“Their home is the battlefield. Their calling is war. Their only loyalty is to each other.
They are The Wild Geese – the best **** mercenaries in the business.”
A lone mercenary weaves his way through the African bush. Close behind, their approach frighteningly loud, a squad of bloodthirsty Simbas crashes through the undergrowth, steadily gaining ground on their quarry. It is a life or death moment. With seconds to spare the mercenary piles into the overhanging branches of a nearby tree, then flings himself to the ground. Moments later he unleashes a merciless, murderous fusillade of fire followed almost immediately by a grenade, which explodes with devastating effect. As bodies crash to the earth the sounds of battle die away. A voice breaks the mood: “Cut. That’s a print. Thank you, Richard.”
The mercenary drags himself to his feet. His beret bears the cap badge of the Welsh Fusiliers. His uniform denotes his rank – that of colonel. His face is unmistakable: he is acting legend Richard Burton, and today has been a tough shoot. It is 120 degrees in the shade in Tshipise, Northern Transvaal, and Burton’s hand reaches out for a cold drink. For this old soldier, war is over for the day. Battle will recommence tomorrow in the burning African sun as Burton, playing Colonel Allen Faulkner, leads 50 mercenaries in a desperate do-or-die fight for a blockbuster called The Wild Geese.
In the pantheon of war films The Wild Geese is undoubtedly the best mercenary movie ever made. With the majority of its cast either dead or well into their dotage, and with rumours spreading over the possibility of a remake, the time has come to reconsider one of the great action classics of the 20th century and its bloody roots in the heart of darkest Africa. By 1976 the brutal civil war in the Congo had been over for almost ten years, but the exploits of the mercenary soldiers who had been hired to restore the rightful government, and who saved hundreds of Europeans from being butchered by marauding Simba rebels, had become modern myth.
Colonel Mike Hoare, pictured on location for The Wild Geese.
Their leader had been Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare, a former British Army officer who had created 5 Commando, a well-disciplined unit of white mercenaries – known as The Wild Geese – at the request of President Moise Tshombe, Congo’s legitimate leader. In the space of a few weeks Hoare and his men had put down a rebellion and restored some semblance of order to the Congo and its principal city, Stanleyville. Their courage, guile, resourcefulness and speed of attack, combined with Hoare’s leadership and strategy, made them heroes in the eyes of many – and prime fodder for a rousing novel.
So it was that Hoare and his men became the basis of The Wild Geese, a thrilling novel written by a 33-year-old Rhodesian, Daniel Carney, in 1977. Formerly an officer with the British South African Police, Carney divided his time between writing and defending Rhodesia’s borders against guerrilla attacks. He was perfectly placed to create a story about mercenaries – an African phenomenon during the 1960s, and one that continued to reverberate into the Seventies. The story – 50 crack mercenaries snatch a deposed African president from a bloodthirsty dictator in a daring raid but are left high and dry when betrayed by their sinister paymaster – would become a best-seller.
Carney’s book, then known as The Thin White Line, was still in manuscript form when it landed on the desk of 53-year-old British producer Euan Lloyd in the mid-1970s.
Euan Lloyd, producer of The Wild Geese.
Lloyd, a producer and old-fashioned showman whose films had included the westerns Shalako and Catlow, the thriller A Man Called Noon and the drama Paper Tiger, read the proofs in one sitting. Instinctively he recognised within it all the hallmarks of a hit movie: a tremendously exciting story, believable characters, heroes and villains and, above all else, the conflict of good versus evil. Within days he had bought the film rights from an ecstatic Carney, who had originally consigned the book to a dusty shelf after it was deemed “too violent” by his agent.
The book was the epic adventure Lloyd had been seeking ever since he became a producer. Swiftly he hired Reginald Rose, the acclaimed author of 12 Angry Men, to write the screenplay. Next came the cast. Top of the list to play the hard-drinking veteran Irish mercenary Allen Faulkner was Richard Burton. To his astonishment shortly thereafter Lloyd received a call from Burton’s agent, Robbie Lantz. The conversation was short and to the point. “Mr Lloyd, Richard Burton has to do this picture.” Burton, then on the rebound from the disastrous Exorcist II: The Heretic, quickly came on board.
