Monday, November 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "The Wild Geese" (1978)

"The Wild Geese" is just an aggressively bad piece of crap. It was part of the "war adventure" pictures that seemed to have a heyday during the 1970s and early '80s, often idolizing the mercenaries and spies who had so often played cinematic heavies. In many ways these movies, largely exploitative escapist fantasy, were a reaction to the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era.

The hook here is that it's four old mercenaries having another go. I'd call it the proverbial "one last job," except that while half the four main characters have to be lured back into the game, the other two see it as just another in a series of missions.

Stars Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore and Hardy Krüger were, respectively, 53, 48, 51 and 50 when the film came out in 1978 -- though Burton, long beset by ailments self-inflicted and not, looked closer to 70 than 50. I don't know if their chronological ages qualify as "old," though maybe that's a self-defense mechanism on my part, since I'm not much younger than that.

The set-up is that Allen Faulkner (Burton), a former colonel in the British army, is hired by Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger), a powerful banker and nobleman, to rescue a deposed African president named Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Limbani is a true reformer, a force for good in a continent that has often known despotic rulers who only wish to exploit their own people and natural resources.

But Matherson is not in it for altruistic purposes, nor indeed is Faulkner. The bankers want him back in power because they think he'll be better for business that his autocratic usurper. And Faulkner, who has fought on the behalf of clients both noble and not, sees a big paycheck -- as well as a taste of the adventure he craves.

That's a recurring theme among the 50 or so ex-soldiers Faulkner recruits for the mission: a desire to return to a life that had meaning, even if it was very dangerous. Most of the men are over 40, a few out of shape, but mostly still fellows in their prime who want to hold a gun again and make a difference -- while collecting a huge paycheck, of course.

Like so many movies of this ilk, the first half has to do with recruiting the team and putting the pieces into place, and the second half is the mission itself, which always starts out smooth as whipped butter and soon turns to disaster. In this case, it's because Matherson pulls his support at the last minute, choosing Limbani's successor over the man he's just paid to have rescued. Their plane literally leaves them at the airstrip.

Faulkner's first recruit is Rafer Janders (Harris), a logistical whiz and military tactician. A man of conscience, he regrets having used his skills at the behest of unworthy dictators, and has settled into a contented life as an art dealer, raising a young son, Emile, alone after his much-younger French wife abandoned them. So beneficent is Rafer, he refuses to speak an ill word about his former lover. He's convinced to join because of Limbani's status as "the real thing" who will help his nation.

Moore turns up as Shawn Fynn, a rakish ladies' man who has fallen onto working for the local mob -- or "mah-fia," as they pronounce it in the British lilt. Other than a sequence where he kills a mobster's jerk kid and then briefly has a contract put out on his head, Fynn doesn't really serve much purpose in the story.

There's a ridiculous part where the hitmen, in the midst of trying to take out Fynn, Rafer and Faulkner, learn the contract has been lifted and suddenly flee away from the scene. Because those sorts of guys would hate to kill someone by accident.

Last, and least, is Krüger as Pieter Coetzee, a white South African who wants to use the money from the job to buy a farm in his homeland and settle down. Pieter has worked for a lot of despots to keep the black man down, and delights in calling Africans "kaffir," which is the roughly the American equivalent of the n-word.

After the rescue has been effected -- in a tightly wound action sequence that is probably the movie's best -- Pieter and Limbani start sniping at each other, with the African eventually convincing the Afrikaner that there are some things worth fighting for. Of course, this epiphany arrives just in time for Pieter to sacrifice himself for Limbani.

Director Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor) and screenwriter Reginald Rose, who adapted the then-unpublished novel by Daniel Carney, seem intent on creating an old-school "adventure film" with some modern themes. That's all well and fine, but they ended up with a straightforward, downbeat piece that plays out like a geriatric swan song.

The film did well overseas but flopped in the U.S., partly due to some studio troubles and partly because of the lack of an American star in the cast. It did spawn a 1985 sequel, which is even more lightly regarded than this film.

The Simbas, the force of supposedly elite African soldiers whom the Wild Geese fight -- I should mention this term is never used during the movie -- end up as a faceless bogeymen who fall down when the good guys shoot them. This is one of those pictures were the villainous bullets rarely (though eventually) find their mark, but the machine guns of the hero can take out four or five of the enemy in one deluge.

"The Wild Geese" has been criticized as racist, mostly because the film shot in South Africa during Apartheid, but also because of the way the Simbas are portrayed. Normally I resist this sort of politicized critique of movies, though here it's rather hard to avoid. 

I would swear that in several shots they used non-African actors or stunt men done up in blackface. And during one scene where they kill the mercenaries' homosexual medic with knives, I clearly heard the cries of chimpanzees on the soundtrack.

About that gay medic: Witty, played by Kenneth Griffith, somehow manages to be both a progressive and regressive icon in one depiction. On the one hand, he's a fairly stereotypical mincing fag, seemingly attracted to every straight man he comes in contact with. He even makes out his will to a beloved proctologist. But he's completely accepted by the other men of the mercenary unit, and he proves himself a brave and capable soldier.

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