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"There's a clause in all my contracts, that my liver is to be buried separately, and with honours."—Allen Faulkner
Well we've got no bloody place to run to, so why not stand and fight? And for a cause, for two causes, one, Lembani, he's the best there is, words form your own lips. And two... Matheson.—Rafer Janders
A 1978 war movie produced by Euan Lloyd and directed by Andrew V. MacLaglen, based on an unpublished novel titled The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney, later published as The Wild Geese itself after the film's success.
Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) is a retired British Army colonel now making his trade as a mercenary. He is recruited by the magnate Sir Edward Matheson (Stewart Granger) to lead an operation into the fictional African nation of Zembala to rescue President Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), a good leader - all too rare in postcolonial Africa - who has been overthrown by a military coup d'etat. Limbani is still highly regarded by the people of Zembala and Matheson aims to use the threat of his return as a bargaining chip to negotiate favourable mining contracts with the new regime. Chief of the minerals is copper, the taste of blood...
Faulkner assembles a company of fifty mercenaries, led by former comrades Sean Fynn (Roger Moore) and Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), accompanied by Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger) a Boer familiar with the African bush. Parachuting into Zembala after a period training in Swaziland, the mercenaries successfully retrieve Limbani from the prison where he is due to be executed by the dictator in a slick operation that goes off without a hitch - but in the meantime, the wheels of greater machinations are preparing to grind up the mercenaries. Sir Edward Matheson concludes his mining contract with the Zembalan military regime - he now no longer needs Limbani, and if the mercenaries return there is also that distasteful task of paying them that he'd rather not stoop to. He promptly recalls the escape plane, leaving Faulkner and his men stranded hundreds of miles from safety in the depths of Africa, with the Simbas, the deadliest shock troops of the regime's army, closing in... they came for gold, but the Wild Geese now have to struggle for their very survival. There are no pockets in a shroud - but revenge can come from beyond the grave.
The film was an international success, being the fourteenth-highest grossing film of 1978, and might have been placed higher had the collapse of its regional distributor Allied Artists not prevented its penetration of America. The Wild Geese attracted controversy for being filmed in apartheid-era South Africa, with sizeable demonstrations accompanying its London premiere accusing it of racism - this is despite the fact that the film was very popular amongst black South Africans (producer Euan Lloyd even distributed copies of the Soweto Times detailing packed-out cinemas to protestors in an attempt to calm them) and the film bore an even-handed message of reconciliation acknowledging the crimes prepetrated by both whites and blacks in Africa (Limbani says to Coetzee at one point "we have to forgive you for the past, just as you have to forgive us for the present"). Perhaps the very fact that it was even-handed was what annoyed the protestors, but that's a topic for another website.
This film was also reheated for a 1984 Italian knock-off, Code Name: Wild Geese (copying the plot of the film and relocating England and Africa to Hong Kong and the Phillipines) and led to an official 1985 sequel, Wild Geese II. Richard Burton was to reprise his role as Allen Faulkner in the sequel but died before shooting began; instead the actor Edward Fox took the role of "Alex Faulkner", Allen's brother. The sequel was derived from another Daniel Carney novel, The Square Circle, and is notable for being directed by Peter Hunt of On Her Majesty's Secret Service and including a late role for Laurence Olivier as Rudolf Hess... and for being such an unmitigated disastrous flop that it killed Euan Lloyd's producing career. It shouldn't, however, detract from the quality of the original, which remains one of the classics of the war genre.
Contains examples of:
- Ace Pilot: Sean Fynn "can fly anything".
- A Father to His Men: Faulkner. While his personality is rather acerbic, many of the mercenaries join him out of old ties of friendship or loyalty; also, when he returns to England to exact revenge on Matheson he robs him to pay those who fought with him - "I can't even begin to count all the widows and orphans."
- Animated Credits Opening: One fly in the film's ointment, a badly-misjudged attempt to ape the Bond movies with some interminable witless and tuneless warbling from Joan Armatrading.
- Badass Crew: Faulkner, Fynn, Janders and Coetzee.
- Badass Grandpa: Faulkner and Janders.
- Band of Brothers: Even though they're supposedly in this for sordid coin, there is still a fraternal unity to the mercenaries. Many do it out of sheer boredom with civvy street, or a powerful sense of espirit de corps with old comrades, as much as the financial reward - at one point where Faulkner offers his Sergeant-Major an opportunity to take his money and go home, the Sergeant-Major angrily rejects it, considering not accompanying the men he's trained to be an insult. Once the mission is over, a survivor asks Faulkner, "what was it all for, sir?" - as though the money was merely incidental to taking part. The mercenaries also fight wearing the cap-badges of their old Army regiments.
- Bittersweet Ending: The villainous Matheson is killed in the denouement, but it's less a rousing final cheer than a last bitter gasp. Limbani is dead, and so are most of the Wild Geese, including many of Faulkner's friends - their mission achieving little more than nothing. The final scene of the film involves Faulkner meeting Emile; Faulkner promised his father Janders that he would adopt the boy if the latter was killed (as he is, by Faulkner himself - see Mercy Kill below).
- British Education System: Janders' son, Emile, is a polite public schoolboy with fine elocution.