With Burton, still a bankable star name despite his well-publicised battles with the booze, and the solid and reliable Rose, Lloyd knew he had the makings of something special. To play Faulkner’s friend and strategist Rafer Janders, Lloyd turned to Burt Lancaster. The-then 63-year-old Hollywood legend expressed interest in the script but Lloyd walked away from any deal when Lancaster suggested the storyline be altered to make Janders – and Lancaster – the focus of the picture. Instead he cast Richard Harris, like Burton another hellraiser and an actor whose reputation was in tatters following a succession of drunken shenanigans on a previous Africa-based film, Golden Rendezvous.
Hardy Kruger (with crossbow), Richard Burton and Richard Harris.
“It’s a good property, it really is, but Richard Burton and Richard Harris in the same movie… Jeez, you’ll never finish it,” said Lloyd’s business cronies. “It’ll be a disaster. Don’t do it.” Nevertheless he persevered, and concluded his casting coup with the inclusion of Roger Moore, aka James Bond Mark III and a substantial star in his own right. With so much star power under his belt Lloyd expected the major studios to fall at his feet. Instead they fled. “Hollywood resisted, all of them, except for one studio: United Artists,” recalls Lloyd today. “They stayed in. They saw the possibilities of that combination – the three big stars. Later Hardy Kruger was a plus. One big meeting was meant to close the deal.”
For his director Lloyd recalled a one-off conversation with John Ford who, in loyalty and friendship, had championed his protégé Andrew V. McLaglen when Lloyd had met him in the late 1960s. “There’s a young fella who’s going to make a great movie one day. A big picture, I promise you. He’s good. He’s a general in the field, and that’s what you need,” said Ford. In the years since working with Ford McLaglen had made a name for himself as the director of several tidy John Wayne vehicles, among them Hellfighters and Chisum. Lloyd thought him perfect to handle Burton, Harris and Co, and he was offered the job in spite of strong opposition from United Artists, who pressured him to dump McLaglen in favour of Michael Winner. Lloyd passed and the deal collapsed. Instead Lloyd came to an arrangement with Allied Artists. The Wild Geese were ready to fly.
Colonel Mike Hoare (left) and director Andrew V McLaglen on location for The Wild Geese.
Lloyd and McLaglen hired other familiar names and famous faces. German star Hardy Kruger would play white supremacist Pieter Coetzee. Ageing matinee idol Stewart Granger was persuaded to return from semi-retirement in Spain to play villainous banker Sir Edward Matherson. Jack Watson, tough-nut soldier in any number of war films, was hard-as-nails RSM Sandy Young. Kenneth Griffith was the homosexual medic, Witty. Other mercenaries were played by Percy Herbert, Brook Williams, Ronald Fraser, Stanley Baker’s 19-year-old son, Glyn, South African theatre star John Kani and professional soldier Ian Yule.
“I wanted the group of mercenaries who backed up the officers to be not over-the-hill but towards the end of their life,” recalls Lloyd. “I wanted a mixed bag of men and a lot of familiar faces to play those parts. I had one major disappointment in doing so. Stephen Boyd was one of my favourites. I used him in a number of pictures and I had him in mind to play the sergeant major. To this day I believe he would have been wonderful. Then he dropped dead on a golf course just before the film.” Tight-lipped Jack Watson, then aged 62 and 17 years Boyd’s senior, played the role instead.
Carney had set his story in a Congo-esque African country, so Lloyd, McLaglen, Burton and the rest were locked into shooting the movie on the dark continent. The choice of the location was vital, and Lloyd scoured South Africa having failed to find what he wanted in any neighbouring country including Kenya and Tanzania. “I looked at them all. They were all corrupt. They all had terrible problems and I couldn’t possibly take those people with that responsibility into an environment that was too risky. So I went to South Africa and was vilified for doing so later by all kinds of left-wing groups, but it was the perfect place. I flew in patterns over Northern Transvaal and, from the air, I knew we’d found the right place. The locations were absolutely ideal,” says Lloyd. He settled on the spa town of Tshipise, close to the Mozambique border.
