Review: The Wild Geese (dir. by Andrew V. McLaglen)

1978’s action war-film, The Wild Geese, is a film adaptation of Daneil Carney’s unpublished novel about a group of mercenaries on a mission during the turbulent, revolutionary times which beset central Africa during the 1960’s and early 70’s. It boasts an all-star cast of British actors who were a who’s who of the time. Under the direction of Andrew V. McLaglen, The Wild Geese, manages to be an action-packed and well-told film with some memorable performances from its cast.

The story begins with a meeting between Allen Faulkner (played by Sir Richard Burton) and British banker Sir Edward Matheson about a rescue to take place in the fictional Central African nation of Zembala. The first third of the film details Faulkner’s recruitment of the mercenaries who will comprise his team of 50 including an old friend of his, Rafer Janders (played by Sir Richard Harris) who reluctantly joins Faulkner for a last mission. This early part of the film shows a mercenary company in action as they train, prepare and make any last minute adjustments before they are inserted into enemy territory to begin their mission. The second half of the film covers the rescue of their mission target. An imprisoned and deposed African leader about to be executed by the man who overthrew him.

It is during this second third of the film where the action begins to pick up. While tame and quaint by today’s action and war film standards, the action sequences in this film was quite energetic and well-shot for its time. It also shows the mercenaries not as the typical good guys fighting the faceless and unnamed enemy. They’re shown using tactics that even people of today would find shocking. From using concentrated cyanide gas to kill sleeping soldiers in their barracks to the use of cyanide-tipped crossbow bolts to silently kill sentries. The film shows mercenaries for what they are and that’s soldiers paid by a private citizen and/or group to accomplish a mission using any means necessary to accomplish the task. It is this employer and hired hand dynamic which drives the final reel of the film as the success in pulling off the rescue mission becomes a moot point as betrayal works against the team and their continued survival deep in enemy territory.

The excellent performances by Burton and Harris as old war hounds whose only talent lies in waging war is accompanied by the roguish charm exhibited by a much younger Sir Roger Moore as Irish pilot Shaun Fynn. The rest of the cast also includes fine performances from Hardy Kruger as Pieter Coetzee, the racist Afrikaaner who slowly gains understanding as to the nature and consequences of the troubling times afflicting Africa. Even Stewart Granger as the banker Matheson shines in his brief but pivotal role in the film.

For a small film (when compared to other war epics of the era), The Wild Geese actually has an epic feel to it that should’ve appealed to an American audience, but instead fell by the wayside as its release Stateside was troubled by bankruptcies within the production company. With the advent of home video, and now DVD, the film has become a big cult-hit amongst fans of the war genre, especially those of the mercenary film subgenre which is still dominated by subpar releases. It is a testament to the work of director McLaglen that the film never slows down too much to ruin the pacing of the film. The film never gets too enamored with the war scenes to lose sight of some of the political and philosophical themes the film starts to explore in the last third of its running time. Some might say that his direction was quite workmanlike and make it sound like a negative. In fact, this workmanlike quality allows the actors and the story to take center stage.

The Wild Geese is a rare gem of a war film which delves into a little-known subgenre. With some very strong performances from a cast full of knighted British actors, a former Hitler Youth and real-life mercenaries hired as extras the film manages to distinguishes itself from the many awful war films which began to dominate the late 70’s and early 80’s as tiny studios began popping up outside of Hollywood. A wonderful and underappreciated war film which should entertain even the most jaded film fan.

Review: Night of The Hunted (dir. by Jean Rollin)

When, at that age of 22, I first saw Jean Rollin’s Night of the Hunted, I cried as much as the first time I saw Titanic at the age of 12.  In both cases, the tears were inspired by a “doomed” love story.  The main difference between the two films is that I don’t cry over Titanic anymore.  But Night of Hunted still brings me to tears every time I see it.

