The Wild Geese is a 1978 mercenary movie largely written and filmed in the tradition and with the sensibility of classic all-star war movies like The Guns of Navarone, or even action westerns like The Magnificent Seven (the real one). You have a small group of sharply-formed characters presented with a mission against astronomical odds, which keep getting more astronomical as the mission plays out through the planning and execution stages, until finally, they prevail through adversity and sacrifice. Or not.
Rewatching it recently, the harsh opinion we had of it as young troopers in 10th Special Forces Group had somewhat mellowed by time, and by the sheer formulaic repetition of 21st Century action movies. It was a thoroughly enjoyable “combat procedural,” even though the procedures at times were Hollywood enough to put your teeth on edge.
It begins when an old mercenary colonel, Alan Faulkner (Richard Burton), is contracted by the amoral businessman Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to rescue deposed African politician Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Limbani is beloved of his countrymen, partucularly his own tribe, but Matheson could care less; he has just reached an impasse in copper concession negotiations with the successor that deposed Limbani, General Ndofa. Ndofa and his elite Simba troops run a typical African state of the period (or nearly any period): a brutal, kleptocratic dystopia. As Matheson explains it, the mission is simple: liberate Limbani before Ndofa can execute him, and then Limbani will rally the nation to overthrow Ndofa.
Securing financing from Matheson and the services of three officers, two of whom he demanded based on past service, a sergeant major, and some colorful NCOs, Faulkner recruits a small company and trains it in Swaziland. The training is interesting (if fanciful), but before you know it, the mission timetable is pushed up and through a splendidly performed (if fanciful) HALO jump, and they’re in the target nation and game is on. At this point, you might not have noticed it, but a whole hour of the movie has elapsed.
In combat, nothing goes according to Rafer Janders’s (Richard Harris) brilliant plan. Can he plan as well on his feet as he could back in London? The game is afoot, and bullets are flying.
Acting and Production
There are few movies with such an all-star cast: Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, and Hardy Kruger play the four officers of the fifty-man mercenary outfit. Each plays a very distinct character: Burton plays Faulkner, a hopeless drunk when he wasn’t working. (Burton, who could be a hopeless drunk, was on the wagon when he was shooting The Wild Geese); he’s in it because it’s the only thing he knows how to do. Harris plays Janders, who’s happily retired and trading art, but whose planning skills Faulkner wants, but whose idealism Faulkner could do without; he’s in it because he believes in the unifying message of the threatened African politician, Limbani. Roger Moore plays a wisecracking, impulsive guy, Shawn Fynn, not too dissimilar from Moore’s then-current version of Bond; he’s in it for the laughs, although he won’t say no to money. And Kruger turns in an excellent performance (with one jarring note) as Pieter Coetzee, an apolitical South African whose contempt for idealists of all colors and genres has always served him well. He wants his paycheck to buy a farm. (Kruger has been quite hard on his performance and on director Andrew McLaglen in interviews).
Each character’s identity is deftly drawn in a few short scenes, Fynn’s including considerable action, that at one point is looking like a set-piece battle between mercenaries and mafia.
The secondary actors, to an even greater extent, make the film. Winston Ntshona is insistent and proud as Limbani, whose interplay with Kruger’s Coetzee is perfect, apart from the one jarring note. Kruger has completely sold the audience on the idea of a hard-core Afrikaner who sees the refined Limbani as just another “kaffir,” but has come around to respect him, and then he takes the familiarity one step too far, calling Limbani, “bloke.” Had the script understated that as “man,” it wouldn’t have been jarring and unbelievable.
A standout performance is Frank Findlay as Irish missionary, Father Geohegan, whose default form of address for the mercenaries is, “You murtherin’ baahstahds.” An actor with an interesting backstory is Ian Yule, who plays Tosh Donaldson. He was an actual mercenary, in the 60s in the Congo with Mike Hoare.
The movie was shot largely on location in Africa, and so avoids the menace of trying to sell California or London as some exotic location.
Accuracy and Weapons
The cool thing about a movie about a fictional mercenary band is that you can use almost any guns you want — and they do. Most of the guns are what you’d expect to find in Africa in the 1970s, including lots of FALs (several different kinds) and Uzis. The sergeant major carries a Sterling. They look like a rum bunch in this inside-the-Hercules shot:
Yes some of it’s very Hollywood, like the thermonuclear flame grenades.
And there’s the use of cyanide crossbow bolts, which makes up for being tactically loopy by being a very well-shot practical effect. Ready, aim…
Cyanide also makes an appearance as a way to make a barracks of sleeping guards nod off permanently. In addition, look at the weapon held by the guy on the left: a dreadful Madsen submachine gun.
Crew-served weapons include Bren guns, Blindicides (called “bazookas,” and in one case, loaded with a mortar bomb), FN-MAGS, and a Vickers. Surely we’re missing some. The movie’s a gun-spotter’s delight.
Inaccuracies include the breathtaking parachute jump, which is unfortunately shot day-for-night. (If they were going to fake so much of the rest of it, why not have a day jump?) No, you don’t depressurize at 30,000 feet without oxygen.
The parachute “training” was unrealistic, too, with a 15-foot or so high PLF platform.
The bottom line
The Wild Geese is a must-see. As a mission-planning and -training guide, it’s just about worthless, but it’s great fun, and produced quite a number of long-lasting SF Tropes. Two especially lasting ones were: “Men, we’ve been double-crossed,” universally delivered in one’s best Burton at the point where an exfiltration has been cancelled, postponed or delayed, and “The Aullld Dakota,” because for decades everywhere we went there was an old DC-3/C-47 — flying or derelict.
Don’t double-cross yourself. Set aside two hours to enjoy this old show!
For more information
These sites relate to this particular film.
- Amazon.com DVD page:
- IMDB page:
- IMFDB page:
- Rotten Tomatoes review page (60% fresh):
- Infogalactic (replaces Wikipedia) page: