In 1978, I was still in college and was happily fulfilling my duties as film critic for the campus newspaper. It was a good gig: I got to go to press events, advance screenings and meet filmmakers all for free, which fit comfortably within my discretionary spending budget that amounted to zero dollars. I had seen advance teaser ads for the upcoming mercenary adventure movie The Wild Geese, which boasted the kind of all-star cast that impressed even in an era when all-star casts were anything but unique. I attended the press screening in New York and was instantly blown away. Here were great stars like Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, Hardy Kruger and Stewart Granger adding considerable glamor to a gritty British war movie that was in the best stiff-upper-lip tradition of great British war movies. Having been weened on the likes of Zulu, The Wild Geese immediately became one of my favorite movies, one that I knew I would revisit many times more in the years to come. Adding to the pleasure of the experience was the opportunity to attend a press conference with the film's producer, Euan Lloyd and Col. "Mad" Mike Hoare, the legendary real-life mercenary who served as technical adviser on the movie. I found Lloyd to be an extraordinary man: kind and appreciative of my comments. In an extraordinary gesture, he invited me to breakfast at the Plaza the following morning, a pleasure most struggling blue collar college kids would not enjoy. Lloyd read some of my reviews and said he was suitably impressed (or was kind enough to pretend he was.) We spent a couple of hours talking about film history and movie making before parting company. I would not see him again for about 25 years, but that one meeting was pivotal in convincing me to write about film as a living.
I have indeed seen The Wild Geese numerous times over the years. The film's release was somewhat botched in America but it was a mega-hit for Lloyd worldwide. The story, in the tradition of Dark of the Sun, is based on a novel by Daniel Carney. It involves four middle-aged, seemingly over-the-hill mercenaries who are hired by a London millionaire to rescue a deposed African President from his captors and restore him to office. Something about copper rights is at the heart of the scheme, but the mercenaries (Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris and Hardy Kruger) are largely apolitical and only get involved for their own self-interests. Only the Harris character is somewhat reluctantly drawn to the mission on the basis of human rights issues: the man he hopes to rescue will presumably replace the murderous dictator who had him deposed. The old friends are reunited and go about recruiting an eclectic group of hard-bitten fellow mercenaries who are parachuted into Africa to accomplish this deadly mission. All goes well until an unexpected plot development leads them stranded in a barren wasteland as an army of vicious Simbas advance upon them. Now the Wild Geese ust devise desperate plans to escape certain death.
This is the best movie ever directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, an old hand and pro at directing action movies. He is surprisingly at ease in this most British of story lines and deftly handles his talented cast, bringing out each actor's best qualities. The movie is so exciting that it seems unfair to provide many more details, as it might spoil at some of the film's many pleasures. Lloyd, a former protege of legendary producer Cubby Broccoli, hired many crew members from the James Bond series including editor John Glen, title designer Maurice Binder, stunt coordinator Bob Simmons and production designer Syd Cain. These were the best in their chosen professions and the film benefits greatly from their contributions. There is also a rousing score by Roy Budd and a fine title song written and performed by Joan Armatrading. One of the great joys of the movie is watching the three middle-aged leads accentuate their ages. Those who were amazed Burton could still carry off an action film with Where Eagles Dare were even more impressed he could do so again a decade later with this movie. The supporting cast is wonderful, with stalwart tough guy Jack Watson particularly good as the hard-as-nails R.S.M who whips his aging recruits into shape. Granger gives a fine, late career performance as the erudite baddie and the final confrontation between him and Burton is wonderfully written (the impressive screenplay is by Reginald Rose, who wrote Twelve Angry Men) and performed by the two seasoned pros. The film's scene-stealer is veteran British character actor Kenneth Griffiths, who plays an effete gay medic who nonetheless is a vicious warrior on the battlefield. Lloyd's films are filled with such progressive messages that denounce stereotypes based on sex, race or sexuality. The film's pleas for racial understanding come across as a bit too pat by today's standards, but this was edgy stuff in 1978 in the era of apartheid. (Lloyd broke racial barriers by hiring black actors and crew members and insisting they be housed, paid and treated equally- a rather controversial notion in Africa at the time.)
The most vivid image from the film is famous sequence in which the Geese free fall over Africa before landing by parachute. It's beautifully filmed and inspired Cubby Broccoli to use free-falling stunts as the opening sequence of his next James Bond film, Moonraker. The movie's breakneck-paced conclusion finds the Geese incurring major losses against a seemingly insurmountable army as Roger Moore's Sean Flynn attempts to use an aging airplane as a rescue vehicle. It's as exciting of a battle sequence as you can imagine and ranks with the best sequences in any film of this genre.
Severin Films, one of our favorite niche market DVD labels, has been largely dormant this year but has come back with a vengeance via this superb Blu-ray/DVD dual pak release. The film transfer is highly impressive and the bonus extras will be appreciated by fans. The release imports all of the special features from the previous UK release: a vintage, extended featurette about the making of the movie (all of the stars agree it was one of the best experiences of their professional careers), producer Jonathan Sothcott's excellent documentary about Euan Lloyd's life and career (most appropriately titled Last of the Gentleman Producers, a commentary track by Roger Moore, the original trailer and news coverage of the film's London premiere at the Odeon Leicester Square Theatre and the after-party at the Dorchester. Two new major features are unique to this release: recent filmed interviews with Andrew V. McLaglen and 94-year old mercenary Michael Hoare.
In all, a superb celebration of one of the great British films of its era.