Let Slip the Dogs
Thirty-five years ago this week, United Artists cried “Havoc!” and let slip the film adaptation of The Dogs of War (1980) on American moviegoers. Directed by John Irvin (fresh off the 1979 BBC TV adaptation of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) from Frederick Forsyth’s best-seller, this blistering action tale focuses on a band of free-lance mercenaries staging a coup in a brutally governed African republic so that British corporate interests can pounce on the country’s mineral riches. It still reverberates today, since havoc cuts a swath through a number of third world countries in danger of becoming geopolitical pawns of higher powers. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael called the film “a swift and intelligent demonstration of how the conventions of action movies can be adapted and given new meaning.” Played by screen warriors Christopher Walken (as group leader Jamie Shannon), Tom Berenger (later of Platoon), Paul Freeman (soon after in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Jean-François Stevenin (soon after in Victory), the soldiers of fortune are moral burnouts who excel in combat and feel empty at peace. The Dogs of War’s wild card is Walken, whose “otherness” has always proved attractive to moviegoers and whose haunted quality, already utilized to searing, Oscar®-winning effect as Nick in The Deer Hunter, here “gives the picture the fuse it needs,” Kael wrote. “Walken convinces you that there is nothing besides fighting left in Shannon’s life. The instincts that make him a responsible leader who takes care of his men are at work all the time. This is a tough-minded movie that gives you the underside of the loner myth, but it isn’t completely cynical. Even mercenaries have their discriminations – though when they make a moral choice, it may be less out of idealism than out of disgust at corruption. At the end, what Shannon does is believable, because of Walken’s anger and those glaring eyes.” Those eyes, as well as the fierce heat of jungle battle and the intensity of lives on the edge are captured in the beautiful cinematography of Academy Award® winner Jack Cardiff. Incidentally, the U.S. release version of The Dogs of War was 15 minutes shorter than the “International Cut” presented to British cinemagoers two months earlier. Twilight Time’s disc is fully loaded with both versions in 1080p hi-def, providing double the havoc.