Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and the rest of THE WILD GEESE take flight on Blu-ray/DVD combo from Severin Films.
Ex-patriot British Colonel Allen Faulkner (Burton) is summoned back to England at the request of merchant banker Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger, MOONFLEET) for a lucrative mercenary assignment: to intercept the transfer of deposed Zembalan president Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona, ASHANTI) back across the border to his own country. He was being held in Uganda after being overthrown in a military coup and the people told he was dead, but Uganda threatened to free Limbandi (whose “resurrection” could stoke a civil war). In exchange for the private transfer of Limbani to Zembala for execution, Endolfo has offered the copper concession to which Matherson has a claim. Faulkner, who has the highest respect for the reformist president, sets a steep price for his collaboration (which includes payments to himself and the men he will recruit, or their widows and children). He first seeks out Captain Rafer Janders (Richard Harris, ORCA), who is reluctant to take on an assignment that will separate him from his son Emile (Paul Spurrier, who recently helmed the Thai horror film P.). Recruiting Lieutenant Shawn Flynn (Roger Moore, LIVE AND LET DIE) is more difficult because he’s got a mafia contract out on him after forcing a mobster’s son (DEATH LINE’s David Ladd, son of Alan Ladd) to eat the strychnine-laced heroin he was pushing, but Matherson makes the kid’s uncle (Jeff Corey, TRUE GRIT) an offer he can’t refuse. While Flynn brings in homesick South African Lieutenant Pieter Coetzee (Hardy Kruger, BARRY LYNDON), Faulkner recruits Sergeant Major Sandy Young (Jack Watson, SCHIZO) to bust their fifty-man team into fighting form (the titular “Wild Geese” is a historical reference to Irish soldiers who served as mercenaries in other parts of Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries). Under cover of darkness, they free-fall into the Uganda and extract Limbani, but find their method of getting out of the country cut off when Matherson reaches a new deal with Zembala’s military government; and their mission turns from one of profit to one of survival and payback!
Hailed by Severin’s press release as a 1970s “British version of THE EXPENDABLES”, THE WILD GEESE is (the participants of the audio commentary will admit) one big “Boy’s Own” adventure in which the bad guys aren’t just bad (Granger’s clenched-teeth expression should be a dead giveaway), they’re slimy, and the good guys that go down go down fighting (including Kenneth Griffith’s gay medic – who wills his pay to his favorite proctologist – although his onscreen death is a bit more graphic than some of the other death-by-splattery squibs). The deaths are affecting if not entirely unexpected – sure the men have all made up their wills before the mission, but seasoned viewers know what happens when a character refuses an early exit to stay until the mission is completed, or when another waxes on about his big dream, or when another makes a special request to a friend to look after his kid just in case something happens...). The script is also meaningful in spite of itself, with Limbani’s “Freedom is only a word for a new oppressor” more apparently applicable to an increasing number places in the world other than Africa, and the exchange between Limbani and Coetzee about Africa’s future rather heavy-handed if not for the performances for Ntshona and Kruger who make the most of their two-opposites-thrust-together-finding-a-common-ground cliché subplot. Burton and Harris also have their plot hooks, but Moore seems like a third wheel most for most of the film. Jack Watson, however, will be quite a surprise if you’ve only seen him in stuff like SCHIZO and TOWER OF EVIL.
The opening of the film kind of feels like a Roger Moore-era Bond film with its Maurice Binder title sequence (albeit not as well-designed as the Bond entries), the pop theme song (“Flight of the Wild Geese” by Joan Armatrading, which is much more affecting over the end credits than the opening titles), Moore of course, and editor/second unit director John Glen (who fulfilled these capacities on several early Bond films starting with ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE and would go on to director five consecutive entries starting with FOR YOUR EYES ONLY); however the photography (by THE BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI’s Jack Hildyard), scoring (by Roy Bud, GET CARTER), and the overall look of the film – especially the interior sets – seem more like a sixties film than one made at the tail end of the seventies spiked by language (“Get on your feet, you fuckin' abortion!”) and violence (particularly the body-flinging grenade explosions) that you wouldn’t have expected to see in any seventies British picture. Faulkner’s men also include ex-soldier Percy Herbert (THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE), stage actor John Kani (who had won a Tony in 1975 along with Ntshona for their co-authored Broadway play “Sizwe Banzi is Dead and The Island”, former paratrooper-turned-stuntman Ian Yule (ZULU DAWN), and Kenneth Griffith (THE LION IN WINTER) as the gay medic (who wills his pay to his favorite proctologist). Producer Euan Lloyd’s daughter Rosalind Lloyd (INSEMINOID) has the nominal female lead – she’s in two scenes and has the only slightly more dialogue than her mother Jane Hylton (THE MANSTER), who plays Sandy’s wife in one scene – FRENZY’s Barry Foster plays Matherson’s resourceful secretary, and the always-entertaining Frank Finlay (LIFEFORCE) appears late in the film as a local missionary (“Good luck to you, godless murderers!”).