During location scouting in South Africa word got out that a major mercenary movie was on the cards. Among those who offered their services was Ian Yule, a former real-life soldier of fortune who had served in the Congo at the tail end of the war. It was 44-year-old Yule, then living in Johannesburg, who was instrumental in putting Lloyd in touch with ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare. Yule contacted Hoare, set up an appointment with Lloyd and sat outside Lloyd’s hotel suite while the moviemaker and the mercenary talked. Hoare agreed to join the film, and Lloyd was delighted. Hoare then showed his loyalty to Yule by volunteering him as his assistant and weapons expert on the film, which is how Yule ended up fulfilling two roles: supporting actor and weapons instructor.
Ian Yule as Tosh
“I ended up doing all the legwork, which was a very stupid thing to do,” recalls Yule today. “You don’t wear two hats on a big picture because you’re gonna upset people. It was never officially announced and I never got a credit for it, so on the picture half the guys thought I was interfering.” The name of Mike Hoare, the Congo’s legendary hero, added an extra cachet to the making of the movie when he was announced as special military advisor. What’s more, it soon became clear to one and all that Burton’s character was a thinly veiled version of Hoare himself.
In the liberal environment of the Wild Geese unit blacks and whites would work together in harmony. In hiring a fully integrated cast and crew Lloyd broke all kinds of barriers in apartheid era South Africa – especially when it came down to including Tony Award-winning Broadway stars John Kani and Winston Ntshona, playing sergeant and president, respectively, within the tight-knit group of principal actors that included Burton, Moore, Harris and Kruger. “Euan Lloyd was very bold,” says John Kani. “It was a major breakthrough for black actors and it blew a lot of people’s minds, especially white people. To see us standing shoulder-to-shoulder with great stars like Richard Burton or Roger Moore of the Bond movies burst the bubble that ‘blacks can’t be actors’. It was an incredibly bold move for him to do it in South Africa – especially because [in the movie] he was going to put a black president in control. That for me was the biggest challenge – for him to say that to South Africans, who were racist and believed in white superiority.”
John Kani as Jesse Blake and Winston Ntshona as President Julius Limbani.
It was – and remains – a perfect cast: four international superstars, a clutch of superb character actors and two black Africans with an enviable theatrical pedigree. Together with Lloyd and McLaglen they would create one of the most memorable, star-studded adventure movies of the 1970s. The making of The Wild Geese, with its relentless, pulse-pounding action sequences was, in its way, every bit as complex as the staging of a real military campaign. For producer Euan Lloyd and director Andrew V. McLaglen, the casting and co-ordinating of the picture came relatively easily; controlling world-class boozers like Richard Burton and Richard Harris did not.
In Burton’s case, a new wife in the statuesque shape of Suzy Hunt meant he was resolutely on the wagon. Harris was a different matter. “I want to shoot down in flames everyone who’s said something to the contrary. The truth is that on that picture Richard Burton and Richard Harris – we called them Richard the First and Richard the Second – were dry from day one to the end,” says Lloyd adamantly. “Andrew had to sign a chit at the end of every day saying ‘Richard Harris has this day performed to contract’. That would be sent by Telex to London. One day Richard the Second came to me on the set looking like death. He said ‘Guv’nor, I was a bad boy last night. I fell off the wagon. It won’t happen again.’ And it didn’t. It takes a big man to do that.”
Two of the first people to fly into Tshipise were McLaglen and Roger Moore. The Government-controlled compound where the cast and crew would be housed boasted spacious chalet-style rondavels. Immediately, McLaglen grabbed the biggest one for himself. Then, like a general, he set about drawing up strategies to win his war. It helped to do so with a drink in his hand. It didn’t go unnoticed… “The first weekend we were there Roger said ‘I’ve got a bottle of Jack Daniels. Shall we have dinner and have a little taste?’ So Roger and I had a few drinks. The next day Burton said ‘The only people I know on this outfit that have hangovers are Roger and you!’ He said it laughingly but also wishingly that it had been him, I think.
