Adaptations of Frederick Forsyth novels quite possibly peaked too soon with 1975’s The Day of the Jackal, arguably the thriller writer’s most renowned work, far more so than The Dogs of War.
In some ways it feels unfair to compare the two, given they tread different geopolitical waters, but you always know what you’re getting with a Forsyth story. A global travelogue, international espionage and intrigue, a shady hero (or anti-hero) and lots of old, powerful men plotting conspiracies behind closed doors. John Irvin’s adaptation of The Dogs of War is right in that wheelhouse and does exactly what it says on the Forsyth tin, often indeed in a rather formulaic and forgettable way. Even the initial Shakespearean allusions and a flicker of post-The Deer Hunter psychological trauma for Christopher Walken’s central mercenary James Shannon isn’t really sustained as The Dogs of War descends into the muck and mire of shadowy corruption.
Ultimately, The Dogs of War as a piece doesn’t quite warrant the pedigree of those who have assembled before it in front of and behind the camera.
John Irvin isn’t a directorial name who has passed into the annals of legend, despite a few projects which stand out – Hamburger Hill, Ghost Story and helming the celebrated first BBC adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – and The Dogs of War isn’t a picture which will make anyone wish he had.
Originally, after Forsyth’s novel was published and United Artists picked up the rights, hard-boiled director Don Siegel was poised to lens the film, as was The Deer Hunter’s Michael Cimino (he might have been wise to rather than embark on Heaven’s Gate…), and later celebrated filmmaker Norman Jewison (who eventually just produced), and one wonders if The Dogs of War might have ended up a more skilled, impactful geopolitical thriller with one of these auteurs steering the ship. Under Irvin, it feels listless, never quite sure what genre it wants to play in – war movie, espionage, revenge thriller, hostage drama. It flirts with all of them and never entirely settles.
Crucially, and perhaps criminally, it doesn’t make the most of Christopher Walken’s talents either. The script or story doesn’t allow him the dark flamboyance of King of New York or the happy psychosis of A View to a Kill, rather landing him in a stultifying role as Shannon—a haunted merc who exacts a cold vengeance on the tinpot African dictator who leaves him for dead—which may have benefited an actor with deeper morose intensity. David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone suffered from the same problem. Walken is always best when he has a glint of eccentricity or madness in his eye but that’s not evident here, and he’s relied upon to carry much of the picture on his shoulders. Even his central, underwritten romance with JoBeth Williams never gets going.
Around him are a parade of skilled, particularly British character actors – Colin Blakely, George Harris, Paul Freeman, even an early blink and you’ll miss cameo from a pre-fame Jim Broadbent – and others such as Tom Berenger, but they’re not quite enough to help shoulder the film when the fairly plodding script moves from one style to another, as Walken’s Shannon is sent to scope out the fictional African dictatorship of Zangaro in advance of a potential coup and finds himself captured and horrifically tortured. So follows a knotty, political narrative which no doubt worked better on the page, as Irvin struggles to convey the intrigue behind Harris’ corrupt, swaggering exiled replacement and a sinister British government looking to exert some post-colonial capitalism in the region.
Eureka’s release isn’t even particularly up to the usual snuff, with absolutely no extras or making of material to supplement or enhance the picture. We do get two additional versions of the film – the international and American release with extended scenes, but when you compare to recent output such a High Noon and the depth of detail and features in that release, The Dogs of War just doesn’t hold a candle. These alternative cuts are likely to be primarily of interest to established fans of the film and, well, they’re not exactly likely to be legion. There simply isn’t enough to justify the asking price, even with a limited edition booklet thrown in including legendary movie critic Pauline Kael’s original review.
Fairly forgettable in the annals of Frederick Forsyth novels and the careers of all concerned, The Dogs of War is staid, average and ultimately doesn’t make for too rewarding and experience.
The Dogs of War is now available on Blu-Ray from Eureka Entertainment.