Wednesday 7 August 2013

Movie Review: The Wild Geese (1978)

A mercenary war adventure in Africa, The Wild Geese finds a groove during the action scenes, but otherwise demonstrates a wide crevasse between good intentions and quality execution.

In London, Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton) is hired by well-connected politician Sir Matherson (Stewart Granger) to lead a group of mercenaries into Africa on a mission to rescue imprisoned President Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Faulkner assembles his officer team to include his old friends Lieutenant Fynn (Roger Moore), the reluctant Captain Janders (Richard Harris), and Lieutenant Coetzee (Hardy Kruger). Janders has a young son and wants to put military adventurism behind him, but Faulkner convinces him to undertake this one final mission.

Faulkner recruits and trains 50 men for an operation that will require an air-drop into enemy territory, storming an army barracks, freeing Limbani from his captors, and seizing an airport to rendezvous with the escape plane. The mission initially goes well, but evil forces are soon at play, and Faulkner and his men find themselves stranded and having to fight overwhelming forces in a desperate attempt to survive.

A British independent production lovingly assembled by Euan Lloyd at great personal cost, The Wild Geese is an adaptation of the unpublished book The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney (the book was eventually released with the film's title). Conceived in the mold of great war film adventures such as The Guns Of Navarone (1961)and Where Eagles Dare (1968), The Wild Geese is at an immediate disadvantage due to the absence of a defining war to serve as an anchoring backdrop.

While the vague backstory of rival African leaders being courted to sign copper exploitation contracts with British industrialists is mildly interesting, the film has to work that much harder to build and maintain sympathy. When it succeeds, it is thanks to a cast filled with talent and turmoil. Confirmed hell-raisers and alcohol consumers Burton and Harris both had to commit to stay dry for the duration of the shoot. They did so, and along with Moore at the peak of his Bond years the threesome lend considerable charisma and star power to the movie.

Burton and Moore were both north of age 50 at the time of filming, but still bring the necessary appeal. Burton's Allen Faulkner is world weary, a man tired of his own life but with nothing else to turn to except the next fat pay-cheque from dubious sources to complete missions that no one else will touch. Moore almost makes the mistake of importing his entire Bond persona into The Wild Geese, but settles for cool and rugged instead of cool and suave. Richard Harris is provided with the most well-rounded character as Rafer Janders, a life-long soldier trying to retire from soldiering, desperate to reorient his life around his son. He is the one main character with a personal life outside the mission, and gives the film much of its humanity.

Criticized for filming in South Africa during the apartheid era, The Wild Geese tries to make amends by including an awkward stretch of dialogue between President Limbani, presented as popular and well-meaning, and Lieutenant Coetzee, a no-nonsense South African mercenary. Limbani tries to convince Coetzee that a successful future can only be achieved when blacks and whites learn to work together. While the quality of the exchange is at the basic grade school level, the message not only rings true but came to pass half a generation later.

When the shooting starts in earnest, director Andrew V. McLaglen takes the shackles off and delivers rollicking entertainment, deploying a simple formula where bullets multiplied by explosions raised to the power of opposing enemy forces maximizes the action. The editing is sharp and coherent, the cameras keep up with the action, and the immediate next objective is kept clear.

The Wild Geese runs into more trouble trying to strive for credibility in the surrounding story, as the backroom power plays in London before and after the mission come across as amateurish and sometimes painfully outlandish rather than slick. But the biggest stumble comes with an atrocious theme song, Joan Armatrading's Flight of the Wild Geese striving for a James Bond-style signature tune but landing painfully in derivative territory, covered with a thick layer of goose droppings.

The Wild Geese flaps loudly and often, and despite the cacophony of sometimes uncoordinated noise, it does enjoy moments of graceful flight.

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