The Wild Geese 1978 ****

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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.

 

Sherlock Holmes in New York 1976 ***

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Ian Fleming’s short story James Bond in New York is one of the few Bond properties not to have been used in some way; Roger Moore is the link here with Boris Sagal’s sprightly 1976 tv movie, which may not offer much in the way of visual panache, but has some old-school pleasures for those who seek it out.

Moore brings his urban charm to bear on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s super-sleuth, and the novelty of his performance isn’t all that’s going on here. Avengers star Patrick McNee is a Watson very much in the Nigel Bruce mould, while John Huston slices of a thick but rich slice of ham as Moriarty, introduced in the opening scene in a confrontation with a disguised Holmes. Moriarty takes various physical swipes at Holmes with a gadget-packed desk which triggers various trapdoors, projectiles and other deadly instruments which Holmes has, of course, already figured out for himself.

The two don’t meet again until the end, and the tone is never quite so flippant, but there’s still lots of fun in the way that Holmes ventures from London to NYC to see old flame Irene Adler (Charlotte Rampling) who is a grand Broadway dame and not quite the femme fatale expected from the stories. Gig Young is a promoter rejoicing in the name Mortimer McGrew and Santa himself David Huddlestone is Inspector Lestrade. London looks much like New York here in that everywhere looks like a studio lot, but there’s a nice twist involving the building of the NYC subway, and the central mystery, involving the theft of gold bullion, is a really great mystery in that the solution is elegant, guessable but ingenious.

Chuck in a jaunty score by Richard Rodney Bennett and Sherlock Holmes in New York is a more-than-decent oddity, with big-stars, a universally known IP, and a quaint if unspectacular treatment from tv specialist Sagal. It’s a little dry and dusty in places, but the star-power carries it through, and makes it something of a hidden gem.

The Naked Face 1984 ***

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Sidney Sheldon was one of the bestselling novelists of the 20th century; a couple of decades later, and his work has largely been forgotten. The Naked Face was something of a breakthrough novel when published in 1969, with a prescient theme involving psychological profiling in murder cases. By 1984, Sheldon has considered more to be a writer of trashy blockbusters like Masters of the Game rather than a mystery writer, but The Naked Face is a well-plotted thriller, carefully adapted by writer/director Bryan Forbes.

Roger Moore plays Judd Stevens, a Chicago psychiatrist who gets an unpleasant visitation from two cops (Rod Steiger and Elliot Gould). They’re investigating the murder of one of Judd’s patience, and there’s bad blood from a previous encounter when Judd’s testimony got a cop-killer out of a potential jail sentence. Judd refuses to let the police see his confidential files, which only further antagonises them, and turns to an eccentric private detective (Art Carney) to clear his name.

The Naked Face was part of Cannon’s attempts to move from distribution to high-end film-making, and it found few takers on release, perhaps due to a lack of advertising spend. Steiger shouts a lot, while More underplays, and yet the result is quite compelling in places; there’s enough red herrings and plot-twists to divert the mind from Moore’s awful raincoats, smoking jackets and elbow patches. It’s an old-fashioned, dialogue-heavy thriller with good location work; forgotten now, it’s worth exhuming for fans of the mystery genre. The appearance of John Kapelos, the janitor from The Breakfast Club, should be a clincher for cult-movie fans attracted by the Oscar-heavy cast.

 

The Cannonball Run 1 and 2 1981, 1984 ***

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Of course, purists don’t count 1989’s Speed Zone as part of the franchise; only the two Hal Needham films really belong to the world of the cannonballer. Following on from the mid 1970’s cross-country car-chase boom that included Cannonball, Carquake, Grand Theft Auto, The Gumball Rally and more, The Cannonball Run films essentially lifted Burt Reynolds and his good ol’ boy character from the Smokey and the Bandit films and put him amongst a packed, all-star cast for various motorised shenanigans. There’s actually precious little in the way of stunts or action, and the key members of the cast don’t have much to do; Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr waltz around the edges looking frail and unenthused, and the mugging comedy is more likely to come from old-stagers like Charles Nelson Reilly or Jack Elam as it was from top-billed Roger Moore or Frank Sinatra. The latter’s appearance in Cannonball Run II, which features no actual interaction with cast members and appears to have been shot in a different time-zone, is something of a low-point, and the way the cameos are shoe-horned into both films disrupts any narrative tension. But the Cannonball Run films are more interesting in 2019 as a repository of ancient gags and comic turns, from Don Knotts and Tim Conway to Jim Nabors and Doug McClure, The dated jokes about middle-Eastern politics via Jamie Farr’s The Sheik is particularly groan-worthy, but the unfunny antics of Dom DeLuise are a crash-crash all by themselves; the twist is that his rapport with Reynolds, with both seeming to be in a state of severe intoxication, features extensively in the credits/bloopers at the end of the film, and generates more laughs than the scripted material could in a million years.

Gold 1974 ***

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For a bestselling novelist, Wilbur Smith’s work rarely ended up on the big screen: Roger Moore did his best to realize his work, starring with Lee Marvin in 1976’s Shout at The Devil, and also in 1974’s Gold, adapted from Smith’s novel Gold Mine. With many of the crew on a break from the Bond franchise, including director Peter Hunt, professional standards are high in this drama about manly man Rod Slater (Moore) who takes over a South African gold mine only to uncover a plot to flood it, raising the value of gold for his competitors. John Gielgud, Bernard Horsfall and Gordon Jackson are amongst the Brits on board, with Susanna York the romantic interest. Gold builds towards an impressively realized climax, as Slater battles to stop an underground lake from destroying the mine. Filmed on South African locations, somewhat controversially for the time, Gold has resurfaced after a long absence of leave on Amazon Instant.

North Sea Hijack 1980 ***

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For a man with effortless charisma, Roger Moore was rarely satisfied with just exerting his easy-going charm, and is cast somewhat against type in North Sea Hijack, also known by the name of his character Ffolkes. With an odd distaste for women and a penchant for kittens, Ffolkes is called into service when Kramer (Anthony Perkins) leads a terrorist assault on a North Sea oil rig, with James Mason stepping aside to let Ffolkes do his thing. Adapted by Jack Davies from his novel Esther, Ruth and Jennifer (the names of three oil platforms), North Sea Hijack marks another fresh collaboration between Moore and director Andrew V McLaglen, son of Victor, with The Wild Geese and The Sea Wolves also on his CV. A precursor to the Die Hard era for situation-based action, the combination of star and director makes for an enjoyable time-passer for action fans, even if the terrorism on offer is lamentably lo-fi.

The Man Who Haunted Himself 1970 ***

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Roger Moore rarely made great claims for himself as an actor, but he managed to show some considerable skill in the quaintly creepy The Man Who Haunted Himself. Basil Dreaden directs from a short story by Anthony Armstrong, and mild mannered Harold Pelham (Moore) becomes aware of another version of himself after a near fatal car accident. Moore is such a confident player that’s its genuinely unsettling to see Pelham’s sense of reality troubled by the existence of a dopple-ganger, and the lack of a pat explanation only makes the film more haunting. Anton Rogers and Thorley Waters are amongst the support.