Severin Films // 1978 // 129 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis // January 3rd, 2013
The dogs of war. The best damn mercenaries in the business!
What do you get when you cross some of the UK's hardest drinking actors, a pile of weapons, and an African excursion? Peter O'Toole's wedding party? Perhaps, but you also get The Wild Geese, an adventure of questionable filmmaking and even more questionable morality. In the world of b-grade cinema made on huge budgets, though, it's pretty epic, and now available on Blu-ray from Severin Films.
Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), a former colonel in the British army, is hired by a British banker as a mercenary to extract an imprisoned African president (Winston Ntshona, Gandhi) and get him reinstalled to his proper post. To help, Faulkner gets the old band back together, which includes his expert planner Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone) and flyboy Lt. Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore, The Man with the Golden Gun), along with many others from the old pack who are thrilled to be back with their commander. The mission comes off beautifully, but what they don't know is that their ambassadors have struck a deal with the existing dictator and want him to remain in power, leaving the Wild Geese high and dry, forcing them to extract themselves before the soldiers find and kill them.
The Wild Geese is the last kind of movie to deserve a plus-two hour running time. Really, though, it tells three distinct stories, so it would be understandable if any one of them was worth watching. Unfortunately, none of them is and, instead, are the simple rote plot devices we've all seen in plenty of mercenary and legitimate military movies made before and since.
First, we have them assembling the team, which takes much longer than it should. Clearly, director Andrew McLaglen (McLintock!) wanted to establish these men as characters and not just blood-thirsty mercenaries, so takes his sweet time getting everything together. In that, he succeeds; all of the major characters have at least some semblance of backstory, if not a very good reason to leave their homes and families to skydive into Africa, guns ablaze. That fact makes most of them seem like nameless mercs, but McLaglen takes great pains to give them a little bit of substance. This leads us into an utterly pointless training sequence that only has value in watching Richard Burton try to run, something he looks absolutely miserable doing. More than anything, though, it is this scene that makes the film run to a screeching halt and, luckily, it's almost all action to come.
Sadly, that action is generally pathetic and pretty racist on top of it. While, in the first battle, we get some fun gadgets like cyanide-tipped arrows, all of it looks very cheap. Moreover, because their plan goes off without a hitch, there's no question about them getting screwed over and, likewise, during their self-extraction, there's no question that at least some of them will escape with their lives. There's absolutely no suspense or tension at any point, just a ridiculous amount of gunfire and a few explosions thrown in for good measure.
As far as the story goes, it's old-style "white man's burden" business, in which African governments are at the complete mercy of their former colonial daddies. They can neither govern themselves nor take care of their own problems. They're at the mercy of the British pound, and they'll do anything to get it. There's even a racist Afrikaner (Hardy Kruger, Barry Lyndon) who gets the opportunity to learn that not all black people are worthless, which is totally special, especially since an ordinary person couldn't teach him that lesson. It takes the president of a nation to teach some random gun-toting merc about tolerance.
The Wild Geese had a lot of money put into it, but it's kind of hard to see where it went. The money that went into the cast, most likely, because the whole movie looks cheap. Andrew McLaglen is an experienced journeyman director, but the lack of suspense and overlong story makes the whole experience clumsy. On the plus side, there are more uses of the famous Wilhelm scream than I've ever heard in a film. You could make a drinking game out of the movie, both by matching the actors drink for drink and having one every time you hear that scream (though that might get a little dangerous in the final explosive moments). At least there's that, because there's very little else to hang onto with this one.
Severin has made its name off excellent releases for questionable movies, and with The Wild Geese they do not disappoint. The 1.85:1/1080p transfer isn't the best they've ever produced, but it's generally quite strong. There is a little bit of softness in the wider scenes, but fine detail in the close-ups. The grain structure has a great filmic quality, natural looking colors, and nearly no damage to the print. I'm sure the film looks better here than it has since its original release. The sound doesn't fare quite so well, with a lossy 2.0 Dolby mix that, while neither noisy nor muddled, definitely doesn't have the punch that we've come to expect from a hi-def release. Don't worry, though, all those Wilhelm screams are clearly audible, for that drinking game you're about to try.
The special features on the disc are great. It starts with a very amusing audio commentary with producer Euan Lloyd, second unit director John Glen, and Roger Moore, moderated by Jonathan Sothcott. They go over plenty of stuff about the movie, but the anecdotes and, especially, Moore's quips about James Bond, make the commentary one of the better I've listened to in a while. We move on with a new interview with Andrew McLaglen that goes over some of the same material, but is pretty interesting in its own right, though his constant insistence that neither Burton nor Harris drank during filming makes me believe very strongly otherwise. A second interview, this time with Mike Hoare, the military advisor on the film, is odd and interesting. His answers are all prepared comments, which he reads off a paper and I wonder if, given his long career as a mercenary, he was worried about saying something he would regret. The features continue with a half-hour featurette, The Last of the Gentleman Producers, which focuses on the career of Euan Lloyd and is quite good. A vintage featurette on the film is not so great, and a newsreel and trailer round out the disc.
The Wild Geese isn't a very good movie, but I didn't expect more than it delivers. It's dumb action with a fairly racist message and some terribly overwrought performances to boot. It has plenty of camp value, though, and with a strong Blu-ray release from Severin, the right kind of viewer should have plenty of fun with it.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Severin Films
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated