Burton gave Kruger the nickname of ‘Deadly Luger’ on set. As for the premiere footage, it’s a fascinating little time capsule complete with appearances from Ernie Wise, Sir John Mills and Joanna Lumley.
Codename: Wild Geese also appears on the disc, albeit in standard definition and looking fairly ropey. There is a lot of compression blocking throughout the entire picture which isn’t going to hold up well for anyone with a sizeable television. (Arrow are releasing the film separately onto DVD as part of their Arrowdrome! range and I hope it looks better in that incarnation.) As for the film itself, it’s awful! Although the rip-off nature should fascinate fans of The Wild Geese plus it has the most ludicrous car chase I’ve seen in a long, long time.