The film opens with the image of a terrified young woman (Brigitte Lahaie) running through a dark forest until she eventually reaches a highway.  She’s picked up by a young man (Vincent Gardere) who, being a guy, proceeds to take her back to his apartment in Paris.  She confesses that she can’t remember who she is, why she was running, or even being picked up by the young man in the first place.  Saying that she needs some sort of memory to fill the emptiness, she proceeds to make love to Gardere.  Gardere, being a guy, doesn’t object.

However, he does make the mistake of later leaving Lahaie alone in the apartment afterwards.  As soon as Gardere leaves, Lahaie forgets ever meeting him and why she’s even in the apartment in the first place.  Even as she tries to figure out what’s going on, the apartment is visited by a doctor who tells Lahaie that she is his patient and that she needs to go with him to a “clinic” where he can treat her.  No longer remembering her encounter with Gardere, Lahaie agrees.

Needless to say, the “clinic” turns out to be what Lahie was so desperately trying to escape just a few hours before.  We learn that Lahie is merely one of several hundred people who, months earlier, were exposed to a biological warfare experiment gone wrong.  Now, as a result, her brain is slowly dying one cell at a time.  The clinic is actually a government-run prison where she and her fellow victims have been sent to be forgotten about and to eventually die.  Lahie finds herself surrounded by men and women who, as they slowly lose everything that made them unique, revert back to their most primal instincts.  While Gardere tries to find her, Lahie struggles to survive just one final night in both the clinic and in the prison of her own fading mind.

Director Jean Rollin is best known for his sexually-themed vampire films but the Night of the Hunted is not as huge a departure for him as it may first seem.  One of Rollin’s reoccurring themes is the importance of our memories, no matter how idealized they may sometimes be and this theme is present in every frame of Night of the Hunted.

The lead role is played by Rollin’s frequent muse and collaborator, Brigitte Lahaie.  Because the majority of Lahaie’s career has been spent making adult films, she’s never gotten the due she deserves as an actress.  Playing a difficult role here, Lahaie is the movie’s greatest strength.  She brings a real sincerity and empathy to her role and its impossible to imagine this movie working without her.  If nothing else, this movie is a wonderful display of Lahaie’s often underrated talent. 

Rollin made the film for very little money and used a cast made up almost entirely of nonprofessionals and French adult film veterans.  So, yes the film does sometimes have a grainy look and the editing is definitely jagged.  When the characters shoot at each other, it is obvious that they’re firing toy cap guns.  To me, however, this works in the film’s favor.  The raw quality of the film perfectly mirrors that constant fear and confusion that Lahaie and her fellow prisoners live in.  No, the film is not technically perfect but a flawed masterpiece is preferable to uninspired technical perfection any day.

Despite working with a miniscule budget, Rollin captures some haunting images in this film.  Never has Paris looked as desolate as in this movie.  One of Rollin’s trademarks has always been his own fascination with architecture and, as a result, the cold skyscraper where Lahaie is held prisoner almost becomes a character itself.  I’ve always considered Jean Rollin to be horror cinema’s equivalent to Jean-Luc Godard and, with its images of a sterile city run by passionless autocrats, Night of the Hunted brings to mind Godard’s Alphaville.

 The film’s most haunting image comes at the end and it is this image that brings tears to my eyes every time.  Whatever flaws the film may have, Night of the Hunted has one of the best final shots in the history of cinema.  Even if everything preceeding it had been worthless, this movie would be worth sitting through just for the stark beauty of the final shot.  Night of the Hunted ends on a note that manages to be darkly sad and inspiringly romantic at the same time.  It’s an ending that makes Night of the Hunted one of the most romantic films of all time.

Night of the Hunted was released in 1980 and, like the majority of Rollin’s films, was never released in the States.  Redemption, however, has released it on DVD (which is how I first saw it in 2008.)   While the transfer is undeniably rough, that actually gives the movie a documentary-like quality that works in its favor.  The film is in French with English subtitles.   As is so often the case with subtitles, a lot of the film’s nuance is sacrificed in translation.  Fortunately, the combination of Rollin’s visual sense and Lahaie’s lead performance more than makes up for it.