In a cameo appearance in the new film Farewell to the King, Gen. Douglas MacArthur pops up to suggest that “History is written by unusual men.” The movie seeks to tell the story of one unusual man, a man who would be king.
It’s intended as a sword-rattling boys’ adventure, adapted by director John Milius from a novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer. Milius loves the epic sweep of this type of story; he also made The Wind and the Lion, and he wrote Apocalypse Now. Clearly Farewell to the King is his Bridge on the River Kwai, and he splashes the screen with broad, ambitious strokes.
The movie follows a young British officer (Nigel Havers, recently seen as the doctor in Empire of the Sun) into the Borneo jungle in 1945. The Japanese are still present, but the Allies have turned the tide and are about to, as Havers puts it, “recapture – er, liberate the island.” Deep in the jungle, Havers and his companion (Frank McRae) stumble across a remarkable man.
The man is known as “Leroyd,” a corruption of the French phrase for “king.” He is an American soldier who has escaped from the Philippines a few years earlier, and he has gone native with a vengeance. A strong man with a mane of orange hair, he has become king of a few jungle tribes, and he has married one of their honored women (Marilyn Tokuda). He is played, with some magnificence, by Nick Nolte.
The problem at hand is that the serene jungle existence of the tribe is about to be overrun by the warring Japanese and Allies. Leroyd does not want to get involved at all, but the violence of the war forces his hand.
There are a number of interesting elements at play here. Oddly, Milius seems unable to fashion them into a really stirring narrative. Although there’s plenty of nervous creeping through the jungle (atmospherically filmed in Malaysia), the actual storytelling has a tendency to clump, especially as told in two distinct halves, separated by Havers’ brief return to civilization. The skeleton or a great movie is here, but the flesh is weak.
The characters talk a lot about the movie’s themes, such as the elusiveness of freedom. In fact, for an adventure movie, there’s all too much talk, and not enough action. Leroyd can talk all he wants about having duplicated King Arthur’s round table when he describes his peaceful jungle life, but we don’t actually see much evidence of Camelot.
First published in The Herald, March 1989
Milius spoke of the film being badly cut by Orion Pictures, and perhaps that explains some of the problems. It’s a terrific idea for a movie, and Nolte is great, but the movie on screen doesn’t fill out its very grand ideas.