“Cry havoc, and let loose…”
Frederick Forsyth has a fine track record as an author of thrillers. A superior writer compared to many of his contemporaries such as Robert Ludlum, Forsyth’s novels are characterized by a high level of (apparently) authentic detail and are intricately plotted without becoming labyrinthine in complexity.
The track record in bringing Forsyth’s work to the screen is a little spotty, however. His first book — “The Day of the Jackal” — was made into an excellent film by Fred Zinnemann in 1973. The second one — “The Odessa File” — directed by Ronald Neame in 1974 was less successful. A later novel — “The Fourth Protocol” — was made into a competent if unmemorable film with Michael Caine in 1987. Later books such as “Icon,” “The Devil’s Alternative,” and “The Fist of God” have not been filmed at all, to my knowledge. Forsyth’s third novel — “The Dogs of War” — was, however, filmed in 1981 with Norman Jewison co-producing and John Irvin directing. MGM has now made the title available on DVD.
Mercenary John Shannon is asked to evaluate the vulnerability of a corrupt African dictatorship to potential takeover. Posing as a bird photographer, he flies into the country’s capital where the dictator is holed up in a heavily guarded military compound and proceeds to gather intelligence. Shannon soon comes under suspicion and eventually is arrested and brutally beaten before being deported from the country.
Shannon recovers and files his report suggesting that indeed the African country’s government is ripe for overthrow. As a consequence, Shannon is hired by a British consortium to mount an operation to seize control of the country and allow a new leader, a puppet sympathetic to the consortium’s interests in exploiting the country’s mineral reserves, to be installed. Shannon assembles a small task force of mercenaries that he has previously worked with and methodically plans for the operation. Finally, the day arrives and the assault on the African country begins. All seems to be going according to plan, but a final meeting with the head of the consortium and the puppet leader prior to the operation has caused Shannon to begin questioning the morality of what he has gotten involved in.
One of Frederick Forsyth’s great strengths as a writer of thrillers is his ability to relate the intricate planning for operations in a clear yet detailed fashion without making it all sound rather boring. Things like arranging for and testing weapons, or setting up alternate identities and the papers and passports essential to them, are not exactly the stuff of legend, but Forsyth is able to make it all fascinating. One almost feels like one is reading a primer on how to go about such tasks. The extreme example of this was evident in his first novel, “The Day of the Jackal,” but “The Dogs of War” is a close second. The film The Dogs of War successfully preserves this aspect of the story, although it is a smaller component of the film compared to the pages devoted to it in the book.
Otherwise, the film is a competently done effort, if standard fare. Shannon’s surveillance of the African country is pretty conventional stuff — there’s the phlegmatic, but nosy Englishman fed up with the local politics and how they prevent him doing his job (filming a documentary in this case); the local security chief who takes an interest in Shannon; the enigmatic local woman who acts as Shannon’s guide; and the obligatory arrest and beating. Then we get the interlude between surveillance and assault where Shannon’s personal life intervenes and he looks up his ex-wife. Naturally, things look promising for a while, but eventually Shannon is left alone, so what else is there for him to do but take the assignment to overthrow the African country? The assault at the end is well-staged and things “blow up real good,” but we’ve seen this type of thing before (except for maybe a kind of portable Gatling gun that Shannon gets to use).
Christopher Walken stars as Shannon and he fits the part quite well. Walken normally brings a little something out of the ordinary to his roles. It’s mainly in the eyes; there’s always the sense that Walken’s characters are not completely there, that a part of him is sitting back watching what’s going on instead of being completely wrapped up in the actions of the moment. That suits Shannon’s increasingly jaundiced view of the operation he’s gotten himself involved in and helps to make believable the way Shannon acts at the film’s end. Otherwise, the film’s roles are filled out with acting performances that are competent, but certainly don’t stand out in any respect. Tom Berenger appears as a fellow mercenary; Jo Beth Williams is the ex-wife; and Colin Blakely is the English filmmaker who pops in and out of the story to no great effect and ends up getting killed for his efforts.
MGM’s DVD release sports an anamorphic transfer and preserves the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. For the most part, the image looks quite sharp, with solid blacks, clean whites, and good shadow detail. Some of the nighttime scenes are a little murky, but not distractingly so. The occasional speckle and scratch is evident. The best thing about it is the length. MGM has given us the 119-minute original British release version instead of the American one that had about 15 minutes lopped off it. Among other things, Jo Beth Williams now has a role, whereas the American version had virtually relegated her to the cutting room floor.
The sound is Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround. It provides an acceptable rendition of the sound track, much of which is dialogue-driven — clear and distortion-free. Use of the surrounds is mainly apparent only in the final assault, though not aggressively so. French and Spanish subtitles are provided.
Supplements are limited to the original theatrical trailer — standard procedure for MGM.
The Dogs of War is no masterpiece, but if you enjoyed the Frederick Forsyth novel it’s based on, I think you’ll find the film to be a reasonably entertaining version of it. It’s certainly worth a rental and Christopher Walken fans may wish to add the film to their collections. MGM provides a competent DVD transfer of the longer British release version of the film, but just the usual bare-bones presentation in terms of supplements.