War Movie Mondays: ‘The Dogs of War’

This week’s pick pits a small group of international mercenaries sent by a British corporation to overthrow a two bit Idi Amin dictator in Sub Saharan Africa. John Irvin (Hamburger Hill, When Trumpets Fade) directs The Dogs of War (1980) which was based on the best selling novel from acclaimed author Frederick Forsyth (Day of the Jackal).

Christopher Walken stars as Jamie Shannon, an ex-soldier who hires himself out to the highest bidder whether its toppling a regime change in Central America, or putting a puppet government in power in the fictitious African country of Zangaro. Rounding out the cast is Tom Berenger (Drew Blakeley), Colin Blakely (Alan North), Paul Freeman (Derek Goodwin), Hugh Millais (Roy Endean), JoBeth Williams (Jessie Shannon), Winston Ntshona (Dr. Okoye), and Ed O’ Neill (Terry).

The film opens up in war torn Central America circa 1980 as the mercenary group is trying to make a hasty exit aboard a government plane as bullets and explosions are happening all around them. Shannon and his men push their way on board and force the plane into the air as soon as possible. Just within these few short minutes, you clearly can tell what their profession is and that they are not there working for the Peace Corp or distributing bibles for that matter. In this scene, a Central American army officer notices that one of the mercs is dead and demands that he give up his seat.

Drew (Berenger) pulls the pin out of a grenade and puts it in the palm of his dead comrade and tells the soldier “he’s alive you pimp.” Walken then barks, “he’s alive and he goes with me.” Derek (Freeman) looks towards the camera and with a knife he yells at the pilots “lets see this thing fly.” One of the best opening scenes of any action or war film ever. These are professionals you don’t want to mess with.

Once back in the states in his low rent NYC apartment, Shannon is contacted by a man named Roy Endean (Millais) who offers Shannon fifteen thousand dollars to pose as a tourist in the African nation of Zangaro which is ruled by a paranoid and ruthless dictator known as President Kimba. Endean and the people he represents want to shift control of the government over to a new regime under Kimba’s rival Colonel Sekou Bobi (George Harris) in order to control the country’s vast supply of platinum resources.

This recon mission will supply Endean’s people with the necessary facts of how the country can be toppled with a coup d’ etat. Shannon poses as a nature photographer who specializes in birds, which is a better cover story rather than a random tourist in a place like Amin’s Uganda. Walken delivers the best line saying “Who the hell is going to Zangaro as a tourist”?

After gathering the intelligence that he was sent for, Shannon returns home and is given more funds to now help Endean overthrow Kimba. Shannon wants out of the mission due to the nature of Kimba’s brutal regime and begins to get cold feet. Endean offers Shannon one hundred thousand dollars plus more for obtaining what he needs, and to recruit his former team to invade Zangaro with a mercenary army.

The remainder of the film is thick with the political intrigue that you would expect from a Forsyth novel. Shannon meets up with his team members in London where they plan the coup against Zangaro and its capital city Clarence where Kimba’s seat of power is. Shannon and his team do whatever it takes to bribe, steal, and cajole whatever they can out of the many seedy arms dealers who specialize in new and radical weapons such as Shannon’s grenade launcher known as the “XM-18” which is a multiple round, tactical weapon.

Irvin does a fantastic job along with editor Anthony Gibbs to deliver a suspenseful political intrigue/war picture. Tom Berenger is fantastic as Shannon’s right-hand man Drew who has been with him in some of the world’s worst hot spots. Veteran British character actor Paul Freeman (best known for his role as French archaeologist Rene Belloq in Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) plays Derek Goodwin, an ex-British S.A.S. operative who has also fought alongside Shannon and Drew for many years.

The film was largely shot on location in Belize City, Belize which doubled nicely for a West African country. John Irvin began his career as a documentarian who had shot some programs for the BBC about America’s involvement in Vietnam and The Dogs of War serves as a film which proves his ability as a master genre director. Irvin would later go on to direct the highly acclaimed Vietnam war film Hamburger Hill (1987) and the World War II HBO drama When Trumpets Fade (1998) which also met with much critical success.

The Dogs of War is available on DVD from MGM/UA Home Video & can be rented through Netflix.

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