Rufus Excalibur ffolkes is a bearded, curmudgeonly adventurer and anti-terrorism expert who hates woman, loves cats, drinks neat whisky from the neck of the bottle four hours after breakfast and does petit-point to help him think. He also has little tolerance for those who possess lesser intellect than himself. When it’s put to him that he “must be one of those fellows who completes the Times crossword puzzle in ten minutes,” ffolkes replies with contempt, “I have never taken ten minutes!”
That this character is played by Roger Moore may come as something of a surprise, but in between The Spy Who Loved Me (1977) and Moonraker (1979), he starred in two highly entertaining action movies in which he showed that he could be much more than just Simon Templar or James Bond. These were The Wild Geese, a thrilling tale of mercenaries betrayed by big business and the high-seas caper North Sea Hijack, released in the US as ffolkes (most probably because American audiences wouldn’t have a clue where the North Sea was) – both directed by Andrew V. McLaglen.
Born in 1920 in Wandsworth, London, Andrew Victor McLaglen upped sticks and moved to America where he cut his teeth directing episodes of Perry Mason, Rawhide, The Virginian, Wagon Train and Gunsmoke as well as directing many films starring James Stewart and John Wayne, among them: McLintock! (1963), Shenandoah (1965), Hellfighters (1968), Bandolero! (1968), The Undefeated (1969), Chisum (1970) and Cahill US Marshall (1973). By the time he made The Wild Geese in 1978 and North Sea Hijack in 1979 he was a well-respected veteran director of solid, unpretentious, no-frills movies that were designed for one thing and one thing only – entertainment.
This is what one reviewer on IMDB amusingly wrote about the The Wild Geese: “Now THIS is what movie-making is all about! Who needs pansy-assed Oscar winning drivel like A Beautiful Mind or overblown space-opera garbage like Star Wars when you can watch Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore blowing stuff up in Africa? I’d rather have my balls dipped into a bucket of scorpions than watch tripe like Lord of the Rings or Million Dollar Baby ever again – but sit me down in front of The Wild Geese with a bottle of scotch and a packet of ciggies and I’m happier than a dog in an offal factory.”
|The Wild Geese original poster|
Whilst I agree with him that A Beautiful Mind and Star Wars Episodes 1-3 are utter trash and disagree with him about Lord of the Rings and Million Dollar Baby, I absolutely fervently agree with him about The Wild Geese. It’s a fantastic, rip-roaring action movie that can be seen almost as a blueprint for Sylvester Stallone’s The Expendables (although it’s infinitely better). A group of ageing mercenaries parachute into an African country to extract an imprisoned leader but are double-crossed and have to fight their way to safety. With a brilliant ensemble cast, including Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Roger Moore, Hardy Kruger, Jack Watson, Frank Finlay, Stewart Granger and Kenneth Griffith, it grabs hold of your attention from the beginning and never releases its grip for two hours. Stand-out performances are from German actor Hardy Kruger as Pieter Coetzee, a down-and-out Afrikaner who wants the money to buy a farm in his native South Africa, Kenneth Griffith as Arthur Witty, the openly gay medic and the ever-reliable Jack Watson as the tough Sergeant Major, Sandy Young. On top of that there’s Burton, Harris and Moore strutting their stuff with Finlay as a Catholic Missionary and Granger as a hissable villain.
Unlike The Expendables, there are no muscle-bound super-soldiers in The Wild Geese, just a bunch of disaffected and disillusioned ex-soldiers, bored with civilian life and wanting the excitement of a last hurrah and a bundle of cash to set themselves up. When Arthur Witty is offered the job he asks Colonel Faulkner (Burton): “Do I have time to get a divorce?”
“Thirty-six hours,” replies Faulkner.
“Oh, lovely, sir,” says Witty, “I can’t wait to see his face.”
Roger Moore puts in a fine performance as Shawn Fynn, an ex-army Lieutenant, reduced to a life of petty crime before being recruited by Colonel Faulkner. Moore appeared on television as Simon Templar in The Saint, in the title role as Ivanhoe and as James Garner’s brother in Maverick but he will most probably always be remembered as superspy James Bond. Before Bond consumed his career he had already proven his acting skills in a dual role in the dark thriller The Man Who Haunted Himself (1970) and later opposite Lee Marvin in Shout at the Devil (1976), as a sympathetic German officer in Escape to Athena (1979) and in the criminally overlooked comedy Bed & Breakfast (1981). Never one to take himself too seriously and always displaying an amiable, self-deprecating wit in interviews, he was knighted in 2003 for his services to UNICEF.
I thought he was great in The Wild Geese and he’s every bit as good as Burton, Harris and Kruger, but his finest performance came a year later when he starred in the marvellous North Sea Hijack as the irascible, eccentric egotist Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, a role that he completely and convincingly inhabits. It’s a wonderful role that any actor would have jumped at the chance of playing and Roger Moore makes it his own. Not for one second do you doubt that he is not the cat-loving misogynist genius you see on the screen. Why on earth he didn’t abandon Bond right there and then and make more films like this is beyond me.
|North Sea Hijack original poster|
Anthony Perkins is excellent as the villain of the film, the increasingly unstable and paranoid Kramer, who along with a young Michael Parks (years before he became a regular for Quentin Tarantino) and four others hijack a Norwegian cargo freighter called Esther and has it and the two oil rigs, Ruth and Jennifer, it services fitted with booby trapped bombs and demand a ransom of 25 million dollars. Esther, Ruth and Jennifer was the title of Jack Davies’ original novel, from which he adapted the screenplay. Unwilling to negotiate with terrorists the British government calls in ffolkes and his team who specialise in hostage rescues and anti-terrorism intervention. He’s assisted by Admiral Brinsden, played by the great James Mason, who initially distrusts ffolkes but admires his intelligence in knowing how the hijackers think as the film progresses. Jack Watson plays Olafsen, the Norwegian captain of Esther and David Hedison is King, the man in charge of Jennifer.
Most of the action takes place at sea and the tension builds steadily to a terrific, exciting climax, while retaining a strong sense of humour. The scenes with Roger Moore and James Mason are particularly funny, as is ffolkes’s attitude towards King’s secretary, Sarah and her reactions to his blatant misogyny.
The Wild Geese and North Sea Hijack are my two favourite action movies of the 1970s and they still hold up exceedingly well today, much more, in fact, than many films of that genre of the past thirty years. So, when you’re at a loose end on a wet winter Sunday afternoon at the offal factory, you’re fridge is stocked up with beer and you have a plentiful supply of ciggies, why not slam these two movies into your DVD player and watch them back-to-back and see for yourself that they really don’t make them like this anymore.