Somehow this British/Swiss co-production fell into the hands of Spanish company Victory Films in 2004 (along with Richard Fleischer’s ASHANTI – also streeting the same day as this film from Severin in a combo edition – and ZULU DAWN which Severin will be releasing in January). Severin’s Blu-ray specs may make fans of the format bristle. The 1080p 24-fps 1.80:1 widescreen image is encoded in MPEG-2 which can be good at high bitrates; but the film is over two hours and the on a BD25 disc stacked with an hour and a half of extras. The audio is encoded in lossy Dolby Digital (the same 192 kbps track as heard on the DVD) and bears a trace of noise reduction on the high end (particularly noticeable during the louder musical passages). The HD image is clean and colorful, but more than a little noisy (as opposed to grainy) during dark scenes and on solid blocks of color (there may also be some split-second blocking during the explosions). Some of this may be the fault of the MPEG-2 encoding and low bitrate – which hovers around 17 mbps, just about four times the DVD bitrate – or filtering performed on the HD master by the licensors (recall Victory Films’ DNR’d masters of the Spanish horror titles they licensed to BCI). Unnecessarily (given that they have a 1080p24 master), Severin’s dual-layer DVD is interlaced, but it’s still an improvement over the previous non-anamorphic American DVD from Tango Entertainment by virtue of its new extras and anamorphic transfer. The Dolby Digital 2.0 track is perfectly serviceable, but one imagines that the uncompressed track would have more depth. The Victory Films master featured an alternate credit citing the film as a “Euan Lloyd’s and Erwin C. Dietrich’s production of” but Severin has replaced this with the original “Euan Lloyd’s production of” credit. Dietrich – producer behind a number of Jess Franco’s late seventies German productions (and director of a handful of softcore and hardcore German erotic films that imported the likes of Lina Romay and Brigitte Lahaie) – followed up THE WILD GEESE with the lower-budgeted CODENAME: WILD GEESE, COMMANDO LEOPARD, and THE COMMANDER (all three starring Lewis Collins who lost out to Roger Moore as Bond and had one of the lead roles in the British Criminal Intelligence series THE PROFESSIONALS and had been cast by Lloyd in WHO DARES WINS) while Lloyd himself produced WILD GEESE II in 1985 (from Daniel Carney’s novel “The Square Circle” which was published here as “The Return of the Wild Geese”) with Edward Fox as Faulkner and the Bond series’ other editor Peter Hunt directing.
Carried over from the previous US DVD (as well as several of the import editions) is the audio commentary (with producer Euan Lloyd, Moore, and editor John Glen), a 2004 documentary on Lloyd, and a Royal Charity Premiere Newsreel (7:15). On the commentary track, Lloyd reveals that director Andrew V. McLaglen (CHISUM) was recommended to him by John Ford years before when he expressed a desire to produce a western, and that United Artists wanted another director (who it turns out found the script unfilmable, so Lloyd decided to lose the initial US distribution deal rather than allow the director – who he respectfully does not identify – to do any rewrites [the film was eventually released stateside by Allied Artists]). He had Burton and Moore in mind from the start, but initially approached Burt Lancaster for the Janders role (and was warned that Lancaster would demand changes to make his role bigger, which he indeed did). When Harris was suggested, he was reluctant to hire him because of his drinking (Harris apparently had not enhanced his reputation on the previous film he did in South Africa), but Harris agreed to take a salary cut (if Lloyd did as well) and stayed on the wagon with one exception. Joseph Cotton was Lloyd’s original choice for the Matherson role but scheduling conflicts caused him to consult his old Hollywood address books where he came across Granger (who had not made a film in several years), and Peter Van Eyck and Curd Jurgens were originally considered for the role of Coetzee (he also mentions that the American producers had O.J. Simpson in mind for Roger Moore’s role because the script described his character as “Black Irish”). Stephen Boyd was also originally cast as Sandy, but was replaced by Watson when he died suddenly at a “ridiculously young age”. Although it at first seems as though the three participants are recorded separately, one realizes that Moore and Glen are indeed present at the same time and have patiently deferred to Lloyd as he outlines how the project came into fruition. Moore talks more about the other cast members than himself, elaborating on Percy Herbert’s (THE GUNS OF NAVARRONE) wartime experiences, Kenneth Griffith’s TV work, Burton’s idea to add another scene with Moore to the ending, and Harris’ single instance of falling off the wagon (as well as Ronald Fraser giving up the bottle for apple chips). Glen describes the difficulties of working with a cameraman “on the wrong side of fifty” as well as working around malfunctioning radios, and the technical aspects of the second unit work.
