The Empty Balcony: The Wild Geese

Seriously, if you want to see this film with no spoilers, do not watch this trailer.

Two years ago, the makers of the film Drive were sued, the claimant arguing that she was deceived into paying to see the film by a misleading trailer. Movie trailers that fib a little bit about plot, and even genre, are not all that uncommon. Besides the trailer for Drive, the trailer for Dead Presidents also made the movie it represented seem like a taut action thriller, which it was not. But trailers like these at least save some surprises for the audience. The trailer for The Wild Geese, Andrew V. McLaglen’s film from 1978, is just a condensed version of the film. It contains so many spoilers that there is hardly any reason to see the movie at all. The kicker is, by so drastically paring down the film into a four-minute commercial, it’s more tense and gripping than the movie itself, which is quite a feat, as it happens.

That makes The Wild Geese sound like a bad movie, which it is not. It is a relic of another era in filmmaking, however, one in which small groups of soldiers engage in impossible derring-do with a film icon in the lead. The violence is usually heavy, with much death, yet is strangely bloodless. And they usually take place during World War II. Usually. The Wild Geese takes place in contemporary Africa, but still resembles many World War II films.

Richard Burton stars as Colonel Allen Faulkner, a mercenary who takes on a job to free Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona), an African president overthrown in a coup, before Limbani is executed. Faulkner assembles his team of fifty aged former soldiers, with Richard Harris, Roger Moore, and Hardy Kruger taking on roles as his officers. After a bit of setup, it’s off to Africa for this paramilitary force, where they begin the raid to free Limbani.

Once this film gets going, it wastes little time, the film being not much more than a running gun battle for half its running time. This pace is breathless, and quite enjoyable. The battle scenes, while violent and with a very high body count, are tame compared to what audiences are accustomed to seeing these days. That may make them easy to dismiss for a viewer new to the film, but I would urge the viewer to appreciate the film’s urgent storytelling in these scenes, without placing too much weight on realism.

If there’s any aspect of this film that isn’t holding up too well over time, it’s the swashbuckling members of the cast. I’ve never seen a more eager bunch of killers. The mission needs to be done and they are going to do it, with esprit de corps to boot. But such is life while watching Richard Burton play the lead in a film like this. Where Eagles Dare, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold…when Burton had a character in his hands whose job it was to carry out a MISSION OF EXTREME IMPORTANCE, he really wallowed in it. Fans of Burton will get their fix with The Wild Geese, but I can see how Burton could turn off other viewers.

Roger Moore received second billing behind Burton, and he did well, despite being in a movie with such mountainous personalities as Burton and Harris. I think he was a little underutilized, in fact. Harris, I think, just wanted to pay for a new house.

The talents of these three men were a bit restricted by the material. There are a few uneasy moments here and there regarding race, but for the most part, The Wild Geese stays very true to film convention regarding military honor and who lives and dies in a war flick. There aren’t any surprises in this one, especially if a viewer has seen the trailer beforehand. Get past the bizarre and misplaced opening theme song by Joan Armatrading, along with all the war movie tropes, and The Wild Geese is a good action film. The idea behind the plot, white mercenaries fooling around with African nations, is so compelling that I would love to see another film in this unique subgenre.