John Milius is tough. There, I said it. A director and writer who became fairly well known in the late 1970s and the 1980s, Milius doesn't have a long, sprawling filmography. He's directed a little more than a handful of movies with almost 30 writing credits to his names as well. I've enjoyed the Milius entries -- directing and/or writing -- I've seen and can now check another one off the list, one of his lesser known efforts (and maybe for a reason), 1989's Farewell to the King.
It's early in World War II, and an American deserter, Learoyd (Nick Nolte), manages to escape Bataan and Corregidor with several other deserters. They land on Borneo, Learoyd again managing to survive while the other deserters are caught and executed by the Japanese. Learoyd retreats into the jungle, trying to survive. Some three years later, WWII's tide has turned and the Japanese are holding onto their last footholds across the Pacific. A special forces officer, Captain Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), is being dropped into Borneo to unite the native tribes on the island in an effort to lead a guerrilla movement against the retreating Japanese forces. Who does he find in charge of the natives, including a headhunting tribe, but Learoyd himself, looked at as a god by the natives. Can Fairbourne manage to convince the eccentric American deserter turned king to fight with the Allies with the war seemingly in grasp?
Well, this was certainly an interesting movie, if not necessarily a good one. A bomb at the box office in 1989, 'Farewell' was only called to my attention by a fellow blogger and all-around good guy Chris at Nothing Is Written. You can read his review HERE. I liked it more than him, but the flaws are evident all over the place in this Milius film. It is safe to say I liked the idea, premise and potential of the movie here more than the actual execution which ends up being all over the place in a movie that runs about 115 minutes. Milius has said in interviews that 'Farewell' was taken away from in post-production and hacked to pieces by the studio. It certainly seems like it could be true. The story is rushed at times, whole explanatory scenes seemingly hacked away, and in general, my thought was that the idea of a good movie is there. In the end, simply too much is on the plate, Milius trying to accomplish too much.
Let's start with the King himself, Nick Nolte. I can't make up my mind about this titular performance for good or bad. The biggest thing is that Nolte may not have been the right choice for the part. It is a character that demands a lot, but at no point did I really get a sense of why these tribes in Borneo are drawn to Learoyd. Yes, we're told his blue eyes, blonde hair and dragon tattoo on his chest are all reasons, but there's got to be something more than that, right? Nolte's Learoyd spouts a lot of mumbo-jumbo about nature and its power, of living life the right way. The goal seems to be to say something profound and deep, but it comes across as heavy-handed and aggressively dumb. He tries to be too Father Earthy, and it falls short. Much of the time, Nolte's gruff, gravelly-voiced demeanor works in tough guy parts but here I felt like something more was needed that simply isn't.
The parts that do work feature Learoyd and Captain Fairbourne, the special forces officer sent to assemble a native insurrection. The acting isn't great, but the idea of the Fairbourne character is certainly interesting, a variation on the naive, innocent Joyce character from Bridge on the River Kwai. He's been through all the training, knows how to kill most effectively...but he's never had to do it and now he's thrust into a bloody, gruesome guerrilla warfare. Also look for Frank McCrae as Tenga, Fairbourne's Australian radioman, with Marius Weyers, William Wise, Wayne Pygram and Richard Morgan rounding out the specialist team sent to train the natives, a wasted opportunity for some cool supporting characters. Gerry Lopez plays Gwai, Learoyd's right-hand man, Marilyn Tokuda playing Learoyd's wife.
'Farewell' does have plenty to offer. Composer Basil Poledouris turns in a memorable, sweeping score that becomes a key ingredient in the story. Milius and cinematographer Dean Semler helm a visually stunning movie, the locations in Borneo looking almost like a classic painting. The scene-to-scene transitions are as good if not better than the actual story. Some visuals especially stand out, including the build-up to an ambush of a Japanese column and the fallout as weather rolls in. There is about 45 minutes near the second half of the movie where 'Farewell' really hits its stride but it has bookends that aren't on the same level. As Learoyd, Fairbourne, the specialists and the natives join the war, that is the movie at its strongest.
Chris' review accurately pointed out how much 'Farewell' seems to borrow from other movies, and again, he's dead-on. The message and idea is there, but actually getting it across is a different thing. Milius never truly gets that message across. The finale feels downright rushed, the corrupt British (including very British James Fox) turning on the natives. If there is a director's cut out there, I'd be curious to see it. There is the potential for a good, even really good movie, among the pieces but as is, it is an interesting if heavily flawed final product.
Farewell to the King (1989): **/****