“The Last of the Gentleman Producers: The Life and Works of Euan Lloyd” (37:14) features reflections on Lloyd from Roger Moore, Ingrid Pitt (WILD GEESE II), John Glen, Kenneth Griffith, daughter Rosalind Lloyd, singer Joan Armatrading, producer Norman Spencer (CRY FREEDOM), and cinematographer Sir Sydney Samuelson (WHO DARES WINS). Lloyd himself talks about the influence of westerns on his film career, his first film-related job as assistant manager of a local cinema, his work as a publicist at Rank’s Eagle-Lion (which focused on selling British films to America), and meeting Albert Brocoli and Irving Allen (whose partnership split over the latter’s disinterest in the Bond series) via Alan Ladd (who agreed to do a picture if Brocoli and Allen would get Lloyd out of publicity and into production). He became co-producer on actor Richard Widmark’s first independent picture THE SECRET WAYS followed by Bond director Terence Young’s POPPIES ARE ALSO FLOWERS, and so on. Ladd also introduced Lloyd to western author Louis L’Amour, who gave him a free three-year option on any of his unfilmed books (he chose SHALAKO which would star Sean Connery and Senta Berger [Brigitte Bardot replaced her]), which he followed up with another L’Amour adaptation: CATLOW and then the Spanish/Italian/British THE MAN CALLED NOON and so on. A healthy chunk is devoted to THE WILD GEESE, the premiere of which prompted a demonstration due to Lloyd’s reputation as a right-winger. The remainder of the program covers THE SEA WOLVES (the highlight of which is a story about losing Diana Rigg because Roger Moore’s wife objected), WHO DARES WINS (in which he cast Judy Davis [MY BRILLIANT CAREER] who attacked the film after its release), and WILD GEESE II. The featurette is narrated by actress Linda Hayden (BLOOD ON SATAN’S CLAW).
New to US DVD and Blu-ray (but not to some of the imports) is the vintage making-of featurette “Stars’ Wars” (24:34), full of ballyhoo about the supposed factual basis behind the plot, the unexplored (in cinema) concept of mercenaries, what attracted the four stars to the project, training the actors “like real-life mercenaries”, the local casting, advisor Mike Hoare’s real-life exploits and his training of the actors, and Roger Moore having to take Harris and Kruger aside for additional training. The shoot also fell on Roger Moore’s fiftieth birthday, so we get some disco bonfire party footage, as well as footage of the stars lounging at a nearby resort where they were staying with their families. Glen, rather than Moore, is used to make a casual reference to the Bond series. Exclusive to the Severin DVD and Blu-ray are new interviews with director Andrew V. McLagen (15:47) and military advisor Mike Hoare (9:50). McLaglen talks about his earlier films – including five with John Wayne – growing up in Hollywood (his father was actor Victor McLaglen who was in Wayne’s THE QUIET MAN), working with Richard Burton and Richard Harris (emphasizing their sobriety during shooting, and suggesting that they wanted to make good impressions on their significant others who were on set), replacing Stephen Boyd with Jack Watson, the film’s most dramatic scene, it’s perfect ending, and its royal premiere. Hoare, now 92, reads an account of his experiences as a mercenary in the Congo before describing his work on THE WILD GEESE ensuring accurate portrayals of the profession of soldiering. He also discusses touring and promoting the film in America with Lloyd and finishes by describing the books he has written on his experiences. A trailer for the film (3:44) – so obviously squeezed to 4:3 on both the DVD and Blu-ray (but oddly not when excerpted in the McLaglen interview) – rounds out the package. (Eric Cotenas)
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