Saturday, February 23, 2013


In The Dogs of War "everybody comes home" is the motto of Christopher Walken's mercenary hero, and he abides by that to the point of seating corpses on planes. In Andrew V. McLaglen's Wild Geese, the film that started a mercenary subgenre and arguably made Dogs of War possible, Richard Burton's mercenary hero orders the corpse of one of his men dumped from a plane to lighten its load and save fuel. That's probably the only instance in which Geese is more realistic than Dogs. In general thematic terms the pictures are similar: mostly white mercenaries get to run amok in an African dictatorship, paid by shady British business interests. In Geese retired General Allen Faulkner (Burton) is hired by a powerful businessman (Stewart Granger) to break a deposed president out of his prison. This businessman is powerful enough to persuade the British mafia to give up a vendetta against mercenary Shaun Fynn (Roger Moore), who has whacked a gangster for tricking him into becoming a drug mule. Faulkner wants Fynn on his team, along with logistics expert Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and some other dependable colleagues. Despite repeated compressions of their schedule, the operation to free President Limbani (Winston Ntshona) goes off smoothly until the plane sent to pick up the team takes off again without them. Granger has cut a deal with the current regime and has no more use for Limbani or the mercenaries, who seem doomed to destruction by the ruler's crack Simba troops. Their only way out may be to start the civil war that Granger had apparently intended to incite....


Note: the liquor bottle above is for acting purposes only -- Drink Responsibly.
Below: Roger Moore can't stand the criminal environment he finds himself stuck in.

While the synopsis sounds grim and cynical the actual movie is less grim in tone than Dogs of War. There's a "Boy's Own Adventure" air to the project that may be inescapable given the fantastical images of Burton et al waging war in Africa. It's hard to imagine them as mercenaries because it's hard to imagine them as anyone but the stars they are. Their characters are one-dimensional. Janders pines for his son off at boarding school; Fynn is arrogant; Faulkner is practically a cipher. The most character development he gets is an art-imitates-life indication that the Burton character does nothing but fight or drink. But we're meant to believe that they're all inspired by the nobility of the suffering Limbani. In fact, none is more impressed than the Afrikaaner mercenary Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), who despises "kaffirs" but spends much of the picture symbolically carrying Limbani on his back. Screenwriter Reginald (Ten Angry Men) Rose aspires to political relevance in the dialogue scenes between Kruger and Ntshona, which amount to a plea for peace and reconciliation in the South Africa where the picture was shot. McGlaglen can only manage to make the scenes feel heavyhanded and superfluous. The film's pretensions of relevance also show glaringly in Maurice Binder's title sequence, scored by Joan Armatrading's ponderous theme song. Binder is the man who did the title bits in the old James Bond films, and while no naked women cavort across the map of Africa here, there's something about his style and the reminders of Bond in the song-and-symbols combination that gives a bad taste to this opening earnestness. In any event, you'll probably have forgotten about suffering Africa after the second act's tedious service-comedy training sequences. Also part of this alleged comedy are the mincing mannerisms of a homosexual medic (Kenneth Griffith), but to be fair this character gets a heroic death scene later and his fitness for duty under fire is never questioned.


McLaglen didn't have Jack Cardiff shooting his film, so Wild Geese lacks the dark grandeur of Dogs of War's night assault scenes. Once the film becomes a pursuit of the mercs by the Simbas it develops some momentum, but McGlaglen too self-consciously inserts bits of still-modest gore (a slit throat, characters spitting up blood) to make the action seem more "adult." He only makes those bits look like exploitation in the worst sense of the word. Neither he nor Rose really do much to make the most of the master thespians in their employ. When Burton and Harris (both cold sober, reportedly) yell at one another, it only makes their characters look less professional. It makes you more appreciative of the casting of an aloof Christopher Walken in Dogs of War; his emotional self-limitation makes him more convincing as an all-business merc. The films end similarly, however, with the protagonists committing bridge-burning acts of violence, as if cinema couldn't yet accept mercenaries in their true businesslike amorality. Wild Geese may not exactly be a moral picture, but it upholds an old ideal of heroism invoked in the poster's description of the mercenaries as "Modern Musketeers." While it started something somewhat new in cinema, it's really part of an older tradition of exotic adventure movies. If it wasn't instantly dated by its attitude or its aging stars, it would soon look very dated alongside the films it inspired. But if you like the stars and, as many must have, you like the idea of people like Burton, Harris and Moore kicking ass and mowing down multitudes, Wild Geese can still be an enjoyable if also slightly campy experience.


Unknown said...

Great cast....great movie....too bad they all did'nt return in THE SEA WOLVES as originally planned.

Movies Forever said...

I think this is one of the better war movies for sure. It is actually one of my top war movies. With Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris in the one movie, it would be hard to go wrong. The storyline has no dead/dull moments; the major stars are in it throughout (not just beginning or end) and the storyline is good. I would have loved to have seen Harris make it; but that was part of the film for him to go that way and did cement the human cost of the mission. I also enjoyed Wild Geese 2; although without the originals it wasn't quite the same. Still a great movie also.