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Film / The Wild Geese

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"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 from 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A 1978 war movie produced by Euan Lloyd and directed by Andrew V. MacLaglen, based on an unpublished novel titled The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney, later published as The Wild Geese itself after the film's success.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 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 perpetrated 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").

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 Philippines) 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.

Spawned an unofficial Foreign Remake by Shaw Brothers, Mercenaries from Hong Kong.

Contains examples of:

  • Ace Pilot: Sean Fynn "can fly anything". He even manages to fly a plane despite being shot in the leg.
  • Adaptational Alternate Ending: The book ends with the mercenaries landing safely in another country and wondering what to do next. The film concludes with Faulkner extracting revenge on Matheson and meeting Janders' son.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: In the book, Matheson was a pleasant, mild-mannered chap. In the film, he's a rude, crooked, odious bastard, who ultimately double-crosses the mercenaries.
  • Adaptational Nationality: Janders was American in the book.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Matheson is much worse than his book counterpart, selling out Limbani and the mercenaries and leaving them to die in Zembala.
  • Adapted Out:
    • Lieutenant Jeremy Chandos, a main character in the book, doesn't appear in the film. A younger officer of Faulkner's team, he's an Irishman, 29 years old, single with no attachments and is a mercenary for the money and the action.
    • Sean Fynn had a Love Interest in the book named Gabriella, or "Gabby". She was going to appear, but it was deemed unnecessary and dropped.
  • Agent Peacock: Witty the medic, who is as Camp Gay as they come and still is treated with respect by the rest of the mercenaries.
  • Amoral Afrikaner: Subverted with Coetzee. He starts off rude to Limbani, but then agrees with him that people like him and people like Limbani are both the cause (and must work together to be the solution) of why Africa is in such a bad state, and eventually gets killed protecting the President.
  • Animated Credits Opening: One fly in the film's ointment, a badly-misjudged attempt to ape the Bond movies with a interminable theme tune from Joan Armatrading.
  • Badass Crew: Faulkner, Fynn, Janders and Coetzee.
  • 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 esprit 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.
  • Betrayal by Inaction: President Limbani is overthrown by a military coup. Sir Edward Matheson hires the mercenaries to rescue him in order to use him as a bargaining chip to extract concessions from the new regime. After Limbani is rescued the regime agrees to the concessions and Matheson orders the plane sent to pick up the mercenaries to leave them behind so they can be slaughtered by the regime's forces. The mercenaries spend the rest of the movie trying to escape.
    • Averted in the book. Not only does Matheson have nothing to do with the mercenaries being left behind, but it's done more out of practicality than deliberate betrayal.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: As the Dakota is taxing down the runway, Janders runs to get on but is shot in the leg. Fynn can't stop the plane to let him get on board and the Simbas are rushing towards them, so Janders begs Faulkner to kill him. He does.
  • 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 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).
    • Slightly Averted in the Book. Many of the mercenaries still die (including Faulkner and Janders), but Limbani survives and it's strongly hinted he'll be back with an army to liberate his country.
  • Black Dude Dies First: Averted. Sgt. Jesse Blake (John Kani) actually survives the mission.
  • Boom, Headshot!: Fynn shoots a gangster's bodyguard in the head.
  • Bottomless Magazines: Neither the Wild Geese nor the Simbas are ever seen reloading their machine pistols or assault rifles.
  • 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 too, Sir Edward. So I suppose I'd better had!" (Dramatic Gun Cock)
    Matheson: "Wait a min__ (Killed Mid-Sentence)
  • The Casanova: When trying to track down Fynn before The Mafia does, Faulkner and Janders have to check out nine addresses of ladyfriends he might be staying with, before getting to the dealer at the casino.
  • Chromosome Casting: There are only three female speaking parts in the film.
  • Cigar Chomper: Fynn is always chomping on a cigar even as the mercenaries are infiltrating an enemy base.
  • Combat Pragmatist: Cyanide gas and poison-tipped crossbows are used.
  • Colonel Badass: Faulkner.
  • Coup de Grâce: When the guard in Limbani's cell realises someone has come to break out his prisoner, he turns and fires a bullet at Limbani's head. Fortunately the shot misses.
  • Cruel and Unusual Death:
    • Flynn forces a drug dealer to eat his own heroin...laced with strychnine. He predicts it might take 20 minutes to kill him.
    • Witty is hacked to death by panga knives.
  • Deadly Gas: As they're fighting a war with no Hague Convention, cyanide gas is used to silently kill guards in their sleeping quarters.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Fynn manages to squeeze in a few one liners into tense situations.
  • Death by Adaptation: Sir Edward Matheson, Julius Limbani.
  • Decomposite Character: In the book, Janders was the one who killed a gangster's nephew and hid out above a nightclub. In the film, Fynn takes that role.
  • Dies Wide Open: Sandy does this to Pieter.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Regimental Sergeant-Major Sandy Young, who, as he is training mercenaries, is not tied down by regulation. In the middle of a demanding training session, he kicks the medic and yells, "You screaming faggot, move it before I sew up your arsehole!"
