The Wild Geese
Director - Andrew McLaglen
Cast - Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris
Country of Origin - U.K.
Discs - 2
Distributor - Severin Films
Reviewer - Bobby Morgan
Date - 01/04/13
The Film: 5/5
Mercenary Colonel Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) is approached by multi-millionaire industrialist Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) with a potentially dangerous offer: Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), the president of a central African nation, has been deposed by a military coup and is being held in a heavily-guarded prison, and Matherson wants Faulkner to assemble a team and rescue Limbani from captivity. Faulkner agrees on the condition that he be given fifty men for the assignment, and he gets to choose them. First he approaches his old friend Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), a tactical genius, and although Janders has acclimated well to civilian life and is planning to take a skiing vacation with his only son Emile (Paul Spurrier) he reluctantly agrees to join Faulkner. Next they both track down their mutual ally Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), a crack pilot who had been working as a courier for the son of a Mafia chieftain before he discovered the son had duped him into smuggling drugs - for which he makes the kid consume his own tainted supply until he drops dead. Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), a former South African soldier living in poverty-stricken, self-imposed exile, and retired Regimental Sergeant Major Sandy Young (Jack Watson) are the final key members of the team to be recruited. Faulkner and the men begin their training with several weeks to prepare until Matherson orders the mission bumped up to Christmas Day. The team successfully infiltrates the prison and extracts Limbani and expect a safe transport back home, but unbeknownst to them Matherson has cut a backroom deal with the president's captors the Simbas and decided to hang Faulkner, Janders, Fynn, and their entire unit out to dry. Without a ride home the mercenaries are forced to make their way through hostile territory with their only leverage - the wounded but still capable Limbani - in the hopes they can reach safe haven and expose Matherson's treachery, but the Simbas are tracking them every step of the way.
Being a huge fan of action cinema I confess that I had never granted The Wild Geese a solitary viewing until I was recently sent Severin's brand new Blu-ray for review. It was one of those movies I always promised myself I would purchase and check out someday. Well when a newly-minted Blu-ray disc arrives on your doorstep just days before Christmas there is no time like the present, and I am certainly glad I had the foresight to request this assignment. One of my favorite films has always been Robert Aldrich's 1967 all-star World War II adventure The Dirty Dozen. To me it is the personification of what a perfect big screen action movie classic can be. The movie's running time is two-and-a-half hours but it rarely feels that long and there is not a wasted second to be found. I particularly love movies based around suicide missions that take time, training, and careful preparation to properly execute and still wind up going straight to Hell almost right away. There is a giddy, practically nerdish joy to watching these elaborate plots being planned down to the most insignificant detail only to be come apart at the seams due to unforeseen circumstances. No plan can ever be perfect no matter how easy they make it look in popular media. The key to creating great drama is conflict and conflict can not be found in a flawlessly-executed strategy. There is plenty to be found in The Wild Geese, both on the physical and emotional levels. While the plan the movie revolves around gets royally botched midway through The Wild Geese remains a masterfully-assembled machine of fist-pumping thrills, timely political commentary, and enough gratuitous carnage to make it a bonafide classic in the pantheons of action cinema.
I have read countless articles comparing The Wild Geese to Sylvester Stallone's similarly-themed Expendables movies, and while on the surface that may seem like a fair comparison it is pretty facile and kind of insulting if you give it some thought. The Expendables movies, as fun as they are to watch, is a franchise built around the irresistible marketing hook of a fan-pleasing series of faded action star casting stunts. Based on an unpublished novel by the latest Rhodesian writer Daniel Carney, The Wild Geese brought together some of the finest acting talent the United Kingdom ever produced along with a few noted international stars of the stage and screens both big and small. The screenplay was written by Reginald Rose, best known as the man behind Twelve Angry Men, originally for the stage based on his own experiences serving on a jury and then later turned it into an acclaimed live television drama and a classic feature film that remains one of the best ever directed by Sidney Lumet. Rose knows his stuff when it comes to crafting male-centric scripts for ensemble casts frontloaded with tension and suspense. One scene heavy with Rose's dialogue could generate more raw testosterone that any of the Die Hard movies, especially when those scenes feature the indomitable Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Roger Moore.
