Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Wild Geese - Daniel Carney

 I first read this novel way back in 1987 as a snot nosed seventeen year old. Then the copy I had sat around gathering dust until I pulled it out, dusted it off, and read it at work several months ago. It has now made its way to the second hand book shop along with a heap of other books I've hung onto since I was a teenager.

 Like so many of the books I've reviewed this was also made into a movie. It was made in 1978, and unlike many book adaptations the movie couldn't actually be made until the book was published. Daniel Carney had initially written the book and titled it The Thin White line, but couldn't find anyone willing to publish it. I'm not sure why, but maybe the mercenary content was considered somewhat taboo, or, as I suspect, the title was considered somewhat racist. Think about it. The Thin White Line, about a group of fifty white mercenaries rescuing a deposed black  leader from the Congo.

Also the movie is unusual because it better known than the book it is based on. Film producer Euan Llyod liked the book after a chance meeting with Carney, and agreed to get the book published so that he could buy the rights to make a movie from it. He had a offer from publisher after taking it to Hollywood. The novel was finally published in 1977, a year before the movie was itself released. The title was changed from Carney's as well, and took that of the movie's. This is where I believe the title was changed because of its apparent racial undertone. I also think it is too close to James Jones' novel, The Thin Red Line, and the producers and publishers wanted to make a clear delineation between the two novels. 

 As with most book adaptations the movie is complete bollocks compared to the book. The characters are the same but much has been fiddled with. The book is relatively short, especially on action sequences. The movie has fleshed them out, and there is far more fighting in it. Where the movie accurately mirrors the book is in the age of the characters. In the book they are older men, and the actors used mirror their age. Overall the changes, although necessary at times, are a shame because The Wild Geese isn't exactly a complex novel, and could have easily been adapted to film.

 For you who aren't in the know The Wild Geese is about a group of fifty mercenaries who have been given a contract by a British merchant banker to rescue deposed Congolese leader Limbani before he is executed. It starts with Limbani initially hijacked by the CIA before protagonist William Faulknor can take him back to the Congo and mount a coup. The story moves forward two years and sees Faulknor in London, broke, and in need of money. Fortunately he is offered a contract to rescue Limbani and bring him back to England.

 Faulknor readily agrees, one to restore his reputation, and two, he realises he is getting older and wants one final contract to retire on. He is all but blackmailed into the contract, but would have taken it anyway. I have read some time ago that Daniel Carney was himself an ex-mercenary. I have since read he was actually Rhodesian, and served in the South African police with no mercer nary past mentioned. Who knows, but Africa was a continent that saw a hell of a lot of mercenary usage, and Carney may have just met alot of these soldiers of fortune in his duties as a policeman. To me that seems more likely than him having being one himself.

 What follows is I believe a quite reasonable portrayal of mercenary recruitment. Faulknor is an old dog, and since this is to be his retirement contract he digs up all his old cronies. Most are involved in dubious occupations and all are ex-military. Faulknor is determined the job succeeds so he only wants men who are in it for the soldiering, and not the money or 'adventure'. I have read a few books written by ex-mercenaries, and did a bit at uni on them too. Most mercenary leaders wanted ex-soldiers as they didn't need training and were used to discipline. Sometimes though they had to take those searching for adventure or a quick buck to fill out the ranks. Much of what Carney has written in Faulknor's recruitment seems to ring true.

 Carney then has Faulknor procuring weapons. It is a political under taking as the British know of a dealer who is selling to the IRA. Through Faulknor they give him an ultimatum. Sell him the weapons destined for the IRA or else he'll see the inside of a prison very quickly. The dealer is agrees to the terms to save a trip courtesy of Her Majesty. He isn't concerned because he has dealt so often with the IRA he knows he can stall them until he gets more for them. Again it has a feel of authenticity because often mercenary action was used by governments as a way of deniability. They couldn't provide arms themselves that could be traced, so they provided funds so that weapons could be purchased from arms dealers.

