The Wild Geese 1978 ****

wild geese

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.


The Exorcist II: The Heretic 1977 ***


John Boorman still retains a mystique as one of the great British directors; films like Point Black, Deliverance, or even later work like The General are true classics. Even his Excalibur project now finds itself rehabilitated though referencing by Zack Snyder amongst others. But he was also capable of valuing the idea above the commercial, and that unfettered creative impulse led to such strange work as Zardoz and  The Exorcist II: The Heretic, a truly bizarre film that’s satisfactory neither as a Boorman film or as a sequel to William Friedkin’s horror sensation. Linda Blair returns as an older Regan, and Richard Burton turns up as a priest, but the emphasis moves from religion to science, and telekinesis is a fresh theme that sits uneasily in the mix. Plagues of locusts, James Earl Jones dressed as a giant insect, some weird dream sequences, Africa, there’s a slew of ingredients here but none of them gel, and the real horror must have been amongst Warner executives who watched this potential tent-pole money-spinner crash and burn. That said, The Exorcist II made a decent whack of cash before word got out; it’s a film that, like Zardoz, requires several attempts to mine something worthwhile from before the most earnest critic eventually succumbs to mirth and despair. It takes real talent to make a truly awful movie; viewing Exorcist II is like viewing the ruins of a temple to an unknown god, a brain-boggling, dreamlike, mystifying experience.

Becket 1964 ***


Taking inspiration from Jean Anouihl’s play, Peter Glenville’s 1964 drama derives its story from one of the key clashes between church and state. Henry II (Peter O’Toole) has a great friendship with Thomas Becket (Richard Burton); they enjoy a drink, and carousing with women, even though Thomas has leanings towards the church. Henry imagines that making his friend Archbishop will allow him to have his own behaviors rubber-stamped by the clergy, but he reckons without Thomas Becket’s strong beliefs, and the schism between the two men threatens to tear the roles of state and church apart. Becket as a film clearly plays fast and loose with historical detail, but the heavyweight performances, as well as a brief but impressive appearance from Sir John Gielgud, make for compelling viewing.

Circle of Two 1980 ***


Jules Dassin was a master director (Rififi, The Naked City, Topkapi), and combining him with a major star (Richard Burton) and an up-and-coming starlet (Tatum O’Neal) for a meditation of life and love must have seemed like a great idea. Circle of Two, however, is a misfire of such spectacular proportions that it ends up as near comic genius. Burton plays Ashley St Clair, a painter in his sixties who shuns the canvas for afternoons watching sex-film at his local cinema. Amongst the patrons is Sarah Norton (O’Neal) who is keen to get away from her overprotective family and her stalker boyfriend, and hopes to fashion a romantic idyll with St Clair. Dassin clearly understands that a relationship between a 15 year old and a 60 year old has exploitation potential, even if the connection is chaste and not sexual, and plays in the direction of good taste, washing Circle of Two in glutinous photography, lush music and dialogue that aims to demystify the artistic process but instead provides comic delight in it’s literary floweriness; the monumentally awful ‘Ach, said Bach’ recurring line of dialogue will haunt impressionable audiences forever.

The Man With The Iron Fists 2012 ***


Quentin Tarantino and ElI Roth’s influence is obvious in this wonderfully slapdash martial arts epic from 2012, with writer/director RZA uncorking the gore as limbs, arterial blood and heads fly like silly string in feudal China. With various parties chasing hidden gold, the action centres of the brothel of Madame Blossom, with those pursuing the prize including Blacksmith (RZA), Silver Lion (Byron Mann) and expatriate Brit Jack Knife (Russell Crowe). The plotting doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, but that’s not a problem when the action is so baroque, with Crowe clearly having fun as a kick-ass Richard Burton and Byron Mann sending himself up to great effect as Silver Lion. The Man With The Iron Fists is a better comedy than a thriller, but it captures the cheerful, anything goes feeling of a Shaw Brothers film to good effect, and even if the film lacks a happy centre, there’s a driving will to entertain that pays off in the end.

1984 1984 ****


Filming in the year in which it was set, Michael Radford took on the task of adapting Orwell’s seminal guide to individuality versus totalitarianism, and made the bold move of filming it like a period piece. Focusing on 1984 as Orwell might have imagined it, rather than putting a futuristic sheen on it, Radford gets right to the core of the novel, with John Hurt perfect as downtrodden Winston Smith, and Richard Burton a mighty presence as O’Brian. Suzanna Hamilton is also a good choice for Julia, but it’s Radford’s careful selection of the material that makes 1984 work so well; ironically the Eurythmics singles on the soundtrack seemed to create more of an impression on the pop culture of the time than the film.

Staircase 1969 ***


Charles Dyer’s acerbic play is opened up for the screen by Singing in The Rain director Stanley Donen, with Richard Burton and Rex Harrison stretching their range by playing a gay couple who operate a barbers shop in 1969 London. The endless bitching, mewling and backstabbing of 1960’s gay stereotypes are present, but Donen’s film rises above that, with pathos as the couple fight, re-unite, issue ultimatums and generally bicker their way through some exquisitely arch, camp dialogue that has to be heard to be believed. A theatrical experience, but one with two ‘out-there’ star performances that are well worth seeing.

Equus 1977 ****



Peter Shaffer’s play has been successfully revived with Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe in the lead; in 1977, it was Peter Firth who played Alan Strang, the disturbed boy who comes under scrutiny for blinding several horses. Richard Burton brings all his weight to Martin Dysart, the psychiatrist investigating, delivering straight-to-camera monologues with genuine gravity. How accurately Equus deals with mental health issues is up for debate, but what’s on screen in undeniably compelling, with Sidney Lumet making the best of unfamiliar UK locations and Jenny Agutter excellent is a crucial role.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? 1966 ****


A pre-Graduate Mike Nichols is at the top of his game in this intense, black and white imagining of Edward Albee’s claustrophobic play about a literary couple who invite some younger people over for a memorable dinner. Casting Richard Burton and Elisabeth Taylor as George and Martha creates the kind of sparks that few of their other films could muster, while George Segal and Sandy Dennis are in no way out of their depth as the guests that George and Martha decide to ‘get’.  Uncovering the darker side of on-campus relationships, Nichols’ tight control stops Virginia Woolf turning into a screaming match; instead it’s one of the best cinematic adaptations of a play, making good use of minimal locations and allowing talented performers the space to act up a storm.

Absolution 1981 ***


As well as creating Sleuth and The Wicker Man, Tony Shaffer provided a memorable face off between Richard Burton and Billy Connolly in this neglected 1978 thriller. Set in a Catholic boarding school, Burton plays Father Goddard, a priest torn when his favourite pupil Benjamin (Dominic Guard) makes a confession to him. Benjamin claims to have murdered a drifter called Blakey (Connolly) who has set up camp in the school grounds. His confession is false, but proves to be the first move in a deadly game. Anthony Page directs an intense and complex thriller that makes the most of the unusual setting, and features the ingenious plot twists that Shaffer built his considerable reputation on.