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2023 marks the 45th anniversary of The Wild Geese

2023 marks the 45th anniversary of The Wild Geese. Richard Burton, Roger Moore and Richard Harris starred in this action-packed and decidedly old school tale of mercenaries breaking a President out of jail in South Africa.

With some strong personalities on set and political unrest in the background, this was a war movie with conflicts on all sides!

Producer Euan Lloyd was the driving force behind the project. An unpublished novel called The Thin White Line by Daniel Carney had caught his attention. Believing the story would make a rousing big screen adventure flick in the style of Where Eagles Dare, Lloyd launched a mission to get the movie made. It wasn’t easy for him. He reportedly had to mortgage his house, sell his car and generally raid his piggy bank in order to move things along.

The Wild Geese

Acclaimed screenwriter Reginald Rose adapted the book and the title was changed to The Wild Geese. Where did that come from? It has its origins in the late 17th century and the Glorious Revolution.

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During this turbulent time, King James II was replaced by William of Orange. As History notes, the situation “changed how England was governed, giving Parliament more power over the monarchy and planting seeds for the beginnings of a political democracy.”

Wild Geese. Will we see a re-make soon? Lets hope so.

The Catholic James gave way to Protestant William and Mary II, who was the former’s daughter and the latter’s cousin. James had support from a mercenary army, who were Irish and whose name was inspired by wild geese, spotted as the men withdrew from hostilities under a treaty.

The Glorious Revolution is also known as the Bloodless Revolution – not a title you could give the events of the movie that’s for sure!

Michael Hoare, aka Mad Mike, was a British mercenary soldier who years later used the “Wild Geese” symbol for his men in the Congo. Hoare would go on to become involved in the film, which we’ll talk about shortly.

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Euan Lloyd wanted big names, and went to several legendary stars for the lead roles… another task that proved far from straightforward. Burt Lancaster nearly became Captain Rafer Janders, but left when his suggestions to producers didn’t go down well.

Lancaster reportedly wanted the lion’s share of the attention on Janders, who was eventually played by Richard Harris as a third-billed character. Robert Mitchum was also mentioned as someone lined up to take the role.

Burton, Moore and Harris

The main part of Colonel Allen Faulkner, who leads the operation, went to Richard Burton. He became unhappy for various reasons. According to IMDB he disliked the script and the filming. There was also the small matter of alcohol, which he and Harris were rather too fond of.

Measures were put in place to stop them quenching their thirst. Find out what they were later.

Richard Burton in The Longest Day
Richard Burton seen here in a more genteel role in The Longest Day. Drink was his downfall in any guise however.

Cast as Lt Shawn Flynn was Roger Moore, then midway through his tenure as James Bond. Famous for knowing his limits, Moore reportedly asked for less dialogue so as not to compare unfavourably with Burton and Harris. 

Hardy Krüger played Lt Pieter Coetzee. It was an experience he apparently came to regret. For him, director Andrew V McLaglen was all about the action and didn’t focus on the subtleties of the story.

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He went so far as to say that McLaglen butchered his work. Also among the stars was Hollywood icon Stewart Granger, who portrayed Sir Edward Matheson, the man who assigns the mission to Burton’s Faulkner.

Other faces familiar from the big and small screen included Barry Foster, Frank Finlay, Patrick Allen and Jane Hylton. The latter was married to the producer, and represented the very small female contingent of the movie.

This was her final film. Furthermore, a romantic subplot involving Moore’s character was abandoned, leaving the film an even more testosterone-fuelled affair.

Filming with Mercenaries

Some of the cast of The Wild Geese had military training. Whilst Roger Moore was associated with dry Martinis and unruffled suits, he actually dispensed a fair amount of advice to those looking to get into character as soldiers.

Real mercenaries advised on the set of the Movie. Roger Moore said the experience was “terrifying”

Meanwhile, Jack Watson brought his own experience as a former naval instructor to the role of Regimental Sergeant Major Sandy Young.

That said, the movie is all about mercenaries, and who better to convey that than the individuals themselves? Brit Ian Yule spent his life steeped in the military, serving in the Rhodesian Armed Forces and the South African Defence Force.

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Crucially, he’d been employed as a mercenary in the Congo, which made him perfect for The Wild Geese. Who did he serve under? A certain “Mad Mike” Hoare, who was introduced to the production via Yule. Both then worked as technical advisors.

“Mad Mike” Hoare

Speaking to Entertainment Weekly in 2012, Roger Moore described some of the mercenaries on the shoot as “terrifying”. Despite what was seen as a more realistic approach, the movie was criticized in certain quarters for being unconvincing. They maybe wouldn’t want to say that to Yule and Hoare’s faces of course. 

Yule was cast as Sergeant Tosh Donaldson. How did the relative newbie cope with an actor’s life opposite stars like Richards Burton and Harris? Not well, at least initially.

After confessing that he was more than a little intimidated, Burton was supportive of him, and even created a hilarious moment. The Welsh icon made an unscripted quip during a scene, about the situation being like an army medical.

He jokily ordered Yule to take his trousers down, and the consummate soldier did just that, revealing tartan underwear!     

‘Mad Mike’ Hoare was a British mercenary who worked on the film Wild Geese.