Roger Moore as Shawn Fynn and Richard Harris as Rafer Janders.
“He was such a good boy [on The Wild Geese]. He didn’t drink a bloody drop during the film. To exist, to keep on living, in that heat, people couldn’t drink. “Richard Harris didn’t drink either. He had hypoglycaemia and said ‘I have a choice: drinking and dying, or living. Naturally I took the living.’ He had a couple of little slips behind the scenes. I knew about them but I didn’t tell anybody. Every single day I had to sign Richard’s report card, like a teacher grading a student. He’d say ‘How’d I do today?’ and I’d say ‘You did great, Richard!’”
The first sequence to be shot in South Africa was a parade ground sequence in which Jack Watson, playing the RSM, runs ragged officers and lower ranks alike. McLaglen remembers it well: “Before the picture started we lined up that whole gang, including the star cast, and put them through their paces – running, hitting the dirt, getting up… I remember Richard Burton throwing himself into the dust! I thought ‘Jesus, this is something people in the outside world ought to see!’ Those guys thought they were in boot camp.”
Parade ground exertion. (Courtesy of Clive Curtis)
Ian Yule, acting as Colonel Mike Hoare’s assistant and unofficial weapons expert, also found himself roped in as sergeant major to train up the actors and extras playing the mercenaries. He took the job seriously, but recognised a gag when he saw one. So when Roger Moore came ambling across the parade square one morning, Yule was ready. Self consciously fingering the long hair at the back of his neck, Moore, playing a captain in the film, asked, “Do you think my hair’s all right, sergeant major? The colonel says it’s all right”, referring to Hoare. With all the menace of a battle-hardened soldier of fortune, Yule leaned in close and delivered a blistering ad-lib: “It might be all right for the colonel, sir, but it’s not all right for me. See that kopje up there? When the sparrow farts tomorrow you will go up there at 05.00 and see a tart with a blunt knife and fork and GET YOUR FUCKING BARNET CUT, SIR! And when you come back, you’re gonna make Kojak look like the laughing fucking cavalier!”
It wasn’t always fun and games. Lloyd’s courageous – perhaps even foolhardy – decision to make his picture with an integrated black and white cast in Apartheid era South Africa led to murderous rumblings. John Kani, the Tony Award-winning theatre star who played Sergeant Jesse Blake, has his own memories. “We were warned ‘Please don’t wander around at night. The whites around here are not happy at all.’ There was a risk that there might be reprisals from the farmers there – that we might be killed. That was the atmosphere,” he says.
The smooth running of the picture was also upset by Mike Hoare, another professional who took the job exceedingly seriously. A career soldier who had run his mercenary unit 5 Commando like a British Army outfit, Kani claims Hoare saw the cast of The Wild Geese almost as imaginary recruits. “ Mike Hoare, the mad colonel, took an incredible interest in me,” says Kani, now aged 54. “He was very fatherly, very caring, with a twitch of a smile, but you were very aware you were in the presence of a very dangerous person. When he was training me he was showing me where to shoot so as not to waste bullets. He took it too serious – he was really making a soldier out of me. It was an assignment. One time I was talking to him and my rifle was next to a tree, away from me. And he screamed at me! He said ‘You are married to that rifle. A soldier never, never puts a weapon down.’ After a couple of scenes the director said ‘My God, you look like the real thing.’”
The Wild Geese also had, at its core, a liberal message amidst the blood and gore of the battlefield – a message that was, according to German star Hardy Kruger, lost in translation. Kruger, playing Boer officer Pieter Coetzee, is one of the few people unhappy with The Wild Geese. While Lloyd considers it his masterpiece and McLaglen describes it as his favourite picture, Kruger, a lover of Africa who lived on the dark continent for many years, claims the subtleties of his role were sacrificed to speed up the film.
