Movie Review: ‘The Wild Geese’

I happened to notice a few years ago that Netflix had a 1970s film I remembered called “The Wild Geese.” Mercenaries were still in the news in the late 1970s after their heyday of the 1960s in Africa, and so here was a film about a group of “good” mercenaries trying to do right. Yeah, like a mercenary can be good or bad – certainly it’s not like they get paid to wage war by whomever will pay. Of course, that was a sarcasm alert. In watching it again after more than a generation, I have to say “The Wild Geese” suffers terribly from age – both of its actors then and what the production looks like today; a wickedly bad screenplay that they apparently called writing; and the use of fading talent by actors with Oscar nominations for other films. All of this to just keep “The Wild Geese” mildly watchable. In the end, don’t bother with “The Wild Geese.” Just take my word for it.

‘The Wild Geese’
(1978; 134 minutes; rated R; directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris)

AGE SANK ‘GEESE’ THEN; AGE SINKS IT FASTER TODAY

(NOTE: I expanded this review with some additional opinion, more trivia and the updating of links on Feb. 11, 2017. I expanded again on March 24, 2019. The film is no longer available on Netflix.)

It isn’t just age that sank “The Wild Geese” back in 1978. Age keeps it submerged after its 40th anniversary: The age of the actors being too old to be effective mercenaries in the film; and that the stereotypes were stereotypes then and today feel like aged stereotypes. I guess it must have looked professional and high class then, but it sure doesn’t look like it today.

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Headliners Richard Burton and Richard Harris were much too accomplished then and shouldn’t have done this film. Both were obviously too old for their characters (Burton was 53 and looked every day of it; and Harris at 48 looked 10 years older than that 48). Today, the passing of time doesn’t give the film any better look or feel. I guess you could suspend your disbelief if you put them as the experienced commanders, but they did action, too. Burton isn’t anywhere near where he was in “Where Eagles Dare” with Clint Eastwood – click here for my review. Further, the sets are totally 1970s and the cinematography isn’t anything special – even by that era’s standards.

However, the story is the most far-fetched thing. A group of “good” mercenaries are going to save a “good” African leader who’s been imprisoned by a “bad” African leader for 10 years. Ouch. Even then, such a story was a hackneyed mess.

Then, you toss in a South African mercenary who becomes converted to the black man’s cause and it gets ankle deep really quick. The irony only goes deeper since most of the movie was filmed in the then racially segregated country of South Africa.

In any case, “The Wild Geese” is about a mercenary leader – Burton as “Col. Allen Faulkner” – who is hired to lead a commando raid to rescue a moderate African leader who has been held in prison by a political opponent but can stand and lead his country again and give the company freeing him certain copper mining concessions. Burton signs on and reels in Harris, who plays master planner “Capt. Rafer Janders.” They are joined by Roger Moore as “Lt. Shawn Fynn” – and at 50 he was two years older than Harris but looked 10 years younger.

The men put together their mercenary band and include a South African soldier-for-hire – Hardy Krüger as “Lt. Pieter Coetzee” – and a homosexual medic character that should have caused gay-rights supporters to call him the most stereotypical homosexual ever in cinema.

To shorten this convoluted story, the mercenaries train, go to Africa, free the leader but get double-crossed when the leader’s opponent makes his own copper deal with the company. The men have to fight their way out and all but a few (including Burton and Moore) survive. The most notable death is Harris, who is survived by a young son. Burton takes revenge on the company’s CEO, who hired him and then betrayed the group.

Here’s a look at some of the principal cast:

