The Wild Geese
The Wild Geese is a 1978 British-Swiss war film directed by Andrew V. McLaglen and starring Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and Hardy Krüger. The screenplay concerns a group of mercenaries in Africa. It was the result of a long-held ambition of its producer Euan Lloyd to make an all-star adventure film similar to The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare. The same producer and director were later responsible for The Sea Wolves.
|The Wild Geese|
Original film poster by Arnaldo Putzu
|Directed by||Andrew V. McLaglen|
|Produced by||Euan Lloyd|
|Screenplay by||Reginald Rose|
|Based on||The Wild Geese|
by Daniel Carney
|Music by||Roy Budd|
|Edited by||John Glen|
|Box office||$1.4 million (US)|
1,037,275 admissions (France)
1,446,874 admissions (Spain)
3.9 million (Germany)
The screenplay by Reginald Rose was based on an unpublished novel titled The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney. The film was named The Wild Geese after the Wild Goose flag and shoulder patch used by Michael "Mad Mike" Hoare's Five Commando, ANC, which in turn was inspired by a 17th-century Irish mercenary army (see Flight of the Wild Geese). Carney's novel was subsequently published by Corgi Books under the same title as the film.
The novel was based upon rumours and speculation following the 1968 landing of a mysterious aeroplane in Rhodesia, which was said to have been loaded with mercenaries and "an African president" believed to have been a dying Moïse Tshombe.
Allen Faulkner, a former British Army colonel turned mercenary, arrives in London to meet merchant banker Sir Edward Matheson. The latter proposes an operation to rescue Julius Limbani, the imprisoned President of a southern African nation who is due for execution by General Ndofa. President Limbani is held in a remote prison in Zembala, guarded by a regiment of General Ndofa's troops known as the "Simbas".
Faulkner accepts the assignment and begins recruiting forty-nine mercenaries, including officers he had worked with previously: Capt. Rafer Janders, a skilled tactician, and Lt. Shawn Fynn, a former RAF pilot. Fynn also brings in Pieter Coetzee, a former soldier in the South African Defence Force who wishes only to return home and buy a farm. The mercenaries fly to Swaziland, where they are whipped into shape. Before the operation begins, Janders exacts a promise from Faulkner to watch over his only son, Emile, should he not survive.
Because of an unexpected development, Faulkner is given only a day's notice to launch the mission. On Christmas Day, the 50-man mercenary group parachute into Zembala via HALO jump. One group rescues an alive, though sick, Limbani from a heavily guarded prison, while another group takes over a small, nearby airfield to await pickup. Back in London, however, Matheson cancels the extraction flight at the last moment, having secured copper mining assets from General Ndofa in exchange for President Limbani. Stranded deep in hostile territory, the abandoned mercenaries fight their way through bush country, pursued by the Simbas. Many men, including Coetzee, are killed along the way.
The mercenaries make their way to Limbani's home village, hoping to start a rebellion, but discover his people would not have a chance. An Irish missionary living there informs the group of an old Douglas Dakota transport aircraft nearby that they can use to escape. As the Simbas close in, the mercenaries hold them off in a climatic battle sequence while Fynn starts the Dakota's engines, suffering heavy casualties. Janders is shot in the leg and unable to board the departing airplane. Faulkner is forced to kill him, sparing him from capture and torture. The thirteen surviving mercenaries finally manage to land at Kariba Airport, Rhodesia, but Limbani dies from a gunshot wound sustained during the escape.
Some months later, Faulkner returns to London and breaks into Matheson's home, forcing him to disgorge the cash in his wall safe — half a million dollars — to compensate the survivors and the families of those who died. Faulkner then kills Matheson and makes a swift getaway with Fynn. Faulkner fulfills his promise to Janders by visiting Emile at his boarding school.
