The Wild Geese: 30 Years On
Time Out looks back at Andrew V. McLaglen's 1978 Film 'The Wild Geese', 30 years after its original release
It concerned a band of elderly mercenaries sent to the colonies to shoot the place up, and played like a hamstrung geo-political ‘Blues Brothers’. Richards Burton and Harris were charged with reassembling the band, only here, ‘the band’ is a gaggle of gin-soaked squaddies who’ve found that the quiet life of the old country doesn’t quite hit the spot when it comes to mayhem and rapine.
At the behest of Stewart Granger’s saturnine copper magnate, their mission is to spring a democratically elected leader from the clutches of a hated despot, restoring to power what every right-thinking global mining conglomerate wants – an incorruptible, independently minded popular nationalist sitting atop vast mineral assets.
Far, far away from the movie, in the real world, Burton’s clipped-toned booze-hound, Colonel Faulkner would have smelled a rat even with that cigar-addled hooter, spraying his host with Courvoisier and bellowing, ‘what the hell kind of business model is that?’. Here, however, he sees a chance to get some guilt-free trigger action, and the lads pack off to a generic dusty African hellhole, where some of the natives will be noble, but most will be background artists who will look at the camera or scratch their heads just when they’re supposed to have been turned into a human piñata in a hail of bullets.
The inevitable chumming-up of Granger and the bad guys leaves ‘The Wild Geese’ (for it is they) out on a limb and ratchets up the movie’s limp drama. But, perhaps more importantly, it gives the makers a great Get Out Of Despotic Jail Free card; they pull off the seemingly impossible task of telling a story about white mercenaries in '70s Africa without resorting to politics. Yes, there’s a daliance in cramming Hardy Krüger’s bluff (read: wildly racist) Afrikaaner into a ‘Defiant Ones’ set-up with Winston Ntshona’s two-dimensional pan-African mouthpiece, but the political complexity on show is more ‘Red Scorpion’ than ‘Reds’.
The subject matter was hardly unique: British and South African veterans were for hire across Africa in the '70s, and two years later in 1980, John Irvin’s superior ‘The Dogs of War’ would plough a similarly dodgy furrow but with the energy and unflinching eye to carry it off.
What’s extraordinary about ‘The Wild Geese’ is the fact that it’s remembered at all. The three leads – Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore – have all starred in cinematic non-sequiturs now mercifully buried or misremembered (see Moore’s ‘That Lucky Touch’, Burton‘s ‘Massacre in Rome’ or Harris’s ‘Orca’).
Yet ‘The Wild Geese’ retains a following. Granted, it’s mostly of men on their third, now pseudonomynous application to the TA, but a following nevertheless. The Action Man poster art has been re-interpreted for countless dubious blast-fests (‘Wild Force’ anyone?) and Joan Armatrading’s theme blazed the trail for Berlin, showing that slow-mo violence and soaring soft-rock balladry were queasily compatible bedfellows.
And now the kids who first saw ' 'Geese' on pirate VHS when they were 13 have grown up and are listening to the clamour for a remake hopefully starring Ray Winstone or Daniel Craig or Danny Dyer.
'The problem is not that we were once there, it’s that we aren’t anymore’, Boris Johnson once wrote of Africa’s torment in The Spectator. Three decades on and undeterred by 'Tears Of The Sun ', the word in London’s murky film industry shebeens is that its time to go back to where it all began: the Geese must fly again.
Author: Paul Fairclough
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