"The Wild Geese," now at area theaters, is a negligible, time-killing combat melodrama contrived around a mercenary mission impossible. Richard Burton, obviously well beyong the fighting trim of his "Desert Rats" days but hanging in gamely and exercising command with a relative lack of hysteria, recruits a 50-man contingent to rescue a deposed, imprisoned African politican, apparently a moderate leader about to be executed by a despotic rival.

On the brink of complete success the mercenaries are victimized by a double-cross. They rescue the hostage and transport him to a nearby airfield, but the plane they expect to pick them up is ordered to leave them to the mercy of advancing hostiles. For reasons of state and/or profit that are never clarified, the copper magnate (Stewart Granger) who commissioned the operation has decided to betray his own mercenaries.

This betrayal performs the convenient melodramatic trick of depoliticizing the plot. The pros and cons of African political conflict or mercenary soldiering are obscured by the self-contained ordeal of honorable fighting men struggling to survive after being sold out by a dishonorable employer.

Not that the filmmakers hazard much ambiguity in the first place. Some of the mercenaries may be tarnished by bad reputations and sordid occupations in civilian life, but they remain Our Guys. The rival camp consists of so many interchangeable and expendable extras. As officers, Burton engages Richard Harris, an idealist and master tactician devoted to his adoring, angel-faced little boy; Roger Moore as a roguish Irish adventurer who kills his gangster boss rather than participate in the heroin trade; and Hardy Kruger as a brusque but stouthearted Afrikaaner, destined to sacrifice his life for the noble black hostage, played by Winston Ntshoma, whom he initially regards with disdain.

The crosssection of cliches is further elaborated with the selection of noncoms: Jack Watson as a redoubtable sergeant major, John Kani (who shared the lead with Ntshona in Athol Fugard's play "Siwe Banzi Is Dead") as an affable young black mercenary and Kenneth Griffith as a flagrantly homosexual medic, destined to sacrifice himself in a heroic rearguard action, when he spits defiance and hot lead at an advancing horde of enemy soldiers.

For the purposes of half-awake action movie the characters probably suffice as a stalwart motely crew, and the acting is certainly serviceable. Logy as it is, Andrew V. McLaglen's direction seems to harmonize with the sort of war story in which the chief combatants might be nicknamed The Over-the-Hil Gang. McLaglen is especially lackluster with interiors and expository legwork.Although the pace picks up when the heroes are required to hotfoot it out of peril, the battle scenes often resolve themselves into a noisy clutter, possibly authentic in principle bu pictorially self-defeating in practice.

Conceived in a spirit of blandly conciliatory good will toward whites and blacks who share a Peaceful Vision of Africa's Future, the movie is far too cautious and conventional to develop an urgent head of melodramatic steam. McLaglen lacks the emotional rapport with desperate warriors that a Sam Peckinpah might have expressed, and the filmmakers seem absurdly reluctant to endorse this particular interventionist mission openly, assuming they believe the impeccabe sentiments they place in the mouth of Ntshona's character. Given a hostage this respectable, who could question the desirability of their intrusion?

The movie is likely to disappoint audiences by betraying conventional plot expectations after making nothing but conventional high signs. To be specific, it's rather downbeat to compensate for the mission's strategie failure by letting Burton take it out on Granger. Too compromised to be topical and too drab to be rousing. "The Wild Geese" fades away as a kind of ruptured duck of an action film.