Col. Faulkner arrives in typically aggressive mood at the lavish residence of Sir Edward Matherson and is informed of the plan; a small team of mercenaries will infiltrate a heavily guarded compound and extract Julius Limbani, the imprisoned leader of the opposition in war torn Africa. Accepting the mission he insists on recruiting a couple of old mates, Rafer Janders and Shawn Fynn. Once reunited they enlist a mix of old friends and battle hungry individuals then begin their training, finding themselves on the receiving end of the drill instructor from hell in the shape of another of Faulkner's old comrades, RSM Sandy Young. Then it's on to the mission and that's when the trouble really starts.
The voice of Joan Armatrading is heard over Maurice Binder's opening credits as classic British movie The Wild Geese begins. Based on the book by Daniel Carney, the film is reminiscent of classics like The Dirty Dozen, but is inherently British and all the better for it. These men are no Hollywood heroes; they look grizzled, battle weary, with faces that have seen a lot of action, seen a lot of their friends die in pointless conflicts. Now in an age where the line between right and wrong is blurred these men fight for the one cause that has remained: money. This theme underpins the entire film, with behind the scenes deals affecting the situation out in the field. These soldiers are pawns in a far bigger game, which is motivated by profit, and it is clear that there will not be a happy ending for all concerned.
What secures this film in the status of classic is the casting, with three acting giants of British cinema taking the lead roles. Heading the list is Richard Burton as the cynical, hard drinking mercenary Col. Faulkner. He is superb, dominating the screen at all times and as usual he attacks his dialogue with gusto, throwing his lines out like bullets. Faulkner is a man who has seen it all, a man who doesn't suffer fools gladly and has few morals and Burton appears to be having fun with this character who is appealingly disagreeable. Rafer Janders, expertly played by Richard Harris, is a counterpoint to Burton's apparent immorality and the emotional core of the movie. He is a disillusioned man, a man who once fought for a cause but now tries to forget his past life and concentrate on spending time with his son. Although quite opposite to Burton it is a testament to their acting that you believe these two are firm friends, a friendship forged in the heat of battle no doubt. Completing the trio is Irishman Shawn Fynn who tends to act before he thinks. Sir Roger Moore brings Fynn to life with a harder edge than James Bond, the character he was also playing at the time. Although he doesn't seem to get enough screen time he is a fitting addition to the roster of The Wild Geese, as is German actor Hardy Krüger in the pivotal role of South African Lt. Pieter Coetze. Winston Ntshona is also on hand to lend suitable gravitas to the proceedings with his portrayal of Limbani a man of peace in a battle scarred country. A man who, despite everything, still has a sense of hope for the future of his country.
The whole film is peppered with familiar faces from the British film industry, Stewart Granger brings an arrogant air to the role of Sir Edward Matherson and Jack Watson is truly unforgettable as Sandy Young. But even the greatest of actors can come unstuck with poor material, happily the script is full of unforgettable dialogue – "my liver is to be buried separately, and with honours" – and in particular a monologue delivered by Richard Burton which is a definite highlight of the movie. The film is efficiently directed by Andrew V. McLaglen, a man who worked with the legendary John Ford he never lets the pace flag, and assisted by John Glen creates some memorable set pieces, from the tense covert infiltration to full scale battles. All this is accompanied by the suitably militaristic themes conjured up by film composer Roy Budd, a name familiar to fans of Get Carter. It fits the film perfectly during the action sequences as well as in some of the more emotional moments when he uses subtler cues.
The Wild Geese is a classic slice of seventies action adventure, with a cast of UK movie legends, support from a host of familiar faces, memorable dialogue and impressive action scenes. Amidst the bullets and blood the script does shoehorn in some political issues concerning Africa, which may be slightly unpalatable to a modern audience. But it doesn't really intrude on the telling of a great action adventure. As the saying goes: "they don't make 'em like this anymore!"