(POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)
I first saw this underrated gem of a movie on television in the UK around four years ago, its only showing in the last twenty years or so. Certainly the demand for 'politically correct' entertainment means that showings of The Wild Geese are way down the BBC's list for potential slot fillers. The prospects of a remake look slim also, not simply due to the nature of the film's sympathies, but also through the lack of ideal British male actors to take up the lead roles.
Richard Burton plays fearless veteran mercenary leader Col. Alan Faulkner, a role that seems to have been written for the Welsh actor: `I have insisted that when I die my liver will be removed and buried separately with honours.' Burton's dry sense of humour help bring a lighter, likeable side to a character with seemingly little to endear himself to the viewer. Faulkner is hired by a corporate big-wig Sir Edward Matherson, played by Stewart Granger, to organise the rescue of an imprisoned African diplomat from certain death, in a move that aims to secure Matherson's copper mining interests in the region.
Joining Faulkner is Burton's hell-raising pal and drinking buddy Richard Harris as Capt. Rafer Janders, a former colleague and second in command now settled in London and enjoying a close relationship with his half-French son, Emile. Janders holds the key to the success of the mission as the planner and 'fixer', and despite his reservations about going back into action as a mercenary, he eventually agrees to plan the mission, although it means he will miss his long-awaited skiing trip to Switzerland with Emile.
Faulkner's two conditions for his acceptance of the mission were that he would be joined by Janders, and that they would also have the services of Shawn Flynn (a rather underused Roger Moore). This looks like a problem to begin with, as Flynn, currently working as a delivery pilot for a minor Mafioso, has murdered his employer and a bodyguard in a brutal sequence at the beginning of the film that introduces Moore as a tougher character than his contemporary James Bond incarnation. The insistence of Faulkner and the influence of Matherson combine to see that the contracts put out for Flynn after the double murder are lifted, and the pilot is able to join the team.
Immediately prior to the team heading out to their Swaziland base camp, there is a scene in which Faulkner, Janders, Flynn, and the fourth officer on the operation, Peter Koetze (Hardy Kruger) interview potential members of the unit. Most of them are familiar with Faulkner, and quite a few of the admittedly caricatured minor figures are introduced here, including Tosh, Witty, and Jesse. Most of the soldiers are veterans of Faulkner's previous campaigns and are rather stereotypical versions of a Scottish army boxing champ or a gay medic.
After a rather amusing training sequence where the unit prepares for the operation, there is a mission briefing and then the Wild Geese (the call sign for the unit is 'Wild Goose') are ready to fly, jumping by parachute into enemy country. The plan is executed perfectly: the unit separates into two parties, one headed by Flynn takes the airstrip extraction point, the other led by Faulkner springs African ex-president Julius Limbani with relative ease, and things are going smoothly. Meanwhile in London Matherson invites Limbani's captors to a conference, at which point a deal is reached, granting Matherson copper concessions without the need to rescue Limbani. Thus the unscrupulous businessman is left free to recall the rescue plane just as it is landing to collect the Wild Geese.
Left stranded hundreds of miles behind enemy lines, with nothing to fight for except each other and nowhere to run, the Wild Geese are forced to flee from the hordes of crack Simba troops now unleashed upon them. Casualties are high and many of the action sequences are very realistic in their brutal portrayal and outcome, none more so than when the getaway plane is beginning its takeoff - with a horde of Simba warriors hard on its heels waving machetes - Janders is racing to get aboard the quickening plane, but is shot in the leg, tripping and falls inextricably behind. Seeing that Rafer rendered unable to climb aboard, Faulkner, already aboard the quickening plane, is forced to shoot dead his old friend as an act of euthanasia.
The Wild Geese is more than a blasé actioner that sees the bad guys blown up and the good guys going on to live happily ever after. There are meaningful points about the relationship between the mercenary and his employer, the futility of this 'romantic' profession, and the harrowing cost of war and the terrible decisions it enforces people to make. When Faulkner confronts Matherson in the final sequence he intends to avenge fallen comrades and take his fee, initially denied him after Matherson pulled the plug on the operation. However any consolation Faulkner gains from the result of this confrontation is scant compared to the loss he has encountered, and the lack of achievement to show for it.
This film will never rise to the status of true classic because too many people find it offensive: to blacks, women, gays, Africans, but for all the gung-ho bravado displayed by the main players, there are some outstanding acting performances, especially from Burton, Moore, and Harris, displaying a lot of grit in the face of a production that went spectacularly over budget after Burton and Harris (amongst others) drank most of it away midway through shooting. On the face of it, their portrayal as over-the-hill mercenaries on one last outing together is all the more remarkable, given that in sweltering heat and in heavy clothing, large numbers of cast members were boozed up. In fact, turning in such performances in such conditions makes The Wild Geese all the more remarkable.
The movie is now quite rare and is unlikely to be released on DVD (a shame, as it would be perfect for such a format), but despite a few flaws, such as questionable editing and a slightly overlong running time, rightly has legions of fans to ensure that however much the BBC and other TV stations try to imagine that such films to not exist, this one will never be forgotten. Burton was all set to star in Wild Geese 2 but was made unavailable for shooting by his untimely death from a brain haemorrhage in 1984. Wild Geese 2 was dedicated to his memory. Col. 'Mad' Mike Hoare, a real life mercenary who fought several campaigns in the Belgian Congo and the Seychelles, amongst other places, served as a technical advisor on The Wild Geese, no doubt adding to its realistic feel, especially during the battle and strafing sequences. Also, the theme song, The Flight of the Wild Geese, by Joan Armstrong, is a classic. All in all, a fantastic action movie with superb acting from some of the greats, hints of irony (especially evident in Burton's character), plus a moving and emotional ending, coupled with a theme tune to make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.
4 out of 7 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.