A review of the Arrow Video Blu-ray, currently £13 on amazon.
This has a great premise for an action film - old, slightly worn out mercenaries coming together for one last job - and has enough unintentional comedy in it to be worth a look. I loved this when I was a bit younger, although never as much as films like Where Eagles Dare or von Ryan's Express, which it consciously imitates. It attempts to update the old style of war adventure film (it was made in 1978), but while it's easy to regard Nazis as villains, when the heroes are killing Africans, it's not quite as hilarious.
A mercenary unit is sent into Africa - in the vicinity of the modern day DRC - to rescue imprisoned President Limbani. They are being bankrolled by a merchant banker who wants to exploit the country's copper reserves. The chief mercenary, Col. Faulkner, puts together a crack unit of soldiers and they head in to rescue their man. Inevitably, things don't quite go to plan, as a betrayal leaves the wild geese stranded in the middle of Africa without an escape route.
As with many favourite adventure mission films (The Great Escape or The Dirty Dozen, for instance), we spend as much time watching the preparation for the mission as the mission itself. There's a great scene where the leaders of the group are recruiting ageing soldiers to accompany them. Although the film is peppered with familiar faces, though, hardly anyone really gets any personality. Demographics pass for character writing in a film like this, so we get the Scottish one, the black one, the one who is obviously too old, and the gay one.
Ah yes, the gay one. It's very odd to have an openly gay character in an action movie (Omar from The Wire is still decades away at this point). Commendably, the character in question - Witty, played by Kenneth Griffith - is every bit as competent at fighting as the other chaps. Less commendably, he's played like John Inman or someone, and is broadly there for us to laugh at. Having a seventies sitcom-style camp gay man running around Africa with a team of mercenaries is absolutely crazy, and doesn't work at all.
Another aspect that doesn't work is the ladled on race stuff. Hardy Kruger plays a South African mercenary. He ends up having to carry the ill President Limbani on his shoulders for a good while. They proceed to have interminable debates about black versus white, about the future of Africa, about apartheid. Presumably these moments are included to make sure we all know that the film isn't racist - the bad guys are black Africans, but it wouldn't be fair to write this off as a white power fantasy. But no film needs a series of interminable dialogues about racism between two under-written characters who are just there to represent points of view, rather than to have personalities. They might as well just have stuck Ebony and Ivory on the soundtrack.
The film isn't very well paced, feeling at least 15 minutes too long. There's surprisingly little actual fighting when it comes down to it, and nowhere near enough explosions. Some of the action scenes are poorly constructed and difficult to follow. But the worst thing is an irritating sense that this film considers itself to be more than just a fun adventure romp. It makes laboured points about white/black relations in Africa and about the exploitation of the continent by European industrial concerns. Unfortunately, by doing it in an action movie it is impossible to take it seriously, and the worthier aspects just weigh the film down.
What it does have is a hell of a cast. Richard Burton looks unnaturally brown as Faulkner, the hard-drinking mercenary leader. He coasts on his Richard Burton mannerisms, as he tended to, but has a natural charisma that makes him watchable in almost anything. Richard Harris plays the more sensitive deputy, and like Burton, relies on his charisma in place of any real acting. The trio of stars is rounded out by Roger Moore, coasting on his usual Bond mannerisms. An early scene in which he acts all tough when confronting some drug dealers is particularly unconvincing.
In support there is Hardy Kruger as the other lead mercenary, and various well-known faces fill out the ranks. Jack Watson (later in Edge of Darkness) is the Sergeant Major, and is badly let down by his inability to swear convincingly. Stewart Granger plays the industrialist with suave nastiness. Barry Foster, usually very reliable, is lousy as Granger's assistant. Frank Finlay turns up towards the end as an irritating priest.
The film also features the worst child actor I think I've ever seen, playing Richard Harris's son Emile. The bit where he's meant to express delight and does so by shouting a feeble 'yahooooooo' is one of the most cringeworthy in film history.
Another diabolical mis-step is the theme song by Joan Armatrading, which is both a terrible song in its own right, and not even remotely relevant to the film. The rest of the incidental music is orchestral stuff by Roy Budd, but he's a long way from his Get Carter peak. The music makes the film feel kind of timeless, but the early London scenes are full of 70s cars and hairstyles. Richard Harris wears a ludicrous pair of gigantic glasses, and Roger Moore's outfits include a leather jacket/cardigan combo and a preposterous checked cap.
All in all, while the film certainly has plenty to be entertained by, its weaknesses probably outweigh its strengths. If you've a nostalgic fondness for the film, like I have, then you'll doubtless enjoy some of it. If not, watch Where Eagles Dare instead.
