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The Wild Geese 1978 ****

As played by Richard Burton, Colonel Allen Faulkner was a thinly disguised version of Captain ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, a celebrated mercenary whose death was announced earlier today at the age of 100. Given the way he was portrayed as alcohol driven (“my liver is to be buried with honours’), a heavy smoker and a general meddler in covert non-government military action, it would have been remarkable if Hoare had lived to half that age; perhaps there’s something to be said for living dangerously.

Taking inspiration from his own upbringing and from Irish history, Hoare’s men liked to be known as the Wild Geese, and Andrew V McLaglan’s super-charged action movie for producer Euan Lloyd was a popular UK tv staple in the 1980’s. A few posters have commented negatively about this widely-seen film, and they’ve got a point. But The Wild Geese, as shown on ITV in time-slots which restricted length and content, was quite a different film to the full uncensored cut; it’s a film that you might think you’ve seen, but there’s more to it that just Boys Own thud and blunder.

ITV film-buyer Leslie Halliwell noted a few breezy touches in the script of this tale of British mercenaries rescuing a beleaguered African president; Halliwell would have known that many of these breezy touches (ie salty swearing) would have to be cut for tv showing. But it’s unforgivable that most tv screenings cut a good half-an-hour from the film. This section of the film dealt specifically with a racially charged relationship between cross-bow whizz Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger) and President Limbani (Winston Ntshona). Coetzee, a veteran of the South African Defence Force, is overtly racist to the African politician, but when Limbani is injured, is forced to carry him on his back. The sheer number of racial epithets used in the featured dialogue would have made it problematic at any time, but censors found it easier to delete outright the several sequences depicting the bond between the men. Kruger later regretted taking part in these scenes, but they’re actually far more progressive than might be expected.

Elsewhere, The Wild Geese takes pot-shots at many targets; Shawn Flynn (Roger Moore) is introduced forcing drug-dealers to eat their own product at gun-point, with the heroin laced with strychnine for added oomph. Captain Rafer Janders (Richard Harris) is characterised mainly through the unfortunate timing of the Wild Geese’s mission, which unfortunately coincides with his son’s school holidays. And there’s a role call of British character actors, from Ronald Fraser to Stewart Granger, Barry Forster, Patrick Allen and Frank Finlay, all uniformed and ready to go down in a blaze of machine-gun fire. Of course, these mercenaries are portrayed as good guys, and Reginald Rose’s script is careful to position them on the right side of any political divide.

Racism, homophobia and patriotism all feature prominently as The Wild Geese get double-crossed, and have to fight their way out of the Congo, blowing up large parts of Rhodesia on the way. With big stars and explosive action, The Wild Geese is fondly remembered today, even if the political content is obscured. Either way, ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare is probably laughing about it right now, in whatever or wherever the place is where mercenaries go to die.

 

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