Until the very death of cinema, which will never happen but I am just saying if, Burton and Harris will be rightfully considered two of the greatest actors to ever be immortalized on celluloid. You can not really say the same for Moore; he realized early in his acting career that his stock in trade would always be playing super suave gentleman heroes with a witty remark constantly perched on his tongue and a sexy damsel on his arm, so he stayed on that tack and it served him mighty well over the course of his six decades in show business. Burton and Harris did not take such an easy road to stardom, nor did they want to. They started out as titans of the theater and evolved over the years into silver screen sensations with a brilliant combination of weighty acting choices and handsomely-rewarded star roles. But offstage and off-camera they became as notorious for their excessive drinking and tabloid-ready antics as they were for some of their more questionable choices in film scripts. After years of setbacks in their private and professional lives it took the existence of The Wild Geese to bring these towering talents of British acting together. The three stars bring every ounce of their many years of experience in theater and film to their performances here. Even if the characters are not exactly the most complex personalities to ever headline a major motion picture Burton, Harris, and Moore bring these tired, embittered warriors to glorious life by infusing their characters with touches of their own finely-honed personas to help realize what does not exactly on the written page.
Richard Burton earned every ounce of the respect as an actor he continues to receive nearly three decades after he died far too young, but I have never counted myself among his admirers. Maybe it is just me but it seems Burton, with a few exceptions, was rarely afforded the chance to achieve the greatness on screen that he found on the stage. As Col. Faulkner, the career soldier forged in the fires of combat and not afraid to shove that in your smug face if you should ever doubt his words, Burton is on top form. He makes the good colonel not just tougher than leather but also smarter and way funnier. I have seen too many performances by Burton on film in which he fails to conceal the disbelief and soul-devouring misery at being involved in such garbage (The Exorcist II comes to mind), even though he was doubtlessly paid very well for his services. But he allows himself to become Faulkner to the point where most of the time you can hardly separate the actor from the part. He is clearly the leader of the team and no one is dumb enough to ever compromise that assertion. Burton is more relaxed and confident playing the brave badass Faulkner than he was in some of his more dramatic roles. He makes the colonel a cool, iconic character worthy of inclusion among the greatest cinematic action heroes of all time. This is probably my personal favorite Burton film.
Richard Harris, another acting great who is no longer with us, compliments Burton's performance beautifully as his longtime friend and compatriot in battle Janders. Whereas Faulkner's lack of kin affords him the personal freedom to keep on fighting Janders is the member of the mercenary team with the most to lose: the chance to be the father his son Emile so richly deserves. The relationships between Janders, Emile, and Faulkner provide the emotional core of The Wild Geese and each one is palatable and honest. Modern action films rarely bother with establishing complex characterizations and building up relationships in their rather flimsy stories. Certain exceptions can be made naturally, but when the primary concern of these movies' financial backers is to pump out shallow product designed to start franchises good for generating endless revenue from first-run ticket, home video, and merchandise sales nuance and character tend to take a backseat to everything else. Action movies from the late 1960's throughout most of the 1970's were not made with the possibility of sequels and various other spin-offs and ancillary revenue in mind. They were made with true filmmaking ingenuity both behind and in front of the camera, a sense of risk, and the potential for characters you had grown to love and identify with to die in the name of raising the stakes. The friendship between Burton and Harris' characters feels genuine given that the actors had been friends and professional rivals off screen for years. That chemistry makes you care for them as they charge headlong into an international escapade that could be the death of them both.
