The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Wild Geese

A little bit of a spin on the wild west gunslinger, today's discussion centers around the mercenary, the hired gun who will take just about any job as long as the money is good. And if movies have taught us anything, mercenaries had lots of work throughout Africa in the 1960s and since with movies like Dark of the Sun, The Dogs of War and most recently Tears of the Sun. What about the best of the bunch? It's a movie many American viewers may not have heard of because it didn't get much of a release in the states. That movie? One of my favorites, 1978's The Wild Geese.

 A brutally efficient mercenary with years of experience under his belt, Allan Faulkner (Richard Burton) has agreed to take on a dangerous mission in Africa courtesy of the equally brutal, efficient and greedy merchant banker, Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger). With lucrative copper mining rights on the line, Matherson needs Faulker to rescue a deposed African leader, Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), a leader of the people and a good man, to retake the government and settle things down. Taking a hefty payday, Faulker assembles an experienced, effective unit of 50 mercenaries, including fellow officers Lt. Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) and Lt. Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger), and goes about putting together an effective plan, a smash and grab job. Faulker has the men assembled to pull off the job with a minimum of danger, but no matter how well thought out the mission is, even these mercenaries can't know what awaits them when they drop into Africa.

This review comes just a day after my Von Ryan's Express review, one of the great entertaining war movies ever made. More than that, just a great action movie. Well, surprise surprise, but I put this 1979 mercenary-centric action/drama on the same level. Is it a great movie in the vein of The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia? Heck no, but it doesn't need to be! I watched a version that was 128 minutes long, and it is one extended thrill ride from beginning to end. Director Andrew McLaglen is far from a great director, but this is one of his best (if not THE best) movies. It is gritty, graphic, rough and tumble and the definition of a great tough guy flick. This is a movie that earns it's "Guy's Guy" type of movie, even if that theme song (listen HERE) seems a little out of place. But that's for the opening and closing credits. Enough with that. Let's get to the action!

Okay, not quite yet there with the casting. In the men-on-a-mission vein of The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, here's one of the all-time great tough guy casts. The script calls for some older mercenaries, giving stars who weren't exactly A-list stars a chance at the spotlight again, and let me tell you, they don't disappoint. In a part of his career where the films weren't exactly great (an understatement), Richard Burton absolutely nails the part as Faulkner, a weathered, experienced mercenary who doesn't care for much other than the money he makes and the booze he can drink. Not exactly a stretch, but let's not nitpick. His officers include Harris as Janders, the master tactician and planner, Moore as Fynn, the born soldier who can fly or drive anything with a motor, and Kruger as Coetzee, the South African experienced bush fighter who has quite a few racist tendencies. They each get their moments to shine, the tough guy quartet killing it throughout with an easygoing, likable chemistry.

But wait....there's more!!! Along with Granger's quick appearance, there's Barry Foster and Patrick Allen as other shadowy characters involved in putting the mission together. Filling out the mercenary lineup are scene-stealing Jack Watson as foul-mouthed drill instructor Sandy Young, John Kani as Sgt. Jesse, the youngest of the bunch but an incredibly capable fighter, Kenneth Griffith as Witty, the flamboyantly gay medic, with Ronald Fraser, Ian Yule (an actual former mercenary), Percy Herbert, and Glyn Baker rounding out the crew. Also look for Jeff Corey and Frank Findlay in small parts. Just a cool, underrated supporting cast with plenty of memorable, recognizable faces.

Based off a novel by Daniel Carney and a Reginald Rose screenplay, one of 'Wild's' most underrated aspects is its script. Yes, it is familiar. Yes, it is politically incorrect one moment and somewhat preachy the next. But in the end, you throw it all together and all those separate ingredients work well together. It follows the men-on-a-mission formula nicely, going from assembling the team, to training the team, to unleashing the mercenaries on their dangerous mission deep in Africa, a regiment of brutal Simbas waiting to wipe them out if given the chance. There's too many good moments to mention from the Wild Geese free-falling out of a plane at 25,000 feet to Watson's hysterical rants during the training sequences to the almost non-stop smartass attitudes that produce a ton of memorable one-liners, some funny and some highly effective in the old drama department. Just a lot of positives on display here across the board.

But the biggest positive? The action of course! It's so good that the DVD actually offers a stand-alone menu where you can watch solely the explosions, shootouts and all sorts of hell that breaks loose. Without giving away any spoilers, the mission doesn't go off quite as planned, Faulkner and his men forced to improvise deep in enemy territory. Most of the last hour of the film is one extended action scene with some occasional dialogue to break things up. The highlight is the last 30 minutes, the mercenaries shooting it out with a large force of Simbas hell bent on stopping them from escaping. It's bloody, graphic and uncomfortable and features some surprising twists too as the body count rises ever higher. The action turns into a chaotic chase across the African savannah, lines and flanks shifting minute to minute. What an action movie.

This can be a difficult movie to track down. Years ago, I was lucky enough to track down a Tango DVD of this 1978 mercenary flick. It's currently available at Amazon for a very reasonable $12.99 if you're curious. As I mentioned, is it a perfect film? Nope, and again, it isn't meant to be. Instead, it is pure escapism, pure entertainment, and for me that's all I'm looking for. Familiar but highly entertaining story, action to burn and one of my all-time favorite casts. Can't recommend this one enough.

The Wild Geese (1978): ****/****
Rewrite of June 2009 review


  1. the blu ray is out and looks great

  2. Easily Andrew McLaglen's best movie.

  3. Agreed. Amazingly entertaining from beginning to end, and my second favorite Richard Harris character!

  4. You might be eligible for a complimentary $1,000 Amazon Gift Card.