Mad Mike and ‘The Wild Geese’
Friendship bonds were because of mutual love for Shakespeare, writes Chris Hoare
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.