Looking Back At THE WILD GEESE - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Looking Back At THE WILD GEESE

Our own soldier of fortune Alexander Wallace accepts a special assignment.
Perhaps the most enduring sort of action movie character after the special forces operative (James Bond being the most well-known example) is the mercenary. These people are soldiers of fortune, willing to kill other people in the name of cold, hard cash. Perhaps that’s why so many find them so interesting; we work at a desk or in front of customers for several hours a day, while they deal in matters of life or death in a very direct way.

This brings us to the 1978 mercenary epic The Wild Geese, directed by Andrew McLagen and starring Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Hardy Krüger, and Roger Moore (who looks like he just stepped out of one of his James Bond movies). Its plot involves a group of former British military men who have been hired to rescue a deposed president of the fictional African country of Zembala on behalf of a rich benefactor.
This seemingly simple plot obscures a number of complexities within the film that add a depth that is rarely seen in movies such as this. For one, there’s an undercurrent of that time-honored saying: “old soldiers never die; they just fade away.” Your major characters are retired soldiers that are no longer in British service and wish to fight again, if only for money. One of them divorces his wife to do so, with the implication that he was stupefyingly bored in civilian life. More poignant is Rafer Janders, who has a very sweet relationship with a young son that is put on hold when he takes the job; he has to cancel a vacation he booked for his son when he accepts the job, and it clearly weighs on him.

The film also has major undertones of the British obsession: social class (incidentally, the fact that this movie feels so British is one of its graces in a genre that is so dominated by Americans). The British armed forces have a long history of exploiting the lower class, with Army recruiters making men in pubs sign enlistment papers while deeply intoxicated. This extends to its mercenaries; in The Wild Geese, these soldiers of fortune are hired by a man with an actual fortune to enact a regime change that is rather obviously done to preserve this rich man’s business interests. Through the film, there is this undercurrent of rich and poor that builds up to a rather brutal, yet just, ending.
The Wild Geese was not uncontroversial at its release in the late 1970s, and can be somewhat uncomfortable viewing today for a few reasons, the most biting being that it was filmed in South Africa when Apartheid was still in sway, and production had support from the South African government. Michael Caine turned down a role in the film for that very reason. It certainly makes a film about regime change by Britons in Africa give you an unpleasant taste in your mouth.

But in fairness, it handles Africa in a way that perhaps isn’t optimal but is better than you would expect from a film of this nature. The Wild Geese most certainly portrays war as horrible and regime change as morally dubious. One of the mercenaries is not British, but an Afrikaner with a rather negative opinion of the majority population of his country. He is forced to consider his worldview when he has to get to know the President of Zembala Julius Limbani (played with pathos by Winston Ntshona, a black South African actor), and the two share some thought-provoking scenes.

The Wild Geese is by no means an unproblematic film, but it is a film with its successes and its graces. There are many ideas under its patina of a brainless action movie, and for that it deserves our consideration. It isn’t always an easy watch, but it can certainly be rewarding.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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