    Young: On your feet, you fucking abortion!
    Trooper: I tried, Sir, I'm dead.
    (The RSM immediately draws his sidearm and fires into the ground a few inches from the trooper's head)
  • Drugs Are Bad: Fynn is furious to learn that he smuggled heroin, especially upon meeting a young addict. He extracts a brutal revenge upon his employers.
  • 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.
  • 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."
  • Force Feeding: Fynn makes a gangster's nephew eat poisoned heroin.
  • 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."
  • Gilligan Cut: Janders turns down the idea of One Last Job. Faulkner claims to accept this, but asks Janders the favour of showing him how he would plan the attack on the prison compound... Cut to Faulkner saying that Janders has come on board.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: The film avoids making an 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.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Two of the three sentries in the guardtowers are asleep.
  • Hitman with a Heart: By his own admission Faulkner works for everyone as long as they pay him, with no moral compass. Nevertheless he frees the other prisoners in Limbani's prison camp by handing them over the keys for their cells!
  • Hollywood Silencer: Notably averted. When discussing taking the prison where Limbani is kept, suppressed weapons are not suggested as a means of eliminating tower sentries or the guards' barracks, acknowledging their limits (actual silent methods are discussed and used). When they are used, they are used for the job they're intended for: eliminating lone sentries away from other people.
  • If I Do Not Return: The night before they go on the mission, Janders asks Faulkner to become a Parental Substitute for his son if anything happens to him. Faulkner says the idea is mad, because when not killing people for money he's an unemployed drunkard. Janders blithely replies that some responsibility might help him then. Janders not only gets killed; it's Faulkner who has to kill him, to stop him from being captured and tortured to death.
  • In the Back: A flashback shows Limbani's bodyguard being stabbed by a spike shoved through his airplane seat. Later when Jesse takes out a guard he reaches over to stab him in the front, perhaps to avert this trope in the audience's mind.
  • Irish Priest: In the depths of the African interior you can find Father Geoghagen attending to his parishioners. He makes his disdain for the mercenaries quite clear.
  • It's Raining Men: The mercenaries parachute from a Hercules commercial cargo plane a good deal more professionally than a group of Old Soldiers with a few weeks refresher training should, landing without so much as a sprained ankle.
  • 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!
    • This is averted in the book, where Matheson is quite well-spoken when dealing with Faulkner and has nothing to do with the mercenaries being left behind.
  • Just Following Orders: The aircrews response to them abandoning everyone to their deaths.
  • Killed Mid-Sentence: Faulkner's final confrontation with Sir Edward Matheson. Sir Edward is so inflated with hauteur that he cannot conceive of there being any threat to himself - the discovery that the murderous mercenary with a gun and grudge is, yes, there to kill him completely baffles Matheson, and he's left stammering "now wait just a minute—!" before Faulkner fires.
  • Knight in Sour Armor: Rafer 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.
  • The Load: President Julius Limbani. He's elderly and not in great shape and one of the characters has to literally carry him on his back. Limbani is nothing but dead weight and is only useful to them if they can get him back alive. In a deliberate bit of irony, the man who is carrying him is a white South African who is (initially at least) pro-Apartheid and he actually says that white people have been carrying black people on their backs for years.
  • Machete Mayhem: The Simbas hack up Witty with them.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Morally Bankrupt Banker: Matheson.
  • My Car Hates Me: A truck breaks down in the middle of the bridge, leaving them vulnerable to an attacking aircraft. Armed with napalm.
  • Never Going Back to Prison: Pieter claims he's already been in jail and doesn't fancy going back.
  • Never Split the Party: But the party is forced to split when a bridge is napalmed, with personnel on either side of it.
  • No Blood for Phlebotinum: In this case, copper.
  • No Sense of Humor: Matherson:
    Matherson: I'm not a humourous man.
    Faulkner: So I've noticed.
  • Not Quite Dead: Limbani In-Universe. After being kidnapped and taken to Uganda, the word was put out that he was dead, but he's actually being held prisoner as a bargaining chip. The Zembala dictator has offered to sell the copper concession (which used to belong to Matherson's company) to Uganda in exchange for Limbani being handed over to be Killed Off for Real.
  • Old Soldier: All of the main cast, to an extent - the mercenary force is composed of Army veterans.
  • Pendulum War: The mercenaries achieve all their goals without a casualty, until they get abandoned at the airfield. Then everything starts to go wrong.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Pieter is racist against blacks, which initially puts him at odds with Limbani.
  • Poisoned Weapons: The mercenaries have to kill the soldiers in the guardtowers without alerting the 200 soldiers in the barracks. They use a crossbow firing hardwood quarrels with cyanide phials attached to the tip, in order to kill them quickly so they won't make a noise. It works, but one dying man falls out of the tower, alerting another guard — fortunately a cyanide-quarrel kills him before he can pull the trigger on his rifle.
