In 1978 ‘the last gentleman producer’ Euan Lloyd made one of the funniest films on record. It was not meant to be funny. The theme was well-tried; a group of retired ex-mercenaries (convicts, special servicemen, cops, gangsters etc.) are rounded up by the star and persuaded to stage one more robbery (war, racetrack heist, bank hold-up etc.). The Dirty Dozen, The Sting, The Wild Bunch are good examples of this style of film.
The Wild Geese was special because Mr Lloyd had gathered to his bosom a group of popular ancients of British Cinema. They were supposed to be old buddies from some kind of SAS-type special force. The problem is that the word ‘old’ is too appropriate. The audience in the cinema in which I had chosen to watch this masterpiece howled with laughter as the methusalehs donned military uniform plus ill-fitting berets and started with a training session in the countryside that would have killed the lot of them in one morning. Starting with the stars, here is the casting list:
Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, Hardy Kruger copped the biggest salaries: they were joined by Jack Watson, Jeff Corey (US), Frank Finlay, Barry Foster, Kenneth Griffith, Patrick Allen, Ronald Fraser and Percy Herbert. There was Stewart Granger in a cameo role as the villain. We can add Euan Lloyd himself to the list. If we add together the age of each actor at the time of filming, we reach the figure of 746 years.
Burton was to be dead in less than six years, and looked like an alcoholic tramp. Moore had three Bond films under his belt, and had four to go. Poor Griffith had to play a man actually eleven years younger.
Granger was sixty-four and wiped the floor with the lot of them, but he did not have to parachute out of aircraft. A middle-aged man seated in front of me actually doubled up on the cinema floor with laughter.
To cap it all, two years later Roger Moore and half the others except Burton did another old-buddies movie with a similar theme called The Sea Wolves in which he played a supposedly still serving Captain in the British Army. Moore struck fifty-four during the filming. David Niven, poor man, was in it, at the age of seventy-one. There would be more falling about in cinemas.
It was not the same in The Dirty Dozen (1967) Lee Marvin might have been 43, but most of his murderous mob were actors under thirty. It was therefore not ridiculous.
A warning to those bloggers who might be susceptible to hysteria or apoplexy while watching a movie; in the first quarter of The Wild Geese there are several scenes of ‘military training’ to get the old dogs into shape before parachuting into Africa to rescue a kidnapped black President from an army camp garrisoned by hundred of extremely fit troopers armed to the teeth with UZIs. The sequence is so funny you might be in danger of seizure. Be warned.