As the success of the recent Expendables movies proves, there are few men-oriented cinema staples as satisfying as the “guys on a mission” movie. It’s worth noting that the explosions and the bullets aren’t the only reason such films are popular. They appeal to male audiences in a way similar to how romantic comedies appeal to female audiences: they present a fantasy that celebrates their gender’s culture and values as something worth fighting for. The main orders of business in a “guys on a mission” movie might be action and suspense but it’s the way they cater to masculine ideals and codes of honor that give them their resonance.
When the balance of excitement and machismo-code exploration is perfectly balanced, the resulting film becomes an evergreen with the “guys’ movies” audience. The Dirty Dozen is perhaps the best known example but The Wild Geese is an equally deserving and memorable pick. It’s got mercenaries, a high stakes mission, a top cast of ’70s-era guy stars and mucho male-bonding. Better yet, it’s made with a level of skill that ensures even those not enamored of macho fare can appreciate its thoroughly professional approach to cinematic excitement.
The premise is classic “guys on a mission” material given an overlay of then-current international politics to freshen it up: Col. Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) is hired by English business kingpin Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) to go to Africa and rescue Limbani (Winston Ntshona), an exiled leader who is due to be executed by the corrupt general that has taken over the country. Faulkner wastes no time in tracking down the two lynchpins he needs for such a mission. The first is Capt. Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), a socially idealistic expert at mission planning, and the second is Lt. Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), a playboy type who is also a highly skilled pilot.
With Janders and Fynn in place, Faulkner puts together a crew of old hands and young novices to undertake training and then launches a daring assault on the African compound when Limbani is being held. The team’s skill and courage serve them well but once they have Limbani, a new set of complications arises and Faulkner discovers that he has led his men into greater danger than anyone imagined. They resolve to fight their way out and keep Limbani alive but they’ve got their work cut out for them – and the odds get stacked higher against them with each passing minute.
The Wild Geese succeeds as a rousing example of guy entertainment because it is as disciplined and methodical as its heroes. Screenwriter Reginald Rose, best known to classic film fans for writing 12 Angry Men, adapts a novel here and gives it a careful structure that primes the audience for excitement in the first half and delivers payoff after payoff in the second half. It takes time to set up its characters during the opening scenes and maintains the arcs of their characterizations throughout, even when the bullets are flying. Better yet, it puts the heroes in a position where their attitudes on loyalty and what is right are put to the test – and shows them rising to the challenge in a rousing style.
Rose’s approach gives a substance to the proceedings that keeps the archetypal war and action movie plot elements fresh and also gives the film a vehicle to make the most of its excellent cast. By this point in their careers, Burton and Harris were becoming better known for hammy performances in lesser films and their love of drinking rather than their talent but both turn in strong work here. Burton is the picture of cool efficiency and Harris offsets him with an idealistic fieriness. Better yet, their charisma plays a big role in adding dimension to these familiar if well-drawn characterizations. Moore does well with a slightly tougher variation on the raffishly charming persona he was perfecting in Bond movies at that time. He holds the screen nicely with his compatriots in his own dryly witty manner.
That said, there is more to the film’s thespian appeal that just those three leads. There’s actually a fourth lead in veteran German actor Hardy Kruger, who plays a South African expat whose racist tendencies make him a reluctant part of the team. He has some memorable dialogue scenes with Ntshona, with both characters coming to respect each other after they exchange philosophical barbs. On that note, Ntshona, brings a quiet dignity to what could have been an expositional role as the endangered leader.
It’s also worth noting that the backing cast is full of scene-stealers, like Frank Finlay as a hot-tempered missionary, Granger as the stylish yet oily businessman who hires Faulkner and David Ladd as a sleazy mobster’s son who gets on Fynn’s bad side. Also worth watching is Kenneth Griffith as a flamboyantly gay medic character: he starts as comic relief but the story allows his character to reveal himself as a genuinely important part of the team who is as tough and brave as any of his comrades.
Finally – and most importantly – the appeal of The Wild Geese is sealed by cracker-jack filmmaking that makes it the crowd-pleaser it was designed to be. It was directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a protege of John Ford who directed many John Wayne vehicles. He brings a steady hand to the helm here, giving the film a tight, carefully-paced sense of Hollywood craftsmanship and getting appropriately macho performances from his cast.
McLaglen is also aided by a bunch of gifted craftsmen who normally worked on Bond films, including production designer Syd Cain, titles designer Maurice Binder and editor/2nd unit director John Glen. Glen in particular pulls off some fantastic action scenes, including a stellar paratrooper jump scene. The cherry on top is a stirring score full of military fanfare by Roy Budd.
To sum up, The Wild Geese delivers all the firepower you’d hope for from a guy-oriented action film – but it’s the likeable characters and its stirring expression of macho ideals that make it a film worth revisiting. If you’re a “guys on a mission” film fan, file this one between The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagles Dare. It is deserving of that fine cinematic company.