  • Post-Climax Confrontation: After escaping from Zembala and touching down to cheering crowds in Rhodesia with the 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.
  • Praetorian Guard: The Simbas are the bodyguard regiment of the President.
  • 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!
  • Price on Their Head: After killing a mob boss' nephew, Fynn has a contract put out on him, forcing him to hide out above a casino. We're not given an estimate, but it's the biggest contract London's ever seen. It takes Matheson's influence to call it off...just as hitmen arrive to kill him.
  • 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.
  • Race Lift:
    • Fynn was described as black-Irish in the script.
    • Pieter Coetzee was originally supposed to be Rhodesian. When Hardy Krüger was cast, the character was made a Boer to explain Kruger's German accent.
  • Rated M for Manly: A Boy's Own adventure story with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore as old-school British mercenaries.
  • "Reason You Suck" Speech:
    • Subverted. At the end, after taking his money, Faulkner tells Matheson that he'd prepared such a speech to give to his treacherous employer. But, when the moment comes, Faulkner says he'd rather just kill Matheson. Which he does.
    • Father Geoghagen starts to give one to Faulkner, but is shouted down. Faulkner admits afterwards to being shook up by it.
  • 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.
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: Just because Fynn works for you doesn't mean you can use him as a drug courier. When he arrives at a delivery address and finds a young girl dying of heroin addiction, he opens the package he was delivering and finds drugs. He does what he can for the girl, then goes back and kills the person he was working for. Before killing him, he does make it clear that "no drugs" was a condition of his employment...
  • Self-Destructive Charge: Coetzee's Heroic Sacrifice is to charge towards a group of Simbas while carrying Limbani and blast them with his rifle... getting hit repeatedly in the chest in return.
  • 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.
  • So Much for Stealth:
    • A crossbow is used to kill the guards in the watchtowers but the second guard falls out of the tower after being shot, alerting the third guard. Fortunately he catches a bolt before he can fire.
    • The shooting starts when a Cuban prisoner reaches for a gun.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Faulkner.
  • 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.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Matherson has a chess set in the room where Faulner finally confronts him. He tells Matherson to go ahead and complete his move.
    Faulkner: That will be mate in two. I'd like to see you get yourself out of that.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: Faulkner & Co.'s general attitude.
  • 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...
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The film's UK trailer gives away the fate of Sandy Young.
  • Training Montage: The first act ends with the mercenaries being put through their paces in a lighthearted montage that show middle-aged men discovering they're not as limber as they used to be.
  • Training the Peaceful Villagers: Subverted; Janders thinks their only chance of survival is rising Limbani's tribesmen against the government. The others think he's nuts but go along, however the idea turns out to be unworkable — the tribesmen don't have the weapons, and with a Simba regiment coming down on them it would be a slaughter. Fortunately the priest (who just wants them off his hands so his parish isn't slaughtered) knows of a Dakota airplane nearby.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: After the mercenaries succeed in their mission, Matheson cuts a deal with the local government, cancels their transport home and abandons them to their fate.
  • Trust Password: When the Rhodesians refuse to let the mercenaries land, Faulkner reads out details of a conference that Limbani attended so the authorities will know they really do have the Not Quite Dead politician on board.
  • Vader Breath: The mercenaries use cyanide gas to kill a room full of sleeping guards. Unfortunately their Vader Breath starts before the mercenaries have put on their gas masks. Nevertheless the laboured breathing of the sleepers suddenly coming to a stop as each dies has a sinister effect.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: Inspired by a mysterious incident in 1968 when a plane full of mercenaries landed in Rhodesia claiming to be carrying a dying African president (speculated to be Moise Tshombe, the exiled Prime Minister of The Democratic Republic of the Congo and former president of the secessionist State of Katanga).
  • Video Credits: The film ends with these.
  • War for Fun and Profit: In this case the mercs are doing it for both, while Matherson is just out for profit.
  • With Due Respect: Despite having a great deal of respect for his commander, RSM Sandy Young gives an awesome version when Colonel Faulkner decides to pay him off so he can go home (he was hired as a Drill Sergeant Nasty to knock them into shape before the mission).
    "Sir! With respect, you can stick the money up your arse that's all I can offer you sir. - I love what I do, I also love these grubby, thickheaded men I trained - you most of all and I expect to be with them and with you because I'm needed. You want to see a REAL revolution? Try and stop me".
  • You Have Outlived Your Usefulness: Matheson abandons the mercenaries once he has signed a separate deal with the Zembalan dictator.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: Witty fends off the Simbas with an Uzi and a knife so Faulkner and others can escape. His final words have plenty of Homoerotic Subtext.
    Witty: My, just look at you big bastards! (pulls out knife) What a bloody shame we can't be friends.

Wild Geese II

Alternative Title(s): Wild Geese II