An old-fashioned adventure story that could have been made in the ‘50s or even earlier, if not for its focus on ’70s-era African politics, The Wild Geese is a rousing action thriller with just enough attention to characterization that its climax has an emotional punch. More importantly, the picture features a unique combination of larger-than-life Brits playing larger-than-life roles: Welshman Richard Burton, Irishman Richard Harris, and Englishman Roger Moore play a trio of aging mercenaries hired to rescue a revolutionary African leader from political imprisonment.
The story unfolds in classic men-on-a-mission fashion. Nefarious banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) hires alcoholic ex-Army man Col. Allen Faulkner (Burton) to free African political prisoner Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) from an unnamed African country because Limbani is slated for execution. Distrustful of his new employer but in need of a paycheck, Faulkner recruits a team including pilot Shaun Flynn (Moore), strategist Rafer Janders (Harris), drill sergeant Sandy Young (Jack Watson), and displaced South African Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger). The vignettes of Faulkner building his crew are breezily entertaining, though screenwriter Reginald Rose and director Andrew McLaglen layer ominous foreshadowing into the derring-do bits to lay the groundwork for what’s coming later.
The rescue mission goes well, but then the group’s getaway plane takes off prematurely, leaving the mercenaries and the liberated Limbani alone in enemy territory. Damn that double-crossing Matherson! This juncture is when the picture gets really exciting, because the soldiers have to fight their way through a jungle filled with heavily armed troops in order to seize another plane and escape. The movie pays clumsy lip service to social consciousness when Coetzee becomes Limbani’s bodyguard, forcing a racist white man to learn grudging respect for a saintly black man, but The Wild Geese is less about politics and more about macho militarism: By the end of the movie, nearly every character has mowed down opponents to save his mates.
With its corny musical score, which could have been lifted from an old RAF training film, The Wild Geese is unapologetically retro, and the storyline is so schematic that some will find it trite. Nonetheless, McLaglen’s sure hand with the action scenes, combined with the easy chemistry that the three leads have with each other and a surprisingly poignant climax, make The Wild Geese a fun romp with much more substance than the average shoot-’em-up.
The Wild Geese: GROOVY