The third of the film's star trio is probably the one I typically care about the least and that would be Roger Moore. Moore achieved his greatest fame in the role of James Bond, a role he would play in seven blockbuster 007 adventures over the course of more than a decade, but I have never warmed up to his Bond. Moore was far too old for the iconic role when he first took it and the tone of his Bond films veered gratingly towards goofy humor in my opinion but it made him very wealthy and popular with millions of fans around the world to this day, so more power to him. Still, his performance as Shawn Fynn is by the best Moore has ever been in a film. He plays the part with the same gentlemanly charm and physicality he brought to James Bond while adding a colder, harder edge that easily allows him to fit it with the only members of Faulkner's team. After having seen Moore in The Wild Geese I sorely wish he had been allowed to play Bond a lot closer to creator Ian Fleming's original conception of the character. Like the film's finest players Moore savors Rose's quasi-manly poetic dialogue like a delicious four-course meal. When a priest with a heart of gold and a mouth meaner than a MP40 9mm submachine gun (Frank Finlay) bids the mercs farewell with the parting words, "Good luck to you, you godless murders" Moore wastes no time in coming up with the most priceless reply: "That's one of the most moving benedictions I've ever heard." That dialogue exchange perfectly encapsulates The Wild Geese.
The supporting cast is packed with valuable players and key performances that make the film work better than it ever should and helps it stand head and shoulders over the competition. Hardy Kruger is surprisingly complex and intense as the South African sniper who turns out to have a slightly personal stake in the success of the mission, which leads to his forming a bond with Winston Ntshona's ousted leader Limbani. While Pieter initially comes off like the standard bigot who in films of old always had to learn a valuable lesson about how racism is bad and all by the end of the story Kruger digs beneath the surface to reveal a haunted man who has grown bitter and hateful about having to hunt down his black fellow Africans in the past and like Limbani wants to live the life of a free man in his own country and be prosperous. Ntshona does not enter the story until it is almost halfway over and from there spends most of his screen time being carried around, usually on Kruger's back, but he makes the most of his scenes by showing us the tough. pragmatic leader who was born to be the nation's president in his interactions with Pieter. In their final scene together you really get the sense that a genuine relationship has formed between the two disparate men with more in common than either initially imagined, not a screenwriter's invention designed to placate politically correct modern audiences.
For all of the unfounded accusations of racism and solidarity with South Africa's Apartheid government that have been leveled against The Wild Geese since its theatrical release the movie never treats its black or African characters with disdain or disgust. They never become racist caricatures, even when the majority of them are barely given any development at all. The team has its requisite black soldier and he is a capable and professional soldier who is cool under fire like his comrades. The Simbas who are hunting the mercenaries down are just doing everything in their power to protect the new government they hoped to build once Limbani is out of the way, and even if that is ultimately the wrong thing to do at least it gives them an authentic motivation for their villainous actions throughout the movie.
Stewart Granger makes for a perfectly mannered adversary while cleverly subverting the manly heroic persona he established as one of Hollywood's go-to guys for smashing Technicolor adventures like King Solomon's Mines and The Prisoner of Zenda. He is a great conniving bastard you just can not wait to see buy it big time if you get my drift. Jack Watson is full of vim and vigor as the unit's humorously crusty and vulgar Sergeant Major and combat instructor. The aforementioned Frank Finlay, best known to action fans as Porthos in Richard Lester's The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers, brings a well-earned righteous fury to his brief role as a priest the team encounters during their attempt to escape with Limbani. Kenneth Griffin stands out from the pack as Arthur Witty, the unit medic who is also homosexual and does nothing to hide his sexuality from his fellow mercenaries. In the hands of lesser filmmakers Witty would have ended up a mincing stereotype and fodder for untold unfunny gay panic jokes, but here the team accepts him for who he is right away because they do not really care if he is gay or not. Their only concern is that he is good at his job, which he certainly is, and he is accepted into their ranks without a moment's hesitation. Witty is even allowed a few shining moments of badassery towards the end. It is a great character with a performance to match.
Maurice Binder, the famous title designer whose best work was showcased in the James Bond series' evocative opening credits sequences that continue to be emulated to this day, does some bang-up in the same capacity on The Wild Geese. Roy Budd's fantastic action score is packed with the spirit of high adventure and even features a few callbacks to 70's-era Jerry Goldsmith film scores as well as the music composed by Frank DeVol for The Dirty Dozen without sounding derivative. Jack Hildyard brings the same eye for sweeping vistas and beautiful visual compositions to The Wild Geese that helped make films like The Bridge on the River Kwai, Suddenly Last Summer, and Alfred Hitchcock's Topaz renowned the world over. The Bond connection continues with John Glen on editing and second unit duties. Kit West provides some spectacular explosions and gun battles with his special effects wizardry, including a harrowing bridge attack that you might get a rousing kick out of until you see a few of Faulkner's mercs burning alive. British folk rock and blues great Joan Armatrading wraps things up with a soulful ballad to bookend the feature that seems so inappropriate given the movie she recorded it for that it strangely feels right.