- Richard Burton as Colonel Allen Faulkner
- Roger Moore as Lieutenant Shawn Fynn
- Richard Harris as Captain Rafer Janders
- Hardy Krüger as Lieutenant Pieter Coetzee
- Stewart Granger as Sir Edward Matheson
- Jack Watson as Regimental Sergeant Major Sandy Young
- Frank Finlay as Father Geoghegen
- Kenneth Griffith as Medic Arthur Witty
- Jeff Corey as Mr. Martin
- Barry Foster as Thomas Balfour
- Winston Ntshona as President Julius Limbani
- Ronald Fraser as Sergeant Jock McTaggart
- John Kani as Sergeant Jesse Blake
- David Ladd as Sonny
- Ian Yule as Sergeant Tosh Donaldson
- Patrick Allen as Rushton
- Brook Williams as Samuels
- Percy Herbert as Keith
- Jane Hylton as Mrs. Young
- Paul Spurrier as Emile Janders
United Artists was enthusiastic about the film, but insisted Lloyd give the director's job to Michael Winner. Lloyd refused and instead chose Andrew V. McLaglen, son of Victor McLaglen, a British-born American previously known mainly for making westerns. Euan Lloyd had a friendship with John Ford who recommended McLaglen to direct the film. The finance for the film was raised partly by pre-selling it to distributors based on the script and the names of the stars who were set to appear. This later became a more common practice in the film industry, but was unusual at the time.
Although Lloyd had both Richard Burton and Roger Moore in mind for their respective roles from a relatively early stage, other casting decisions were more difficult. As the mercenaries were mostly composed of military veterans (some of whom had fought under Faulkner's command before), it was necessary to cast a number of older actors and extras into these physically demanding roles. A number of veterans and actual mercenary soldiers appeared in the film.
Northern Irish actor Stephen Boyd, a close friend of Lloyd's, was originally set to star as Sandy Young, the sergeant major who trains the mercenaries before their mission. However, Boyd died shortly before filming commenced and Jack Watson was chosen as a late replacement. He had previously played a similar role in McLaglen's 1968 film The Devil's Brigade.
Lloyd had offered the part of the banker Matheson to his friend Joseph Cotten. However, scheduling difficulties meant that he also had to be replaced, this time by Stewart Granger.
Burt Lancaster originally hoped to play the part of Rafer Janders who in Carney's book was an American living in London. However, Lancaster wanted the part substantially altered and enlarged. The producers declined and in his place chose Richard Harris. Lloyd initially had reservations about casting Harris because of his wild reputation - he was blamed for Golden Rendezvous going over budget by $1.5 million due to his drinking and rewriting the script. The insurers only agreed to Harris' casting if Lloyd put up his entire salary as guarantee, Harris put up half of his $600,000 fee, and that the producer would sign a declaration at the end of every day saying Harris had not held up filming due to drinking, misbehaving or rewriting lines. "I'd already made enquiries about the hold ups on Golden Rendesvous," said Lloyd. "I discovered the blame was not entirely Richard's. So, as I wanted him for the part, I took the gamble. And it was a gamble. If he'd misbehaved and he'd started losing days it would have come out of my pocket." Harris did not know about the arrangement until the end of the shoot.
Hardy Krüger was not the first actor considered for the role of Pieter Coetzee. Lloyd originally thought of Curd Jürgens, but felt that "Hardy seemed to fit." Krüger was also impressed by the script scenes played with Limbani.
"I was the only wild member of the cast," quipped Moore later. "Harris and Burton were on the wagon and Krüger never emerged from his room with his lady."
Lloyd hesitated before offering the role of Witty, the gay medic, to his longtime friend Kenneth Griffith. When finally approached, Griffith said "Some of my dearest friends in the world are homosexuals!" and accepted the part.
Percy Herbert, who played the role of Keith, was a veteran of World War II, in which he had been wounded in the defence of Singapore, then captured by the Imperial Japanese Army and interned in a POW camp.
Alan Ladd's son David Ladd and Stanley Baker's son Glyn Baker also had roles in the film. Ladd played the drug-dealing nephew of a London-based mob boss (Jeff Corey), and Baker played the young mercenary Esposito. With the cast made up from so many veteran actors, Baker claimed that the only reason he stayed alive in the plot so long was that he was one of the few actors young and fit enough to carry President Limbani for any period of time. David Ladd's character's girlfriend in the film was played by Anna Bergman, the daughter of Ingmar Bergman,
Ian Yule, who played Tosh Donaldson, had been a real mercenary in Africa in the 1960s and 1970s. He was cast locally in South Africa. He then brought his former commanding officer, Michael "Mad Mike" Hoare, who had led one legion of mercenaries, 5 Commando, Armée Nationale Congolaise (not to be confused with 5 Commando, the Second World War British Commando force), in the Congo Crisis of the 1960s, to be the technical adviser for the film. a role which he shared with Yule.
