Saturday Matinee 2016 48: The Wild Geese (British, 1978)

the-wild-geeseThe 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. 

Lower flag, seen for only a second, is the Wild Geese flag. Watch for it!

Lower flag, seen for only a second, is the Wild Geese flag. Watch for it!

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.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (60% fresh):

  • Infogalactic (replaces Wikipedia) page:

12 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee 2016 48: The Wild Geese (British, 1978)

  1. Keith

    Saw this several years ago on TV and enjoyed. It reminded of accounts I’ve read of merc’s in the Congo and Biafra in the early and mid 1960’s.

    Just a note lost the end of this sentence, “…his performance and on…”

    1. Hognose Post author

      Keith, it’s fixed now, the forgotten-to-type bit was “… and on director Andrew McLaglen in interviews”. With all the weaknesses in the role, it was a much better part than the usual Nazi Tank Commander thing Kruger’s talent has been wasted on.

      Scott, who is still ensconced in Homebuilding Hell, no doubt would thank you for picking up his fallen standard.

      The Blogbrother, who is about +6 weeks and counting overdue in Home Extension Perdition, no doubt sympathizes with Scott.

      For those who can’t grab a DVD, the whole movie is on YouTube, at least until the copyright cops pounce.

  2. Badger

    Thanks; it is great fun. Hope everyone enjoys it in the same veign. Have had it for years and it sits next to the Admiral’s favorite “Guns of Navarone” – both of which are above the VHS tape versions of their brethren. Fun stuff; great pick for your piece. Brings back memories of when similar-age cousins & I all wondered how old we had to be to get an Uzi and head on off to “Zeem-Bah-WAY” to look dashing & make some money. Still LMAO thinking of us back then.

  3. staghounds

    As far as I know, the medic in this movie was the first sympathetic depiction of an “out” homosexual soldier in a war movie, and where that orientation wasn’t a plot point. Kenneth Griffith, who played him, was a fascinating character in his own right. A serious historian and documentary film maker, he was one of the world’s great authorities on the Boer war and on the Irish Civil war too.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Didn’t know that about Griffith, and now that I think of it, it was the first portrayal of a gay person that kind of gibed with the way most people took them at the time: “Oh that’s just him, a personality quirk.”

  4. Alan Ward

    I saw this first run in a large theatre ( 2500+ seats) converted into a movie theatre when it first came out. I loved it then and I try to revisit it every five years or so. This and the film adaption of Frederick Forsythe’s the Dogs of War starring Christopher Walken really got my juices running back in my teenage years. Winston Ntshona is in that one as well.
    Another interesting one from around the same time is the Sea Wolves with Moore, Greg Peck and David Niven.

    1. Hognose Post author

      ISTR that The Sea Wolves had the same producer and director — Euan Lloyd and Andrew McLaglen. Andrew was the son of screen tough guy Victor McLaglen.

  5. W. Fleetwood

    A minor footnote. This movie appears to have been based, sort of, on a failed attempt to rescue Pres. Moise Tshombe from captivity in Algeria. It’s Tshombe whose face appears, unidentified, in the “Africa Burning” credit montage. Tshombe was “La Patron” and a lot of the mercenaries who served him had a very real affection for him. This wasn’t because he was a Christian, prowestern democratically elected politician, although he was all of those things. In mercenary mythology his status is based on an incident that happened when the UN troops crushed independent Katanga.

    It is said, I wasn’t there, (I’m old but not that old), that when Tshombe and his entourage arrived at the airport where a plane was waiting to whisk him off to safety in Belgium, he spotted a group of mercenaries getting ready to gap it to Angola. Tshombe trots over to them, tells them thank you for their efforts, shakes their hands, and, when informed that they were a couple of months behind on their wages, opens one of his suitcases (Only in Africa.) and hands out wads of Belgian Francs to bring them up to current.

    Now, it’s possible that Tshombe was just a born politician being a born politician. But I ask you, how many political big shots, fleeing for their lives, have ever taken the time to personally thank the grubby little rifle carriers that did the hard work for them, and then use their own f—ing money to make them whole? That’s when President Moise Tshombe became “La Patron”. From then on all he had to do was lean out the window and yell “Game On!” and there were soldiers who would drop whatever they were doing and come running.

    In the late 70s and early 80s you could still encounter a few old timers who would get all misty eyed about Tshombe and talk about what might have been…if only.

    Wafa Wafa, Wasara Wasara.

  6. DaveP.

    “Wild Geese” used to be a big drinking game among FALophiles: ‘How many national variants can you spot?’

  7. Aesop

    The movie is an out-and-out treasure, courtesy of producer Euan Lloyd. (His daughter had a cameo in this pic as the casino girl who gets beat up by the mob).
    Lloyd’s filmography of the period includes this flick, The Sea Wolves (Also with Roger Moore, as well as such other minor lights as David Niven and Gregory Peck), and The Final Option (released in UK as Who Dares Wins).
    They are a 70s/80s trilogy of guilty pleasure war movies of a type Hollywood itself hasn’t been bothered to make since Guns Of Navaronne, except by accident and distribution license when non-US producers like Lloyd do it.
    Then they roll in the cash, which they use to make tripe by lesser men, universally depicting military men everywhere and at all time as psychopaths, or alternately, sociopaths – just to keep things from being formulaic.

    I’ve probably only watched Wild Geese fifty to ninety times since getting it on DVD.
    The artsy-fartsy anti-military antihero crap from 1965-five minutes ago? Usually can’t stand seeing it above once a decade, if that.
    And I have the obligatory crossbow myself. (Still no cyanide bolts though.Yet.)

    Richard Harris’ character, cornered in London mob casino: “I’m carrying this (pulls out Browning Hi-Power) and this (pulls out hand grenade). It sort of balances me out.

    Harris’ exit scene is iconic, and Burton’s ultimate showdown with the villain was cinematic brilliance, in writing, directing, and performance.

    Victor McLaglen’s kid, Andrew, was a severely underestimated director, disliked by Hollywood establishment by association with his father (a former actual WWI Sergeant Major when such things meant something) and John Wayne, but his craft was superb, and rewarded as such by audiences and box office around the world.

    If someone can’t like this flick, I don’t want to know them.

  8. Light Dragoon

    Saw this in the theatre when I was going to school in LA. Almost killed me (living in LA for a year, that is…), but the film was a great joy. A few weeks later I attended the BIG LA Gun Show (can’t remember what it was called, but back in those days in was still held within the LA City Limits, shortly thereafter it moved to San Bernardino County) and I saw a group of guys my age wandering loose inside wearing Rhodesian camo and packing HK91’s. I thought it rather forward of them at the time, but in retrospect I suppose that they were simply “LARP-ing” before it was popular. How they got their camo I didn’t know, but it was rather cool, I had to admit. I did wonder why they were packing HK91’s rather than FAL’s, but I suppose that FAL’s were harder to get back in the ’70’s.

    Anyway, it was definitely a fun movie, even my wife enjoyed it. ;^)

    1. Hognose Post author

      A guy named Jim Beard in 12th Group had a shop in Seaside (north of Monterey) where he sold Rhodesian stuff among other things. Dunno where he got it.

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