 The fifty men then gather in Mozambique to begin training under a ruthless RSM. He is a utter hard bastard. An ex-para, or 'Red Devil', who served at Arnhem. He licks the assorted lot into shape quite quickly. Many know the regime and do it easy. Others are boozers who are unfit and do it tough. The RSM becomes so unpopular several of the men attempt to murder him, but he beats them up in their attempt. He is despised, and yet respected by the men.

  The novel then sees the men drop into the Congo and the plan quickly go pear shaped. The group are chased by a larger group of 'Simbas', who are nothing more than ruthless blood thirsty militia. They are highly regarded in black Africa, but against trained soldiers they take a beating. But the mercenaries are in trouble and have to get out quick with Limbani. Any of the mercenaries who are badly wounded are killed by the RSM instead of letting them fall into the hands of the Simbas. Interestingly Carney then introduces a bit of white-black African by play as a mercenary and Limbani come to understand each other and their races more. The white is a racist and yet comes to accept Limbani as a man and not just a 'kaffir'.

  The group make it to an alternative airfield after their intial plane is denied them from Mozambique. They find an old Dakota which they load up and fly out on. They make it to Rhodesian airspace where they ask to land but are denied until they say they have Limbani on board. There the novel basically finishes. The movie embellishes much of the end and sees Faulknor in London killing the merchant banker who gave him the contract. It was him that had the plane from Mozambique stopped as he wanted the mercenaries dead as the political situation regarding Limbani had changed. A case of dead men tell no tales, huh?!

 I have several quibbles with this novel. It isn't very long, and Carney has had to flesh it out somewhat. Firstly one character is estranged from his young son, and a fair chunk of the novel is used up on his attempts to connect with him. He takes on the contract reluctantly as he wants the money so he can return to South Africa and start up a farm for him and his boy. Secondly Flynn, the pilot, falls in love with a prostitute in Mozambique. Again too much time is spent on this relationship.

 These two 'relationship' tangents highlight how little Carney had to work with in writing this novel. It is based around a single in-out type mission by fifty mercenaries. It goes through all the ins and out of mercenary life, and is  quite a credible portrayal. It is fleshed out though and I found it boring to say the least. Carney has tried to provide depth of character because he has so little to work with to provide enough for a novel. To me the novel has an over riding feel of thinness about it. Without the fleshing out it would be nothing more than a novella.

 I do like The Wild Geese though. If you get through the characterisations the mercenary parts are excellent. I still think that Frederick Forsyth's The Dogs of War is superior. It is longer, better written, and hence I believe a more satisfying read. The Wild Geese though, I feel, is a more accurate look into the world of late Twentieth Century mercenaries.

 Daniel Carney wrote five novels, three of which were made into movies. After his death the  ownership rights to his works passed to his family who have consistently refused permission for his novels to be re-issued, or even the movies based on them. This even though The Wild Geese was the fourteenth highest grossing movie in 1978. Go figure!!


  1. ....the dogs of war is a better movie aswell but still have a copy of both.

  2. Yeah it is the superior in both formats. I think that Carney though has a deeper knowledge of mercenaries than Forsyth did. Forsyth was by far the better novelist. Day of the Jackel is still a good read after all these years!

  3. I loved the movie and have watched it 3 times. I'm Zimbabwean and didn't know that the writer was a Rhodesian.

  4. The Richard Burton role in the movie is loosely based on real-world merc Mike Hoare. Limbani is loosely based on Moises Tshombe

  5. We had a lot of mercs and semi mercs flitting in and out of the Rhodesian forces pre 1980. Many American Vietnam vets who found it difficult to settle back home eventually drifted off to other wars, such as ours. The RLI was affectionately known as The Foreign Legion!

  6. Can I look at his (Carney) photo?

  7. I have seen both movies, but regrettably have not read the respective books. However, I was fortunate to attend a great party at Carney's estate (hosted by his daughter Roxy Carney), on the outskirts of Harare in the early 80's. I remember that the house and other buildings had heavy scars from the bloody civil war which was raging in Rhodesia in the 70's....

    1. Is this the same Roxy who was @ Vainona Primary? If so where could I get in touch with her?