Mercenaries don’t usually get to leave a legacy. Instead they tend to leave a big bar bill and bodies on the floor. However, personally, I don’t really see the problem with mercenaries: if you’ve spent years risking your life for money in the name of the country you love how better to extend and profit from your hard earned skills than to sell them on to the next highest bidder? Forget about guilt and scruples, because the government you worked for before probably wasn’t a great deal higher up the moral ladder than the buggers you’re working for now, and the camaraderie and excitement doubtless beats working the night shift as a security guard in a warehouse near Staines. But if you want to have your name in lights then don’t try the mercenary business because generally speaking wherever you’ve just been you weren’t supposed to be there. There are a few exceptions.
Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare died a few days ago and he was about as famous a mercenary as any mercenary will ever get to be. His off-the-clock career took in both highs and lows but his most significant achievement to this wide-eyed writer was to inspire ‘The Wild Geese’, one of the best films ever. I hesitate to use words like artistic or masterful or even accomplished because ‘The Wild Geese’ is none of those things. If films were food then this is not fancy pants haute cuisine; a seared unicorn fillet served on a bed of polar bear liver jus infused quinoa etc. It’s more like steak and chips or a decent bacon sarnie – functional, tasty, comforting and filling; and when you’re done you’ll probably fancy another. I love ‘The Wild Geese’, and until I write my long overdue love letter to Richard Burton this will have to do as compensation.
I’m not entirely sure how old I was when I first saw it but I’ll have a stab at 10-ish. At that age it seemed disturbingly violent and I was definitely aware that the goofy little twat that I was then was just a tiny bit out of his depth. I didn’t come back to it for years but in a sense that was beneficial because then I could look at it with fresh eyes and see a film that suited me just fine. The introduction to Richard Burton’s character could almost be drawn from a biography, as he hunches up in an airport with a bottle in his hand, years of biological, psychological and Liz Taylor matrimonial corruption etched on his face. He is brilliant throughout; he shows not so much his age but the perils of the life he had led up to this point. A wounded lion, backed into a corner, but you wouldn’t take your chances. Many would claim his cameo in ‘1984’ as his best film swansong but in reality it is in this that he performs his last great act of ham – this is who I am, and you shall remember me as Mr Burton. Yes it’s cheesy, and hammy, but it doesn’t matter because cheese and ham almost always make the best sandwiches.
Then you get Richard Harris and Roger Moore, completing possible the finest triple top billing of any British film, ever. They always shove Hardy Kruger in there too but let’s face it – he’s no Burton, Harris or Moore. And then it all just slides in to place. So effortless and charismatic is the oil that works the engine that the engine never falters. The lines may be clunky at times, the jokes a touch faded, many a dollop of casual 70’s racism and misogyny here and there, but such is the brio stirred into it all that I don’t know why it hasn’t become part of the national curriculum. The plot is daft: a mess of copper and Burundi and greed and some chap called Julius Limbani. The rest of the cast is a glorious go to grab-bag of sit com regulars and old firm British boilers – in another dimension there should be an American version, directed by Sam Peckinpah, and starring Lee Marvin, James Coburn and, inevitably, Warren Oates. Maybe someone one day will dare to remake ‘The Wild Geese’, but it will surely fail for there is nothing there that can be improved on; which is very impressive for a film with so many little, twinkling flaws.
‘The Wild Geese’ falls into that late 70’s/early 80’s fad for boys own action films, from ‘The Eagle Has Landed’ and ‘Who Dares Wins’ (both good, but neither as good). Films like this don’t exist anymore: they are either made too cheaply, with bad CGI and really bad acting or given a stupid budget and somehow still don’t make the grade. Either way you would never get a cast as good; there aren’t three big old actors as uniformly fabulous and relatively ego-lite (repeatedly arguable) that could bear to be on the same bill. Burton and Harris were so keen to be doing it that they laid off the bottle for pretty much the whole shoot, and that is quite something. ‘The Wild Geese’ is perfect evidence that films don’t have to be perfect to be brilliant or brilliant to be perfect and I say this having hung up as much nostalgia as possible on the way in (but, despite myself, I’m still wearing three layers of it). If you want to see film legends and understand how they became so then look no further. ‘The Wild Geese’ is both brilliant and perfect, all in its own way. That’s more than can be said for this post, I just did it a bit for the exercise and a lot for the love. If only I could be mercenary writer; if only I could find someone who’d pay me.
G B Hewitt. 07.02.2020