Yule had a career in film, though sadly didn’t go on to fame and fortune like Moore and co. His later years saw him selling his medals and returning to the UK.

In poor health, he was hospitalized and passed away in Chichester in 2020. It isn’t clear how old he was when he died. His ex commander Michael Hoare left us that same year, aged 100.


To arm the Wild Geese, the production team needed help from both South Africa, where they filmed under apartheid, and Great Britain. The majority of the kit came from the South African army, but transporting the rest from British shores proved to be a nightmare.

Euan Lloyd realized, if he hadn’t already, that it wasn’t a smooth operation working in a highly controversial location.

IMDB notes some of the vehicles and weapons used during the shoot. Two 1957 Bedford RL 3 ton 4×4 GS trucks and a 1958 Land-Rover 109” Series II were involved in a sequence where a twin engine Cessna 310D attacks a bridge.

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Also noted is the use of a Sterling submachine gun, and Walther 9mm pistols for the principal actors.

The stars weren’t exactly strangers to action pictures. In fact, Richard Harris had crossed paths with real life mercenary and actor Ian Yule before, on Alistair MacLean adaptation Golden Rendezvous (1977), also shot in South Africa.

Booze and Bullets

With Burton and Harris in place, the acting credentials of The Wild Geese were assured. Good behaviour on the other hand…? That was less reliable. Both stars had a reputation for sinking booze and raising hell.

At one point the prolific and frequently inebriated Oliver Reed was mentioned as a possible star. This would have been one party goer too many it seems. Producer Euan Lloyd needed to run as tight a ship as possible, so what did he do?

Pressure from the top brass led to strict conditions being imposed. To mitigate any potential disasters, half the income from each man was held back. Burton and Harris managed this inconvenience in their own way, with a large degree of success by the sounds of it.

Burton reportedly needed hundreds of bottles of Tab to suck down. Harris caved at least once. One drunken and destructive incident took place in the lobby of the Savoy, when the production moved to Twickenham Film Studio in London.

Booze and Ciggies

You may well have thought you were drunk if you saw the pair in action on set. Harris had a coping mechanism to stave off the drink, which was jumping up and down. Burton joined him, and the sight of two legendary actors bouncing in the air must have thrown quite a few passers by.

At the heart of this story however was a serious dependence on drink. Several years later, doctors discovered that Burton’s spinal column was covered in crystallized alcohol.

Richard Harris was a hard man and a hard drinker. He had to curb this during the shoot of Wild Geese.

Someone who arguably had a more pleasant time was Ronald Fraser, who played Sergeant Jock McTaggart. He’d quit drinking and took up what’s best described as recreational smoking in Africa.

Fraser used five cigarette papers per session, according to Roger Moore. His ciggie “was about the size of the inside of a toilet roll,” he told Entertainment Weekly.

When men get together, there tend to be pranks. Harris tried scaring Moore with some rubber snakes in his bed, only for the 007 star to turn the tables.

Moore left a fake snake in Harris’s boot, causing him to scream the way he wanted Moore to! If that sounds childish, then it isn’t surprising. Both Harris and Burton saw The Wild Geese as an excuse to live out their boyhood fantasies of playing soldiers.


Exciting though the film may have been, its production was met with dismay by human rights advocates. South Africa was still in the grip of apartheid and, whilst efforts were made to head off any backlash, the team still faced anger over the movie.

The depiction of South Africans in the picture has been heavily criticized. More scorn followed with the character of Medic Arthur Witty (played by Kenneth Griffith), who’s seen as a gay stereotype.

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Looking back on The Wild Geese and Richard Burton’s contribution to it for the Wales Arts Review in 2021, Gethin Matthews writes of the “fig leaf that on set the production treated everyone equally well.”

South African actors John Kani (Sergeant Jesse Blake) and Winston Ntshona (President Limbani) signed up when they saw the screenplay maybe wasn’t as heavy-handed as the pitch made it seem. Yet this wasn’t enough to prevent people laying into the end product.   

Michael Caine was reportedly approached for a role but refused owing to the political situation. It appeared that Euan Lloyd was lucky to get the talent he did.

There was a particularly intriguing detail about the casting of Kani’s character was looked at for reference when a new Action Man figure was being designed by Palitoy.

Shot Down

The Wild Geese was seen as important enough to receive a Royal charity premiere in London, though this was met with protests over apartheid. It didn’t receive a warm welcome in Ireland either, where placards were waved by human rights campaigners.

Some reviewers hated the movie. Roger Ebert notes that when the stars are onscreen, each one “seems to be trying to make it clear to us that he holds the screenplay in more contempt than the other two.”

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Even so, the box office takings were good, with the sound of Joan Armatrading’s ‘Flight of the Wild Geese’ ringing in audience members’ ears. In 1986, Euan Lloyd produced a sequel, starring Scott Glenn, Barbara Carrera and, surprisingly, Laurence Olivier as Rudolf Hess!

Edward Fox replaced Richard Burton. The latter was due to take part but had sadly passed away.

A remake of The Wild Geese is currently in development. Maybe it’ll be ready in time for the fiftieth anniversary. Happy Birthday to Colonel Faulkner and the team!