  • A seven-time Oscar nominee (certainly not for this one), Burton just mails in his effort here, but his overriding talent makes the character close to being competent and believable. It’s almost as if he doesn’t want to try at all, but that his talent prevails. Burton’s legendary career includes nominations for “Equus,” “The Spy Who came in from the Cold” and “The Robe.” His other nominations were for “Anne of the Thousand Days,”
    Becket,” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and his first for 1952’s “My Cousin Rachel.” He died of a cerebral hemorrhage at 58 in Switzerland in 1984.
  • A two-time Oscar nominee (absolutely not for this one), Harris tries a little bit harder than Burton, but doesn’t really go all-in with his effort. He manages a bit more emotion for his character, but it’s still paper-thin and, frankly, beneath his talent. Harris was also in “Gladiator” and was in the first two “Harry Potter” films as “Professor Albus Dumbledore.” His nominations came 27 years apart first with “This Sporting Life” in 1963 and then “The Field” in 1990. He died of Hodgkin’s Disease at 72 in 2002. Harris was not a prolific actor as he notched only 77 acting credits in a career spanning six decades until his death.
  • Moore never received an Oscar nomination, but he was “James Bond” for eight films from 1971 through 1985. He has the smoothest delivery of any of the main cast here, but sadly he doesn’t have enough in himself to elevate the character. Moore was also in another pathetic effort called “ffolkes” (click here for my review) and my favorite “007” films by him were “Diamonds are Forever” (click here for my review) and “The Man with the Golden Gun” (click her for my review). Moore died at 89 in 2017 of cancer in Switzerland.
  • A Golden Globe nominee (not for this one), Krüger actually does the best single bit of acting here when he gives a discourse on race relations, South Africa and why he’s going on the mission. It really isn’t bad and doing it with acting legends Burton and Harris must have spurred him to elevate his game. He has also been in “Hatari!” with John Wayne and was in the World War II big-cast, spectacle film “A Bridge Too Far” (click here for my review). He was nominated for “Flight of the Phoenix.”
  • Veteran English actor Stewart Granger plays “Sir Edward Matherson” and is the bad guy here. He is suave, urbane and coldly businesslike. Granger does a good job as the upper-crust British tycoon who always gets his way (until the end). Granger was also in “North to Alaska” and “Requiem for a Secret Agent.” He died at 80 in 1993 of prostate cancer.
  • The least known actor here is South African-born Winston Ntshona, who plays African leader “President Julius Limbani” and is being rescued by the mercenaries. Ntshona does a very competent job here in the small role and is somewhat effective in his stilted and stereotypical conversations with Krüger. He was also in “Gandhi” and the truly excellent “Blood Diamond” with Leonardo DiCaprio. Ntshona had only 18 acting credits from a BBC show in 1974 until the last (an uncredited scene on a TV production) in 2008. He died at 76 in 2018.

I was so repulsed by one character that I won’t include my comments as if he’s really part of the cast. Kenneth Griffith plays medic “Arthur Witty” and should be ashamed of agreeing to the horrid lines his character must utter. However, I guess a check is a check for any actor, although this one’s a bit tough to take.

Griffith appears comfortable in front of the camera but it’s difficult to read if he’s offended at all by what in the 1970s would have appeared to be what a gay man would say and how he would act. He died at 84 in 2006.

Other supporting actors are OK, but none really jump out and have their work demand to be reviewed.

As for the director, Andrew V. McLaglan’s career spanned five decades beginning in 1956 and he guided the John Wayne films “Chisum” (1970) and “Hellfighters” (1968). I’m not sure what happened by the time of “The Wild Geese,” but he went on to direct Moore in that horrifically bad film “ffolkes” in 1980. His last directing credit was in 1991 for “Eye of the Widow” and he died at 94 in 2014.

The Wild Geese” earned about $1.4 million at the U.S. box office in 1978 on a budget of $11 million budget, according to Wiki. It was also reported that worldwide it might have reached $7 million. The No. 1 film was “Grease” with $159.9 million. “National Lampoon’s Animal House” was No. 3 with $120 million. Here are the films from 1978 that I’ve reviewed:

Assorted cast notes (via IMDb.com):

  • Jack Watson, who plays “R.S.M. Sandy Young,” didn’t want to take the part because of his age (63 when the film came out), but accepted anyway. Watson replaced the first actor hired to play “Sandy Young” since that actor died before filming began. Watson was also in “This Sporting Life.” By the way, “R.S.M.” is the acronym for Regimental Sergeant Major. Watson died at 84 in 1999.
  • Michael Caine turned down the role Harris ultimately played since he refused to work in South Africa during the apartheid era.
  • Film distributors in the United States initially suggested that O.J. Simpson, who had done the “Naked Gun” police spoof franchise, take the part ultimately given to Moore.
  • Directly from IMDb.com: “In the casino scene where Allen Faulkner flirts with a woman dressed as an Egyptian, the woman is actually Richard Burton‘s wife, Susan Hunt. “
  • Finally and directly from com: “Technical and military advisor on the film was former real life mercenary Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, who had led a band of European ex-servicemen in mercenary campaigns in the Belgian Congo in the 1960s and 1970s.”

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