1978’s action war-film, The Wild Geese, is a film adaptation of Daneil Carney’s unpublished novel about a group of mercenaries on a mission during the turbulent, revolutionary times which beset central Africa during the 1960’s and early 70’s. It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.