Wednesday, July 11, 2012

New on Netflix Streaming: THE WILD GEESE (1978) and ZULU DAWN (1979)

Some months back, Severin Films announced Blu-ray releases of three late '70s adventure epics:  THE WILD GEESE, ZULU DAWN, and ASHANTI, all previously released on DVD in disappointing presentations by the mercifully short-lived Tango Entertainment.  Release dates for the Severin upgrades have yet to be announced, but HD prints of two of the films--THE WILD GEESE and ZULU DAWN--turned up this week as Netflix streaming titles.

(UK/Switzerland - 1978)

This classic mercenary adventure was a big hit everywhere but the US, where distributor Allied Artists was in its final days and wasn't able to give it much of a push.  That's surprising, considering its big-name cast headed by Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Richard Harris, and Hardy Kruger.  Burton is an aging mercenary hired by powerful financial magnate Stewart Granger to rescue the imprisoned leader (Winston Ntshona) of the fictional African country of Zembela, where Granger has significant interest in the copper mining industry.  Burton assembles a crack team of expert soldiers-for-hire (Moore, Harris, Kruger, etc) and they pull off a daring rescue, only to get double-crossed by Granger and left stranded in Zembala, pursued by the rebels who were holding Ntshona, and forced to fight their way out of the country.  Directed by longtime John Wayne associate Andrew V. McLaglen (who made the MST3K favorite MITCHELL a couple years earlier), THE WILD GEESE is a terrific action film, with four enthusiastic lead performances (Burton, in particular, has a number of dryly funny lines), plus a memorable supporting turn by Jack Watson (a last-minute replacement for Stephen Boyd, who died shortly before filming began) as a foul-mouthed Sergeant Major hired by Burton to whip the troops into shape ("On your feet, you fucking abortion!" Watson yells to one exhausted soldier).  Some of the character bits haven't aged very well--especially the way a mincing, sachaying, flamboyantly gay mercenary (Kenneth Griffith) is played for comic relief--and Kruger's metamorphosis from South African racist to sympathetic nice guy happens entirely too quickly to be plausible. 

Dated, late '70s political incorrectness aside, THE WILD GEESE is a rousing, entertaining and very nicely shot large-scale actioner with suspenseful battle sequences, gratuitous bloodletting, and a cast that's impossible to dislike.  Also with Frank Finlay, Patrick Allen, Barry Foster, David Ladd, Ian Yule, Ken Gampu, Jeff Corey, and the really out of place theme song "Flight of the Wild Geese," by Joan Armatrading.  Burton was set to return for 1985's WILD GEESE II, but died before filming began and was replaced by Edward Fox.  THE WILD GEESE was successful enough in foreign markets for Antonio Margheriti to make a trilogy of German-Italian WILD GEESE ripoffs with British TV star Lewis Collins:  CODENAME: WILDGEESE (1984, released in the US in 1986), COMMANDO LEOPARD (1985), and THE COMMANDER (1988).

The Netflix print of THE WILD GEESE is HD, and framed at 1.78:1 (close enough to the original 1.85:1), and has some consistent instances of "jerky" movements, almost like it's skipping frames. The audio is never affected, and the film is perfectly watchable as a streaming title, but it's a noticeable distraction throughout, even though there are stretches where it ceases.  Also, multiple sources list the film as 134 minutes, but the Netflix print comes in at 129 minutes. (R, 129 mins).

(UK - 1979)

The 1964 epic ZULU chronicled the British Empire's victory over the Zulus at the Battle of Rorke's Drift in the 1879 Anglo-Zulu War.  This 1979 prequel examines the Battle of Isandhlwana, which took place earlier in the day, and the results weren't so good for the British forces, numbering around 1800 and led by the overly confident Lord Chelmsford (Peter O'Toole), who doesn't take the Zulus seriously with their spears and shields.  Needless to say, the British (or more specifically, Chelmsford and his yes-men), fueled by colonial arrogance and entitlement, are blissfully ignorant of what they're up against and don't bother coming up with an effective game plan.  As a result, they're almost instantly overwhelmed by 20,000 Zulu warriors and suffer over 1300 casualties in what went down as the worst defeat ever inflicted upon a modern army by native troops (by contrast, with better leadership, the British won Rorke's Drift with just over 150 officers going against 4000 Zulu warriors).  Reportedly a troubled production, ZULU DAWN didn't get much of a release and was nowhere near ZULU's level of success.  It takes forever to get going and juggles too many characters, many of whom disappear for long stretches of the film, but it steps up where it counts with some truly stunning, expertly-choreographed battle scenes in the last half hour, with thousands of extras (this is pre-CGI, folks) filling the 2.35:1 image.

The large ensemble cast includes many familiar faces:  Simon Ward, John Mills, Nigel Davenport, Michael Jayston, Bob Hoskins, Denholm Elliott, Peter Vaughan, Christopher Cazenove, Freddie Jones, James Faulkner, Ronald Lacey, Ronald Pickup, Nicholas Clay, Dai Bradley, Ian Yule, Ken Gampu, Simon Sabela as the Zulu leader Cetshwayo, and top-billed Burt Lancaster as Col. Durnford, the nominal second-in-command, who would die alongside his fellow officers in the final battle and eventually be scapegoated for the disaster by the incompetent Chelmsford.  The performances are fine, but Lancaster's having a rare off-day here, sporting a wildly inconsistent Irish brogue that comes and goes at random.  I don't know if this is Lancaster's worst performance, but it's the only bad Lancaster performance I've seen.  Directed by Douglas Hickox (THEATER OF BLOOD) and co-written by ZULU director Cy Endfield.  The US theatrical release was cut down to 98 minutes, but this is the uncut 117 minute version.  (PG, 117 mins)

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