Directed By: John Milius
Screenplay By: John Milius
Based on the book by Pierre Schoendoerffer
Produced By: Albert Ruddy and Andre Morgan
Cast: Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers, Frank McRae, James Fox
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Runtime: 115 minutes
Review Date: November 5, 2010
The opening shot of Farewell to the King observes a scraggly looking World War II soldier named Learoyd (a still sober Nick Nolte), cast black against the backdrop of a sun drenched ocean. The waves are embroiled in a tussle with the jagged rocks ashore, waves 10 feet high drowning the men who did not make it to land. It is 1942, and Learoyd can no longer take the war. Plagued by hallucinations that lead him deep into the forest, he discovers a foreign world awaiting him. Does this sound somewhat similar to Apocalypse Now? It should, considering writer/director John Milius also cowrote that timeless classic. Farewell to the King, while certainly a film worth admiring, does not reach the same levels of perfection as Coppola’s masterpiece.
Flash forward three years, and a small band of Allied soldiers led by Capt. Fairbourne (Nigel Havers, eerily reminiscent of Adrian Brody) parachute into the unknown jungle in Borneo. Their mission: persuade the indigenous natives to fight for them against the Japanese. Upon arrival to the lands of the Dayak people under less than amicable terms (bound to a wooden post and dragged through muddy waters), they discover that the King of the tribe is a white man. This shocks them at first, but through a series of flashbacks they discover the events that led to his royal ascension. These scenes are easily the film’s strongest, as they convey Learoyd’s early xenophobia and his eventual acceptance and inclusion into the tribe. It is an interesting observation of a foreign culture, told in a way that is considerate of their ideals and respectful of their way of life.
Then, about an hour into the film, everything goes south. It falls victim to a trap of clichés, ensnared in a film told countless times before. When Capt. Fairbourne calls in the rest of the platoon to teach the tribe the ways of modern warfare (insert a plethora of “OOOH! AHH! This is much more effective than a spear” shots), Learoyd becomes angry and resists. He has become attuned to Dayak way of life and fears tarnishing it with the rust of British weapons. When Japanese invaders threaten the tribe, Learoyd renounces his differences and summons his tribe to fight alongside the British. The rest of the film is a 30 minute action epic.
While the action is well shot, it is too often visited with slow motion embellishments and melodramatic deaths. What was once organic and raw becomes glossy with a fresh coat of Hollywood paint, and I must say the color doesn’t suit me. Nick Nolte saves the film, lending his character considerable depth and reverence for the material. He is completely enveloped by the culture of the Dayak, and it shows.
Overall, this is merely a good film that could have been great had it stuck to the energy and curiosity of its first half. It chooses a different route, one I assume chosen to appeal to a greater audience, but in doing so it lost what was important in the first place: Telling a story on a grand scale about the unknown power of the heart.
Kyle Kogan is a film critic living in Chicago.