Mad Mike and ‘The Wild Geese’

Friend­ship bonds were be­cause of mu­tual love for Shake­speare, writes Chris Hoare

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In 1964-1965, Colonel Mike Hoare led 300 ‘Wild Geese’ across the Congo to crush a com­mu­nist re­bel­lion, res­cue 2 000 nuns and priests, beat Che Gue­vara… and be­come a leg­end. Once de­scribed as the ‘best bloody sol­dier in the Bri­tish Army’, Hoare set­tled in South Africa af­ter World War II, liv­ing dan­ger­ously to get more out of life, in­clud­ing meet­ing the CIA agent who was to change his life and Nel­son Man­dela’s. Later, he would be­come tech­ni­cal ad­viser to

The Wild Geese, star­ring Richard Bur­ton, be­fore lead­ing an abortive coup in the Sey­chelles, which would cost him three years in jail. Now for the first time, the story be­hind the story can be told as Chris Hoare sep­a­rates the man from the myth in a way only a son can.

THE sto­ry­line was in­spired by re­cent events and peo­ple in Africa: A Mike-Hoare­type com­man­der and 50 mer­ce­nary sol­diers are hired by a Bri­tish multi­na­tional to snatch a Tshombe-style pres­i­dent from a jail in cen­tral Africa where he is be­ing held by the “Sim­bas”; once the pres­i­dent is res­cued, the multi­na­tional dou­ble-crosses the mer­ce­nar­ies; a sub-plot shows a meet­ing of minds be­tween the black pres­i­dent and his white Afrikaner res­cuer.

Lloyd later de­scribed the film as “close to fact”.

Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, one of Mike’s he­roes, Richard Bur­ton, was cast to play the Mike Hoare char­ac­ter, Colonel Allen Faulkner, and was known on set as “R One”. The other big stars were Richard Har­ris (“R Two”), Roger Moore and Hardy Kruger. Ste­wart Granger also had a role. Like­wise Ken­neth Grif­fith. Yule had a lesser part, as did Tul­lio Moneta, whom we meet later and who had served in 5 Com­mando post-Mike.

Ap­par­ently, two of South Africa’s great­est black ac­tors, John Kani and Winston Nt­shona, were ini­tially re­luc­tant to be in a film about mer­ce­nar­ies. But once they had read the script and saw it had a mes­sage in which they both be­lieved, they changed their minds. Sim­ply put, the mes­sage was: black and white need each other and there is no to­mor­row in south­ern Africa for one with­out the other.

The $8 mil­lion (R106.5m) Bri­tish film was shot dur­ing Septem­ber, Oc­to­ber and Novem­ber 1977 at the Tshipise na­ture re­sort and spa in the North­ern Transvaal. The 300-strong group of ac­tors and tech­ni­cians took over a whole camp, black and white peo­ple mix­ing in spite of apartheid. The film was to be called The

Thin White Line and was based on a novel of the same name by Daniel Car­ney, a young Ir­ish­man who set­tled in Rhode­sia in 1963 and who served in the Bri­tish South Africa Po­lice there for three and a half years. He then started a suc­cess­ful real es­tate com­pany called Fox and Car­ney, but writ­ing was his pas­sion and he used to write at night.

His widow, Sally, told me: “Dan got the germ of the idea quite by ac­ci­dent. Once, at Lake Kariba air­port, an el­derly man who had worked there for many years told Dan the story of a dis­tressed plane fly­ing in at night, try­ing to do an emer­gency land­ing. The run­way was lit up with fire-flares to guide the plane in. It had been shot up. On board, so Danny was told, was Pa­trice Lu­mumba from the Congo, the charis­matic leader who had been res­cued by mer­ce­nar­ies and flown out for his own safety.”

Mike said, how­ever, he did not like the pro­posed ti­tle be­cause peo­ple would usu­ally as­so­ciate it with the well-known Thin Red Line formed dur­ing the bat­tle of Bal­a­clava, fought in 1854 dur­ing the Crimean War. The ti­tle was changed in due course to The Wild Geese.

Mike’s work, he said, was to turn 50 ac­tors into in­stant sol­diers, and to be an au­then­ti­ca­tor. “My du­ties broadly speak­ing would be to at­tend each day’s shoot­ing and to in­form the di­rec­tor if and when any glar­ing mis­takes of a mil­i­tary na­ture were about to be made.”