“I am disappointed in The Wild Geese. For this kind of a delicate story in Africa with an element of battle in it, there has to be some shoot-out. But Euan Lloyd, a man I respect very much, chose to hire Andrew McLaglen who’s basically a director for westerns. He brought this element into The Wild Geese that didn’t really belong there – the shoot ‘em up cowboy kind of thing. It overwhelmed the basic theme. There are certain directors, and Andrew is one, who, when it comes to the editing, always puts a moment in the film when somebody talks. I’m a listener as an actor – a reactor – and it was very important to me to listen. I played the whole part like that: I’m listening to this black man on my shoulder, and it’s by listening that I’m beginning to understand that I’m the dumb Boer and he’s the intelligent man that we all need. So Andrew butchered my performance by not understanding that you can play a part by listening. My character didn’t come out because you didn’t see the transformation. I don’t know why Euan allowed him to do it…” McLaglen’s response is blunt: “He’s probably got a point, but it just slowed the picture up too much. It had to go.”
If character was trimmed, then action most definitely was not. Four major sequences underpin the thrills, spills and teeth-rattling energy of The Wild Geese: the assault on an enemy barracks, an airport attack, a fiery bridge explosion and the final chase to the Dakota as Faulkner and his men run for their lives. The one everyone remembers is the run to the ‘plane – particularly since Richard Harris saved another actor from being killed. The sequence, with some mercenaries already on board and others sprinting to reach them, concludes with Harris’s character being killed. As the scene was being filmed actor Graham Clark stumbled while attempting to clamber into the moving Dakota. In the finished film it’s barely noticeable. In real life it was terrifying.
Running for the Dakota.
“Harris was screaming!” says Kani. “The wing at the back of the plane was just about to decapitate Clark, so Richard ran and did the most unbelievable rugby tackle – out of the scene – and brought him down as the back wing went over his head. All our eyes bulged. Richard forgot the shot and went to save this boy. Clark would have been decapitated.” Ian Yule agrees with his co-star. “It was soft, river sand, and Graham fell. Harris, about three feet behind him, pulled him from under the wheel of the ‘plane. It’s the most courageous thing I’ve ever seen a star do in my life. I have to take my hat off to Richard Harris because he must have known the dangers, and he just brushed it off.”
The film’s interiors were shot at Twickenham Studios near London. For Ian Yule, the former paratrooper and SAS veteran, this period proved to be the most nerve-wracking of the lot. Carrying the entire scene as Sergeant Tosh Donaldson, Yule experienced a crisis of confidence.
“When we got to London for the recruitment scene, I had a reputation for never ‘drying’,” says Yule. “As I walked in there were Harris, Burton, Moore and Kruger. A voice in my head said ‘What are doing here? You left here as a mercenary; now you’re in front of this lot.’ I just couldn’t remember anything. They had an open set to the left and Andrew said ‘Ian, get a hold of yourself.’ Richard came forward, put his hand on Andrew’s shoulder and said ‘I’ll take care of Ian, don’t worry. We’ll go out the back.’ He said ‘What’s the matter?’ and I told him ‘What am I doing here in front of you lot? I just cannot concentrate. It’s static, it’s all dialogue, and I have to carry the scene.’ Burton said ‘Don’t worry about it. It’ll be all right.’ After ten minutes I’d calmed down and we went to do a rehearsal. I said my opening lines and Burton said ‘Stone me, this is like an army medical. Drop your trousers, Tosh’, which was an ad-lib. He was messing about. I was so wrapped up in it I said ‘Yes sir!’ and took my trousers down. I had a pair of tartan underpants on! Everybody cracked up, and the picture went all over the world.”
“Drop your trousers, Tosh!”
Perhaps the last word should go to Andrew V. McLaglen. With rumours of a remake flying around the movie world, how does he think the film stands up? He smiles. “It was a super movie, though not all critics thought so. I would like to think that it was a great film, and forget the political aspects. It was just a hell of an experience and it’s my favourite picture.”
March 27, 2004. On my 38th birthday I screened The Wild Geese during Bradford Film Festival. Guest of Honour was producer Euan Lloyd, who hadn’t seen the film on screen since 1978.
This feature originally appeared in Impact magazine in 2003. Dedicated to Euan Lloyd, Andrew V McLaglen, Ian Yule, Hardy Kruger, John Glen, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, Clive Curtis, Jazzer Jeyes, the late George Leech, Joan Armatrading – and RICHARD BURTON.