The Blu-ray is an improvement on DVD quality, but not a huge leap. There's a lot of detail visible, but it doesn't look like they've done very much much to it. I'm happy enough to see the film again, of course, but it's not an essential Blu-ray purchase.
The extras include an entire second feature, an unofficial sequel. Before we get onto that, there are a few other extras. A trailer for the film gives away a lot of important plot details, including most of the climax. It does win points for showing the cover of the novel the film was based on, though, which is absolutely hilarious - a macho looking goose apparently dropping a hand grenade.
There's also a commentary featuring the producer and Roger Moore. It's excruciating - the producer tells long, rambling and very dull stories that go nowhere, while Moore sounds old and doesn't seem to remember much about the film.
The other short extra is a seven-minute Movietonews piece about the film's British premier. Various stars turn up, including a few who aren't in the film (John Mills, for instance). It's kind of funny for its lame commentary. The event was for the benefit of a disability charity, and modern viewers will probably flinch at the use of words like 'handicapped' and (especially) 'spastic'. As with most Arrow releases, the cover art is rubbish, but the sleeve is reversible, with a better option on the other side. A booklet explains a bit about the making of the film, and is pretty good.
**Codename: Wild Gesse**
Wild Geese 2 was made in 1985. It had none of the original cast (Burton was prevented from appearing by his death), but it had Laurence Olivier as Rudolf Hess. I seem to remember it being modestly entertaining. It was at least an official sequel. Codename: Wild Geese, made around the same time, seems not to have been official, although the German producer had distributed the first film in parts of Europe.
In this one, there's a very small team of mercenaries (compared to the 50 in Wild Geese. There are only about six of these guys). They take on missions in East Asia for a British guy based in Hong Kong. He sends them on a mission to destroy some opium belonging to some evil general, a mission that the Americans also want carried out. As in the first film, there are various double-crosses before the film limps to its conclusion.
This is cheap European exploitation all the way, and is in a completely different, much lower league than the big-budget original. It's directed by an Italian, Antonio Margheriti, who had previously directed a very entertaining Apocalypse Now rip-off called The Last Hunter (and various good but less relevant horror movies). Unfortunately, while The Last Hunter is a lot more fun than the films it's ripping off, Codename: Wild Geese is not. There's no connection between it and the first film, although it steals various plot points (e.g. when the mission has inevitably gone wrong and the mercenaries are stumbling through hostile terrain, they stumble across an irritating priest).
The main problem really is that it's too cheap to make an impact. It's painfully obvious that there are hardly any mercenaries in the team. The action scenes are embarrassed and perfunctory and just don't work. We have absolutely no stake in any of the characters, who have even more derisory personalities than the original Wild Geese. Further alienation is provided by the appalling dubbing. Films like this were made for an international market, and were usually shot without sound and dubbed into multiple languages. In this particular film, the English dubbing is dreadful, hardly aligned with the lip movements of the characters at all. Some of the more famous cast members have obviously dubbed their own parts, but others talk so unnaturally they sound like aliens. Whoever they had doing the British characters (I suspect it was all one guy) was particularly poor.
It squanders a hell of a good exploitation cast. The leading man is wooden Lewis Collins, formerly of The Professionals. He's not very interesting, and looks like George Osborne, which naturally makes him unlikable. But he's backed by a cast of stalwarts. Ernest Borgnine is in it, showing off his flabby moobs. Lee van Cleef is the oldest mercenary in the world, but he's still Lee van Cleef, so has some presence. Mimsy Farmer, star of many Italian horror movies (some surprisingly good) turns up to be rescued. She's a bit disappointing, to be honest, and the years had not been kind. Even Klaus Kinski is in it, although he's been dubbed with a completely inappropriate posh English voice.
With a cast like that, it should be a great deal more entertaining than it is. Kinski firing an M-60 at a helicopter with a flame thrower should be a highlight of 80s trash cinema, but instead it's just boring. There's no decent violence, no nudity, and a really lame synth soundtrack. It's a bit of a chore rather than the cheesy delight one had hoped for. There's a very funny car chase, but otherwise not a lot. It's presented in standard definition, and looks OK for a film its age.
It's nice they included the second film, as it adds value to a set that might not quite be worth it at the current price. Wild Geese is cheesy fun, but also overlong and very slightly pompous. Wild Geese 2 would have been a better extra feature, but what the heck. I bought this because of my very fond memories of the main feature. It's not perfect by any means, but it is at least somewhat lovable.