Monday, December 21, 2015

BOOK / MOVIE: The Dogs of War (1974/1980)

                “The Dogs of War” is a movie by John Irvin (“Hamburger Hill”, “When Trumpets Fade”) based on the novel by John Forsyth.  The movie was filmed in Belize and is set in a fictional African nation of Zangaro.  It is a story of an attempted coup by mercenaries on behalf of a British corporation that wants mineral rights in the country.  It stars Christopher Walken, two years removed from “The Deer  Hunter”.

                The movie begins with our anti-heroes fleeing from a botched rebellion in some Central American nation.  Their leader, Cat Shannon (Walken), returns to his seedy apartment in New Jersey and tries to reconcile with his ex-wife.  He wants to settle down and move to Wyoming or some such place.  She and the audience say “sure!”  Oh well, back to work.  Shannon gets a job from a shady character named Endean (Hugh Millhis).  His boss is the CEO of a large corporation which wants a crazy African dictator named Kimba overthrown because the tycoon wants to spread democracy.  Just kidding, he wants the mineral rights so he can add that next billion to his wallet.  Being a mercenary, Shannon takes the job and reunites the band.  First, he has to reconnoiter the capital of Zangaro.  Two things of significance happen on the scouting expedition.  He meets a comely African lass who turns out to be Kimba’s mistress.  The second thing is that because of the girl he gets tortured by Kimba’s lackeys.  In prison he meets a kindly doctor who lost the election to Kimba.  Upon return to America, Shannon begins preparation for the coup.  After acquiring the necessary weapons (including a bad-ass gun called a XM-18) , Shannon and his four buddies take a freighter to Africa.  They are joined by some Africans who will serve as cannon fodder.  The plan is to assault the Presidential compound with extreme prejudice and then Endean will bring in an equally repulsive African general to become the new Idi Amin.  Except this monster will be in corporation’s pocket.

                “The Dogs of War” is one of the more famous mercenary movies.  It bears closest resemblance to “The Wild Geese” and is part of a subgenre that continues with the recent “Expendables” movies.  “Dogs” is an above average entry in the soldiers of fortune milieu.  Like most of them, it is low budget.  And the cast is actors who are either going to be famous, or more likely, on the downside of their careers.  Usually these movies are ensemble pieces, but “Dogs” is really a one man show.  Walken dominates with his smoldering intensity.  He must have intimidated the editor because his second in command Tom Berenger got left mostly on the cutting room floor. The rest of the cast is blah.  And we don’t care because there is virtually no character development.  Technically the movie is average.  The cinematography is nothing special.  Irvin is not trying to stand out from typical merc flicks in his first feature film.  The action sequences are pedestrian.  The tired, but trusted trope of good guys firing randomly to create fireworks.  The one outside the box move was to include the XM-18 which is a multi-barreled assault weapon that can fire a variety of ordinance such as fragmentation, grenades, anti-tank, and anti-personnel.  It really livens up the party. 

                The plot is predictable and cliché-ridden.  Shannon is a war –weary warrior who only knows how to do one thing.  Naturally he loses his wife over his avocation.  He may not be a lover, but he is a killer with a heart of gold (or in this case, platinum). Endean represents the evil, greedy tycoon who is more powerful than any politician.  The movie includes some twists that the average mercenary movie fan will be surprised by, but the average viewer will see coming from a mile away.  (Oops, I think I just questioned the intelligence of merc movie maniacs.  Sorry.  Don’t get your panties in a bunch.  Oops.)  It would have been nice if the dialogue was a little tongue in cheek (like “Expendables”), but this is the young Walken, not the SNL Walken.  In fact, the funniest moment comes when the four mercenaries enter the compound and pose for a kick-ass movie poster with guns a blazin’.  The big action set piece is entertaining in a mindless way, but the buildup is boring.

                As  I have mentioned before, my theory is that any competently made movie based on a book should be better than the source material.  The only excuse is if the technology or budget is not capable of replicating scenes from the book.  There is no excuse for the plot to be worse than the book.  In this case, the plots differ in substantial ways.  The book is in many ways a tutorial for anyone who wants to overthrow an African dictator.  Forsyth was familiar with mercenaries, arms dealers, and African coups.  He spends the vast majority of the book showing off his insider’s knowledge.  Thankfully the movie just alludes to all the details that go into overthrowing an African government.  I found all the jetting around by the various team members to put all the pieces together to be tedious.  Maybe if I wanted to be a soldier of fortune someday, but the truth is that I could care less about an “end user” certificate.

                Where the book is superior to the movie is in the set-up and pay-off.  The novel gives the background that the movie is obtuse about.  Forsyth covers the geologist discovering the platinum at a mountain in Zangara and Marson’s subsequent efforts to get a monopoly on the site.  We also learn how Shannon finds out that the mission is wealth dominated.  Part of this knowledge comes from an affair with Marson’s sluttish daughter.  The book does not have the wife subplot.  (We get Jo Beth Williams instead of Bo Derek.)  The battle is also quite different, but ends up in basically the same place.  It is more realistic tactically than the film, but not as entertaining.  The aftermath of the coup is better in the book.


BOOK  =  D


  1. The advantage of a novel is that numerous characters (not just the protagonist) can be fleshed out with a back story. Also, a novel has interior monologues and, as you write, overall background.

    A film shows the terrain and brings the characters to life.

    1. Agree. That is why I prefer to watch the movie and then read the book.

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