Moore Not Less - The Wild Geese

The Wild Geese is the first and best known of the films that Roger Moore made with director Andrew V McLaglen and was based on a novel called The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney. McLaglen had directed some lesser John Wayne westerns and was chosen when John Ford put in a good word for him with producer Euan Lloyd. Lloyd had resisted the suggestion by the studio that Michael Winner direct the film.
The Wild Geese is an all star war adventure film and fulfilled Lloyd's ambition to make a Dirty Dozen style caper with many famous names in the cast. Burt Lancaster was set to star at one point but when he made one too many demands about his character and his fee he was replaced by Richard Harris. According to Roger, OJ Simpson was lined up to play his own part before he was cast!
The film was made in South Africa and so there were demonstrations by anti-apartheid campaigners when it was released. In mitigation, the producers highlighted the positive response the film had received when it was shown in Soweto and the subplot where Hardy Krüger's bigoted white South African mercenary comes to respect the deposed black African leader he has to protect. Well, fair enough but there is no way to completely get around the fact that the villains to be mowed down in this war film are not Hitler's Nazis but black Africans.
James Bond connections? Future Bond director John Glen edits while Syd Cain handles the production design. Maurice Binder supplied the very Bondesque titles for The Wild Geese.
The premise for the film has retired soldier Colonel Faulkner (Richard Burton) hired by dodgy but stinking rich banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to spring an African leader named Limbani (Winston Ntshona) who has been deposed in a military coup d'etat. Limbani is a prisoner of dictator General Ndofa and Matherson wants to implement a little regime change.
Faulkner doesn't completely trust Matherson but he needs the money and so begins to put together a team of veteran mercenaries capable of executing this dangerous mission. Chief amongst them are two old friends and colleagues - master tactician Captain Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and ace pilot Lieutenant Shawn Fynn (Roger). Once in place, the mercenary team are put through their paces in training camp by veteran drill sergeant Sandy Young (Jack Watson).
When Faulkner and his men arrive in the Central African nation of Zembala they accomplish their mission and rescue the ailing President Limbani but the plane that is supposed to fly the mercenaries to safety takes off without them. Matherson has done a deal with General Ndofa for mining rights and double-crossed Faulkner. The mercs are (ahem) expendable in this heartless mélange of war, politics and greed. With the seriously ill Limbani in tow, the mercenaries are trapped in hostile jungle with Ndofa's army out to kill or capture them. Can Faulkner and his men fight their way to safety and escape?
While Roger's other war pictures tend to come off as Sunday afternoon fare, The Wild Geese has a harder edge (with swearing and whatnot) and is at times a rather violent boy's own action adventure. The lead actor and real star of the film is Richard Burton as Faulkner. Burton plays it straight and gives Faulkner a believable sense of quiet charismatic authority. You believe this man was a respected officer to these men and that they would still follow him into battle even though they've all retired from any official army. If this isn't a contradiction, Burton makes Faulkner both decent and ruthless. You could trust him to watch over your family but woe betide anyone who tries to double cross him. So what if Burton seems a little bored at times. He's still Richard Burton.
The easy chemistry between the three main stars is advantageous to the film and Roger manages to hold his own against the heavyweight duo of Burton and Harris. It is sometimes said that Roger should have played Bond the way he did Shawn Fynn. Much of this I suspect comes from a scene early on when Fynn, while working as a currency smuggler, forces a drug dealer to eat his own drugs. It's a pretty nasty scene and displays Roger in a much more cold and ruthless light than James Bond (save perhaps for the car kicking moment in For Your Eyes Only). But Roger is not entirely convincing dispensing some rough justice to drug pushers. His main strengths lay in light comedy and being debonair.
The Wild Geese is a more violent and straight up actioner than Bond but - the drug pusher scene aside - Roger's 007 and his cigar chomping mercenary Fynn are not a million miles apart and fairly interchangable if you take away the beret and army uniform. He's on good form in The Wild Geese as the pilot who can fly anything and seems to be enjoying interacting with this cast. Seventies fashion alert: Roger's checked cap is quite extraordinary.

The first portion of the film has a familiar structure for anyone who has watched these types of films. Faulkner must assemble his team and put them through their paces for the mission. It's enjoyable enough and has a certain authenticity too. Jack Watson is perhaps typecast here but believable as the tough Sergeant Major bored to tears tending to his garden in civvy street and delighted when Faulkner knocks on his door (although his wife is not so thrilled) to ask him to train the mercenaries.
Hardy Krüger is decent enough as the South African merc Coetzee although his exchanges with Winston Ntshona's Limbani about apartheid and the future of Africa grow rather tiresome in the end. The Wild Geese is not a racist film (the heart of the plot is essentially about European exploitation of Africa) but it's a trifle lumbering and heavy-handed at times handling the message of reconciliation. Roy Budd's score is not one of his best but the martial and orchestral cues are serviceable enough. What does date the film more is Joan Armatrading's theme song.
A host of familiar faces grace the film. Ronald Fraser as McTaggart and Kenneth Griffith as the gay Medic Witty. The Witty character seems hopelessly dated now. It's like Jimmy Logan in Carry On Girls being one of Arnie's soldiers in Predator. I'm sure there were plenty of gay servicemen through the ages who didn't mince around like Mr Humphries. Griffith makes the most of his last scene though and is at least depicted as competent and brave.
Stewart Granger is enjoyably smarmy as the villain who sets the plot in motion while Frank Finlay (shades of Zulu) turns up as a a nutty character named Father Geoghegen. "Good luck to you, you Godless murderers!" Burton and Harris apparently agreed to stay sober during the shoot as part of their contracts but Finlay looks like he's had a few. The familiar voice of Patrick Allen is here too as Rushton and look out for Barry Foster as Granger's assistant.
Richard Harris is always very watchable as Janders and has a believable onscreen friendship with Burton's character. They feature in the most famous scene in the film together near the end. And yes, the child actor who plays Janders' son Emile is rather wooden.
The action is pretty good when it arrives although a few more pyrotechnics wouldn't have gone amiss. The team's extraction of Limbani is entertaining and rather devious in execution at times - certainly more believable than popcorn rescues in shoot 'em ups like Predator and The Expendables. And when the **** hits the fan and Faulkner and his men are left to fend for themselves there is a real sense of danger and peril - aided by the fact that characters are killed off left, right and centre.
The Wild Geese is certainly dated in places, not completely devoid of political incorrectness (this is the seventies lest we forget), and may be predictable at times but the stars lend good performances and there is even a poignant last scene. There are some better war films out there but The Wild Geese is still solid late night entertainment.
- Jake


c 2015 Alternative 007

james bond alpine