Military cinema was in a weird place in the late 1970s; a war-weary America didn’t want to be reminded much even of the wars it had won, and most other countries simply didn’t have the resources to film a big war picture. But there were still a few standouts from this time, especially since during this lull in the Cold War there was an awful lot of skulduggery going on in Africa, with Western mercenary outfits sneaking in and toppling governments, raising bedlam, and usually getting caught and imprisoned more than anything else. One of these soldiers of fortune was Mike Hoare, whose exploits partially inspired a story of aging mercenaries going back to Africa for one last job that might redeem them financially and morally. That story is The Wild Geese, its name itself a reference to Irish mercenaries both past and present.
The story involves Alan Faulkner, a hard-drinking, silver-haired, British mercenary contracted by some bankers in the UK to rescue a deposed leader of a southern African country. The fellow is a lot more forward-thinking that the people who have jailed him, but more importantly, he’ll grant the bankers copper mining rights if he can be returned to power. Faulkner takes the job, recruits his old buddies Rafer Janders, Shawn Flynn, and 47 other fighters for hire. The ones with any experience are over the hill, and the ones fit for fighting are too broke to have any other options. After a brutal re-conditioning regimen, the unit sneaks into enemy territory, rescues the imprisoned president and is promptly double-crossed by their employers, who leave them to the tender mercies of a large enemy army closing in from all sides. These lads aren’t about to let their rescued president die for nothing, and they aren’t about to surrender to a bunch of people not known for taking prisoners. If they want to make it out of this thing, they’ll have to fight their way out.
This is a war movie that often can’t quite find its footing between being a full-bore blood-and-guts war movie, and a movie that wants to send a message about racial equality and the legacy of colonial interference/exploitation in Africa. The Wild Geese can’t really do both, and often opts for the first at the expense of the second, which is too bad. The slower, quieter bits that survived until the final cut at least try to redeem an otherwise cynical adventure about a bunch of freelance killers who flagrantly break international law, are betrayed by even worse rogues than they, and are ultimately decimated by a group of sadistic soldiers who seem to delight in carnage.
And yet, for all of the movie’s shortcomings—its efforts to discuss racism are often clumsy, hamfisted, and offensive—there is a hell of a military adventure movie in here about guys who are the best at what they do and simply can’t give up doing it, even if they know it will kill them.
Or is there?
Sometimes you grow up loving a movie you saw a hundred times as a kid, and it occupies a special place in your mind. Case in point: the Wild Geese, the kind of movie that rotated a lot of cable, and was always available to rent in the video store, a movie that had the feeling of a hidden treasure because nobody could ever remember having seen it in the theatre. (At least, in the United States; it was a big hit in Europe). But as one ages, we sometimes go back to wells that should have been abandoned long ago to relive things that have sustained us for so long. And that’s when it happens: we realize with more informed, adult sensibilities, that something we loved once upon a time was, in fact, a terrible pile of garbage that got by mainly on us not knowing any better.
Such is the case with the Wild Geese, a movie that at the time felt especially hard-hitting and worldly-wise, but in fact was simply a parade of alcoholic British actors who couldn’t be bothered to get into shape for a military movie, and whose idea of commitment to the role was not being hammered every day of shooting. It’s the kind of movie that pretends to bring a white man’s progressive wisdom to the chaos of Africa while showing African soldiers shrieking like baboons. It’s the kind of movie with a gay medic who just won’t stop acting like he can’t decide whether he wants to machine-gun the other men on the field or make out with them. It’s the kind of movie that has only one major black character in it—who symbolizes the optimistic hope for a better future for Africa—and a white guy literally carries him on his back the whole time, and then he dies anyway. It’s the kind of movie that was shot in South Africa during apartheid because there clearly wasn’t anywhere else on a continent that is as large as China, Europe, America and a bunch of other countries combined. It’s the kind of movie that reminds you how old its stars are when they’re running along a taxiing airplane, and the plane is moving at walking speed. It is the kind of movie your father and your uncle liked to watch after a few beers so they can complain about how nobody makes movies like this anymore, without a hint of awareness that they don’t make movies like this anymore for a reason. It’s the kind of movie that you should never have gone back and watched again, and this nagging voice in your head told you that if you did, you’d be sorry. That nagging voice was right. The nagging voice is always right.
It’s the kind of movie where the moment of truth is this: Not every movie you remember liking is worthy of the memory. Some movies, it’s okay to forget you ever saw them.