- Bulungi: Zembala
- Buy Them Off: When Faulkner returns to exact revenge on Matheson for his betrayal, he raids Matheson's safe for $500,000 in cash (incidentally half of the mercenaries' agreed fee, to be paid if the mission to rescue Limbani failed - Faulkner remains true to the contract he's signed to the end). Matheson offers Faulkner even more money to let him live, but Faulkner declines.
Matheson: "You're a remarkable man, Faulkner. I suppose you'd better kill me!"
Faulkner: "You're a remarkable man, Sir Edward. So I suppose I'd better had!"
Matheson: "Wait a min__ (Killed Mid-Sentence)
- Dwindling Party: Witty, Coetzee, Young and Janders are named mercenaries killed over the course of the mission, as are most of the other members of the company. Fynn also passes out from blood loss, leaving the suggestion that he died, although he is later revealed to have survived.
- Fair for Its Day: The portrayal of the outrageously swish medic. In spite of being Camp Gay almost to the point of parody, he is portrayed as a brave and capable soldier. Even more surprisingly, the other soldiers all seem to know about his sexuality, and not one of them makes a fuss about it. The closest we get to discrimination is him being called a "faggot" once, by the drill sergeant who called another man a "fuckin' abortion" ten seconds earlier.
- From the Mouths of Babes: Emile:"They said my mother was a whore, and I didn't know what one was, so I laughed: then they told me."
- Grey and Gray Morality: The film avoids making a facile argument about who is responsible for the African continent's woes: rather than blaming it all on the West, no-one is entirely without fault in this situation.
- In Name Only: None of the actors who played in the original film appear in Wild Geese II. The sequel is also very different in tone, being more of an espionage thriller than an action-adventure.
- Irish Priest: In the depths of the African interior you can find Father Geoghagen attending to his parishoners.
- Jerkass: Even before he leaves the mercenaries in the lurch, Matheson is telegraphed as something of an odious chap: he treats Faulkner with naked contempt, even when he's trying to persuade the colonel to work for him!
- Knight in Sour Armor: Rafer Janders. Janders became a mercenary because he wanted to choose the wars he believed in - however, after fighting for so many "freedom fighters" who mutated into dictators just as tyrannical as the oppressors they deposed the moment they sat in the president's chair, he's become dissatisfied. However, the opportunity to help Limbani, an acknowledged good man, allows Janders to rekindle a little of his doused idealism.
- Meaningful Name: Irish mercenary soldiers fighting in European armies throughout the late medieval and early modern periods were referred to as "Wild Geese", the most well-known being an force of Irish Jacobites who became part of the French army following their defeat in the Glorious Revolution and the resultant Treaty of Limerick in 1691. This makes the name doubly appropriate, for just as the original Wild Geese were landless and dispossessed, so is Faulkner - the nature of his work means that he cannot return to Britain and at the start of the film Matheson has to pull some strings to smuggle him through passport control.
- This was also the name occasionally used for his men by mercenary Colonel "Mad" Mike Hoare, who battled communist rebels in the Congo and attempted to overthrow the government of the Seychelles, among other exploits. He was a fervent admirer of the original "Wild Geese" who served in France. He also worked as a technical advisor on the film.
- Mercy Kill: Wounded mercenaries are killed by their comrades, instead of leaving them to be tortured to death by the Simbas. In the dramatic climax to the film, Faulkner also kills his friend Janders, who dies crying his son Emile's name.
- Old Soldier: all of the main cast, to an extent - the mercenary force is composed of Army veterans.
- Post Climax Confrontation: After escaping from Zembala and touching down to cheering crowds in Rhodesia with ths score swelling in the background, you might expect the credits to start to roll: but there's a further reel where Faulkner returns to England to exact revenge on the traitorous Matheson.
- Precision F-Strike: Sergeant-Major Sandy Young. "Get on your feet, you fuckin' abortion!" Even though the opening act of the film deals with gangsters, the dialogue is very well-spoken until the training scenes begin - once the Sergeant-Major begins bawling out his men with apoplectic fury, you appreciate that playtime's over!
- Private Military Contractor: the mercenaries in the film are "soldiers of fortune" rather than a "corporate army". All of them join the venture as individuals, and give the impression of being adventurers more than employees.
- Redshirt Army: Despite being described as elite troops, the Simbas are a seemingly limitless horde - and are similarly gunned down in great numbers by the mercenaries. Slightly subverted in that they do wear down the mercenaries - of the fifty who fly out to rescue Limbani, only eleven escape.
- Smoking Is Cool: Fynn, the suave and handsome mercenary (and who also has the film's only female principal as a girlfriend - there is one other female character, but she's a bit-part with only one line), chomps cigars.
- Spy Fiction: The mercenaries' plan has to be approved by a terse intelligence agent, who is there to ensure that Matheson's operation will turn a profit for U.K. plc.
- The Medic: subverted. Despite the fact that he's a rather faaaaaaaaabulous queen, the mercenaries' medic has few qualms with getting stuck into the thick of it, and his self-sacrifice fighting the Simbas helps Limbani to escape recapture at one point.
- And he is faaaaaaaaaabulous to the end.
- The Strategist: Janders is recruited precisely because he is an expert planner. Even when he declines Faulkner's offer of employment, once Faulkner spreads out a map over the table, he just can't say no...
- Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: a textbook case.
- You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Matheson abandons the mercenaries once he has signed a separate deal with the Zembalan dictator.