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Just before directing the first of five James Bond Films (For Our Eyes Only, followed by Octopussy, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Licence to Kill), John Glen had the dual role of editor and 2nd unit director on the 1978 British action adventure, The Wild Geese. On the eve of the film’s release on DVD, Glen was holidaying in Perth, and spoke to Andrew L. Urban, recalling one of his trademark shots – several parachutists jumping from the back of a plane.

The weather in Perth is overcast as John Glen takes the call for our interview. The faint rattle of tea cups forms a soothing background noise. His voice is friendly, with a comfortable, mid-class English accent. You can hear it on the DVD’s audio commentary which he shares with one of the film’s five big stars, Roger Moore, and legendary producer Euan Lloyd.

"very keen to address the politics of South Africa"

“Lloyd was very keen to address the politics of South Africa – it was at the time of apartheid – in dialogue,” says Glen. “I argued that we shouldn’t lecture the audience, and to keep it short. As editor, it was up to me to keep it in bounds.” The result is that there are politics in the dialogue in a couple of scenes near the end, but as Glen says, it’s kept ‘within bounds’.

The story has many elements that resonate today: A British multinational company led by billionaire Sir Edward Matherson (Stewart Granger) plots the overthrow of a vicious African despot and engages a team of veteran mercenaries led by Colonel Allen Faulkner (Richard Burton) for the job. Faulkner recruits master planner Rafer Janders (Richard Harris), pilot Shawn Fynn (Roger Moore), South African Lieutenant Pieter Coetze (Hardy Kruger) and some soldiers. Their task is to rescue the critically ill and imprisoned Julius Limbani (Winston Ntshona) leader of the opposition, before he is executed. But after the success of their operation, their employer does a shady deal with the ruling dictator, cutting off the team and leaving it to its own devices in its efforts to escape.

In one of the early scenes, Roger Moore’ Fynn confronts a drug dealer and his henchman in a hotel room. After some unpleasantries, he shoots the henchman and then forces the drug dealer to eat a packet of cocaine – which Fynn has spiked with strychnine. The man dies quickly, but painfully. “I thought the scene gave him some character,” says Glen. “It showed Fynn to be ruthless, in a just cause. Of course, the message has plenty of relevance today.”

It’s one of the most confronting scenes in the film, which has surprisingly little violence per se, at least by today’s standards. The first half is concerned with establishment of the story, the recruiting of the men and their preparations. It’s only when they are parachuted in to Africa that the action proper begins.

And it’s this scene that John Glen is still most proud of as 2nd unit director. The men jumping from the Hercules transport form a striking pattern like a string of pearls, as they fall from the back of the plane. The shot was modelled on a similar shot he devised a year earlier, as 2nd unit director on The Spy Who Loved Me, his fourth film with Roger Moore. (“When we started shooting The Wild Geese,” says Glen, “Roger came up to me and said ‘Am I in your contract, or are you in mine?!”

"devised a banking manoeuvre"

The shot – which can be studied at length on the DVD of the Wild Geese – was taken from a Cessna in which Glen and the camera flew. This was not the ideal aircraft for filming the shot, because of its low wings. To avoid getting the wing of the Cessna in shot, Glen devised a banking manoeuvre which would clear the wings of the frame as the men jumped from the Hercules ahead.

The AD in the Hercules was to signal Glen before the men jumped so he could initiate camera turn over. With the unreliability of radio communications, Glen instructed the young man to throw a newspaper out of the Hercules as a signal for Glen to start the camera rolling to get his shot. “But as I watched, I thought I saw something falling out, and then I wasn’t sure if it was the newspaper … you know, it’s a flimsy thing flapping about in the wind behind a large plane …Anyway, I got turn over and seconds later the men started jumping.”

It’s been fun revisiting the film, he says. “Euan rang me one day and said he was going to record a commentary for the DVD with Roger, was I coming? I asked if there was any money it, and he said no, laughing. We’re good friends and we had a great morning. Roger even brought his daughter Debbie along. So we just sat in the studio side by side and improvised.”

Published December 8, 2005

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