The uniting force that makes all these elements work as one magnificent gem is the director Andrew McLaglen. Known for making some mighty fine John Wayne pictures as well as many hours of episodic television and the Mystery Science Theater 3000 classic Mitchell with Joe Don Baker, McLaglen gives every frame of The Wild Geese a mature vitality and infuses the multiple action sequences with an epic scope that manages to put the viewers in the thick of battle. He may never have received his due as a more-than-competent director of sweeping cinematic adventures but Andrew McLaglen sure knew what the hell he was doing all along and The Wild Geese may just be his finest film.
Despite some noticeable print damage Severin's new 1080p 1.85:1 widescreen transfer is a vast improvement over the picture quality on Tango Entertainment's 30th Anniversary Edition DVD from a few years ago. The color levels are nicely balanced but the image is soft and appears cropped at times. Still though it looks pretty good. The English 2.0 Dolby Digital audio track does well with the dialogue-heavy scenes and kicks ass in the pyrotechnical action set pieces though the volume levels occasionally require readjusting in order to avoid annoying your neighbors. No subtitles are provided.
Most of the extras on this disc were ported over from the previous Tango DVD but Severin saw fit to provide us with a few nifty added bonuses. Kicking things off is an amiable and information-packed audio commentary with producer Euan Lloyd, second unit director John Glen, and Roger Moore, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott. Having director McLaglen in on the chat might have elevated its status to truly listenable but as it stands the track is a fine extra that fans of the movie might find worthy of some of their time.
McLaglen sits for a brand new on-camera interview, one of two exclusive to this release, in the unoriginally-titled "The Wild Geese Director" (16 minutes). Even at the age of 92 the director makes for quite the raconteur as he regales us with stories of his early years working in Hollywood (he directed five John Wayne movies) and discusses the making of The Wild Geese with fond, candid remembrances.
The last of the new extras produced by Severin is "The Mercenary" (10 minutes), an interview with former real-life mercenary and military advisor on the film Colonel "Mad" Mike Hoare. Hoare talks about his work on The Wild Geese and how his experiences in the field influenced it. It's a fascinating discussion you wish there was a bit more of.
Producer Lloyd gets an entire documentary devoted to his life and work in cinema in "The Last of the Gentleman Producers" (37 minutes). The prolific Lloyd is interviewed along with Roger Moore, Ingrid Pitt, Joan Armatrading, and Lloyd's daughter Rosalind among others. Knowing next to nothing about the man (and looking at his IMDb page I can see why) before watching this I have to say I found it an enjoyable and informative tribute to the man whom everyone seems to find just lovely and charming, but not enough to watch it more than once.
"Stars War: Flight of the Wild Geese" (24 minutes) is a vintage documentary about the making of The Wild Geese that first appeared around the time of the film's original release. Compared to the boring and hyperactively edited press kit featurettes the studios crap out these days "Stars War" comes off looking like Burden of Dreams. The doc features much behind-the-scenes footage and interviews with several prominent members of the cast and crew, many of whom have sadly passed on, and is well worth a watch if you found yourself loving the movie as I did.
Seven minutes of footage from the movie's world premiere charity benefit and a four-minute trailer round out the supplements.
A DVD copy is also included in this combo pack.
The Wild Geese brought together some of British cinema's finest talents and unleashed them in a rousing and undeniably entertaining adventure of the highest order. All in all this is a minor classic of action cinema from the days when such pictures were built on the foundations of characters both grounded in reality and larger than life itself and solid, intelligent storytelling, and not on setting up franchises and merchandising deals. Severin's new Blu-ray/DVD combo pack does this fantastic flick well with improved picture and audio and a bevy of fascinating extras. The Wild Geese comes very highly recommended.