At one point, where the mer­ce­nar­ies are in se­ri­ous trou­ble, Bur­ton, who is stand­ing on a first-floor bal­cony, shouts en­cour­age­ment to his men who are be­low. No, said Mike. Get among the men, form them in a tight group around you, look them in the eyes from close up, and mo­ti­vate them.

Later, An­drew McLa­glen, the di­rec­tor, told Tony Earn­shaw, a Bri­tish writer and broad­caster: “Mike Hoare was with us all the time. I thought he was a very nice man. You’d think he might have been a univer­sity pro­fes­sor, but he had a tough in­side about him. He told us some fab­u­lous sto­ries. We got (Richard) Bur­ton, (Richard) Har­ris and the cast to lis­ten to a talk by Hoare.

“I re­mem­ber that what­ever he said turned them off a lit­tle bit. He was say­ing some pretty stri­dent words about things. I think (Bur­ton) re­spected him. He got turned off by him on this one in­stant. Hoare was a strong char­ac­ter. When he had his uni­form on he looked like a sol­dier. He al­ways wore his uni­form on the set.”

Mike re­mem­bered how he may in­ad­ver­tently have up­set the stars. “One day, early on, Lloyd calls for me. He says that part of my job is to give a lec­ture to all the ac­tors who are mer­ce­nar­ies. I need to ex­plain how they should be, how they should ap­pear, their at­ti­tude to each other, and so on. I started pre­par­ing my talk and de­cided to show a tape I had brought with me: an in­ter­view I had done in the late ‘60s, all about mer­ce­nary sol­dier­ing.

“Come the day, the ‘RSM’ of the film crew got the cast of 50 seated in a hall, with all the stars in the front row. I am dressed in a colonel’s uni­form and the RSM calls me, mil­i­tary style. As I march in, he calls the of­fi­cers to at­ten­tion, cre­at­ing an awk­ward sit­u­a­tion as I am re­ally a ju­nior mem­ber of the pro­duc­tion team. The stars may have been a bit miffed. Any­way, I gave my talk and showed the video. Af­ter­wards, one of the ac­tors came up to me and said it was the best lec­ture he had ever heard.”

Lloyd told it thus in 2015: “One day Mike asked me if we could gather key mem­bers of the cast and crew first thing be­fore the day’s shoot­ing be­gan so that he could ad­dress them. I agreed and the time was in­cluded on the daily ‘call sheet’, is­sued to all the evening be­fore. When Richard Bur­ton saw the in­struc­tion (it was not a re­quest!) he was in­censed and said he wouldn’t go… “I’m not in the bloody army…!” The next morn­ing Mike be­gan his talk about how a sol­dier be­haves in bat­tle and things ev­ery sol­dier should know. Richard B had calmed down a bit by now and popped in, cu­ri­ous now, to hear what Mike had to say. He was might­ily im­pressed by Mike’s thor­ough­ness and from that mo­ment he de­cided to co-op­er­ate fully.”

Penny Junor re­counts in her bi­og­ra­phy that Bur­ton had ini­tially not wanted to take the role as he did not like mer­ce­nar­ies, so Lloyd ex­plained that the film was based on a real man, Colonel “Mad Mike” Hoare. Now, Mike is giv­ing his talk and the four stars are sit­ting mo­tion­less in their seats. Af­ter­wards, Junor re­counts, Bur­ton went to Lloyd and said: “’I owe you an apol­ogy, you bas­tard. Now I see what you mean.’ From that mo­ment on, Richard watched Hoare’s ev­ery move, and the char­ac­ter he played in the film was based en­tirely on Colonel ‘Mad Mike’ Hoare.”

The Sun­day Times of Septem­ber 1, 1985 re­counted the above story in a spread on the life of Richard Bur­ton. The head­line read: “Tamed by ‘Mad Mike’ on the ‘Wild Geese’ set.”

In due course, Mike and Bur­ton found some­thing in com­mon: their love of Shake­speare. Mike had al­ways en­joyed the set works by Shake­speare at school, for ex­am­ple

Richard II and Henry V. He had all Shake­speare’s works in his li­brary at home, and when I was a child he of­ten told me: “My boy, there are only two books worth read­ing: Shake­speare and the Bi­ble.” And so it was that Mike and Bur­ton spent some of their free time to­gether dis­cussing their com­mon love.

“I found him lovely to talk to. He couldn’t make small talk; he was fright­ened of peo­ple ask­ing him ques­tions and then see­ing his an­swers dis­torted in a mag­a­zine the next week. But I was in­ter­ested in his ca­reer and his work; I had his record­ings of Henry V and Un­der

Milk Wood, and I used to lis­ten to them at home. He told me ra­dio was ‘the thing’, and that he loved do­ing ra­dio.