John Kani played Jesse Blake, a mercenary who had previously served with Faulkner and was struggling to live before the chance to work with Faulkner again. Palitoy based the figure "Tom Stone" (part of the Action Man team) on the character Blake after looking at the pre-production photos and posters of the film. Subsequently, some modifications to the figure were made. Kani made his debut in the film after years of acting and stage performances with Winston Ntshona. Ntshona was Limbani in the film and continued to make many more films with Kani after The Wild Geese.
Kani and Ntshona say they both turned down roles in the film at first after hearing it would be about mercenaries. However they changed their mind after reading the script. "The film could not come at a better time," said Kani. "We know exactly what is happening in Africa today and a movie that devotes - out of 120 minutes - even three quarters of a minute to say we need each other and to say that a white man can be just as much an African as a black man, that's important."
Principal filming took place in South Africa in the summer and autumn of 1977, with additional studio filming at Twickenham Film Studios in Middlesex. Roger Moore estimated location filming in Africa took about three months with the unit taking over a health spa near Tshipisie in Northern Transvaal (now Limpopo); shooting also took place at Messina Border Region. The fictional country is said to lie on the border with Burundi, Rhodesia and Rwanda and Zambia, Uganda and Swaziland are also mentioned to be close by.
The rugby scenes were filmed over a period of two days at Marble Hill Park in Twickenham with extras drafted in from nearby Teddington Boys' School. Marble Hill Close near Marble Hill Park was also used as a location.
Hardy Krüger later complained about the film:
For this kind of a delicate story in Africa with an element of battle in it, there has to be some shoot-out. But Euan Lloyd, a man I respect very much, chose to hire Andrew McLaglen who’s basically a director for westerns. He brought this element into The Wild Geese that didn’t really belong there – the shoot ‘em up cowboy kind of thing. It overwhelmed the basic theme. There are certain directors, and Andrew is one, who, when it comes to the editing, always puts a moment in the film when somebody talks. I’m a listener as an actor – a reactor – and it was very important to me to listen. I played the whole part like that: I’m listening to this black man on my shoulder, and it’s by listening that I’m beginning to understand that I’m the dumb Boer and he’s the intelligent man that we all need. So Andrew butchered my performance by not understanding that you can play a part by listening. My character didn’t come out because you didn’t see the transformation. I don’t know why Euan allowed him to do it.
Most of the military equipment used in the film came from the South African army. However some special weaponry needed to be imported from Britain. "Even though the stuff couldn't fire real bullets, it was held up for weeks by the British government because it was going to South Africa," said Lloyd.
The music, by Roy Budd, originally included an overture and end title music, but both of these were replaced by "Flight of the Wild Geese", written and performed by Joan Armatrading. All three pieces are included on the soundtrack album, as well as the song "Dogs of War" that featured lyrics sung by the Scots Guards to Budd's themes. Budd used Borodin's String Quartet No. 2 as a theme for Rafer. The soundtrack was originally released by A&M Records then later released under licence as a Cinephile DVD.
The film was a considerable commercial success in Britain and other countries worldwide, easily recouping its cost, but was hampered by the collapse of its American distributor Allied Artists, and by the lack of an American star. As a result, the film was only partially distributed in the United States.
It was one of the most popular movies of 1978 at the British box office.
The production was also the subject of controversy because filming was undertaken in South Africa during the apartheid regime, and because of the film's portrayal of black characters. There were protests by anti-apartheid campaigners at the film's London premiere. Warned of the protest, producer Lloyd brought copies of newspaper articles reporting the film's premiere in the black township of Soweto, where it had been received with enthusiasm and approval.
The film was picketed in Irish cinemas by the Irish anti-apartheid movement.
The Wild Geese holds a 60% "fresh" rating in Rotten Tomatoes and also won a Golden Screen Award. As for the negative side of its reviews, it was chosen as "Dog of the Year" by film critic Gene Siskel, who accused the film of being "deadly dull" and claimed that it "exploits racism as some kind of sporting entertainment."
Euan Lloyd produced a sequel, Wild Geese II (1985), based on the novel Square Circle (later republished as Wild Geese II), also by Daniel Carney. Burton was planning to reprise his role as Colonel Allen Faulkner, but he died days before filming began. Roger Moore had also considered reprising his role in the sequel, but declined. In the sequel, Edward Fox played Alex Faulkner (the Burton character's brother), who is hired to break Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess (played by Laurence Olivier) out of Spandau Prison so he can appear for a media interview.
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