“I got more than an inkling of his great­ness. I used to watch him per­form on the set as I was in­ter­ested in his ca­reer as a Shake­spearean ac­tor, and I used to try to steer the con­ver­sa­tion round to that, say­ing it was a great shame that he had left it.

“There were times when he had to be on the set, and he had his chair, and I had my chair. You didn’t ap­proach the stars, they would not talk to you. On three oc­ca­sions we spent time to­gether, just the two of us. Though I say it my­self, Bur­ton liked to talk to me be­cause I was dif­fer­ent, not be­cause I was the thing he was try­ing to im­i­tate.

“Once, he told me the orig­i­nal script had been full of foul lan­guage, and he said: ‘I was told no­body had ever heard you swear in your life.’ I don’t want to come over as a goody-goody, but it is just one of the things I don’t do. Bur­ton said he had had all the swear­ing taken out of the script.”

Mike’s favourite Shake­spearean play was King Lear, and he was able to dis­cuss it with Bur­ton, in­clud­ing how an ac­tor would be able to hold the dead Cordelia in his arms for so long with­out get­ting ex­hausted.

Later, Mike wrote: “I was read­ing a book about the life of Christo­pher Mar­lowe at that time. Bur­ton paged through it and told me he had per­formed the ti­tle role in a 1966 pro­duc­tion of Doc­tor Faus­tus. Get­ting to his feet he re­cited those un­for­get­table lines de­picted by Faus­tus dur­ing his last hour on earth. On this oc­ca­sion Richard Bur­ton, the world fa­mous Shake­spearean ac­tor, had an au­di­ence of one… me!

“I was speech­less with ad­mi­ra­tion. I then asked him if he had ever played Lear. No, he had not, he said, but it was his am­bi­tion to play Lear be­fore he died. Sadly, he never did. He then gave me a pri­vate per­for­mance of that fi­nal heart-rend­ing scene where Lear stag­gers on to the stage with the stran­gled Cordelia in his arms, and cries out:

‘Howl, howl, howl, howl! O you are men of stones! ‘Had I your tongues and eyes, ‘I’d use them so ‘That heaven’s vault should crack. ‘She’s gone for ever.” Mike said he wept when he heard Bur­ton had died (Au­gust 1984), and wrote to Bur­ton’s widow, Sally, with the above quo­ta­tion, chang­ing the last line to “He’s gone for ever”. Years later, Mike took the trou­ble to visit Bur­ton’s grave in Céligny, Switzerland; he ad­mired the sim­ple Celtic rock grave­stone.

It seems that Kani (Sgt Jesse Blake) was an­other star that Mike up­set, as he took his job too se­ri­ously, al­most re­gard­ing the cast as re­cruits. Earn­shaw quotes Kani as say­ing: “In South Africa, blacks are not con­scripted into the army. So we ar­rive on set and there is Mike Hoare, the mad colonel. He took an in­cred­i­ble in­ter­est in me. He said, ‘Okay, don’t worry. I will put you through your paces. Let’s go.’ I used to spend an hour with him in the af­ter­noons go­ing through the ammo, as­sem­bling, dis­as­sem­bling, and he was very strange. Peo­ple were say­ing, ‘Be care­ful. He al­ways re­cruits mer­ce­nar­ies in re­al­ity.’ I was sur­prised when we fin­ished the movie to get a Christmas card from him three years in a row. Then I heard that they were in­volved in the coup in the Sey­chelles. That’s the last I heard.

“He was very fa­therly, very car­ing, with a twitch of a smile on the left (of the) lip, but you were very aware you were in the presence of a very dan­ger­ous per­son. When he was train­ing me he was show­ing me where to shoot so as not to waste bul­lets. He took it too se­ri­ous – he was re­ally mak­ing a sol­dier out of me. It was an as­sign­ment. One time I was talk­ing to him and my ri­fle was next to a tree, away from me. And he screamed at me! He said: ‘You are mar­ried to that ri­fle. A sol­dier never, never puts a weapon down.’ But af­ter a cou­ple of scenes the di­rec­tor said, ‘My God, you look like the real thing’.”

Bur­ton liked to talk to me be­cause I was dif­fer­ent, not be­cause I was the thing he was try­ing to im­i­tate – Mike Hoare

Richard Bur­ton, left, and Richard Har­ris in The Wild Geese. BE­LOW: Mike Hoare to­day.

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