Having co-written the magnificent Apocalypse Now (1979) with Francis Ford Coppola, the expectations are understandably high for John Milius. Sumptuously detailed and penetrating, some may never have tried to write anything ever again. Milius chose instead to revisit Apocalypse Now in a way but ended up with Farewell to the King, a ripple in the former’s wake. The source material is the novel of the same name by Pierre Schoendoerffer, though revered is not in the same league as Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. As such it never feels as meaningful and is far less engaging. If Milius had written the two films the other way around then there would not be the weight of expectation, he did however and Farewell to the King collapses under it.
US war deserter Learoyd (Nick Nolte) becomes the king of a tribe in Borneo after landing on the island and escaping the Japanese opponents. Enjoying life away from World War II he is dragged back into it by Captain Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), a Brit on a mission to inspire the Bornean tribes to rise up against the Japanese. After initially refusing his request, Learoyd joins the fight when his tribe is attacked though he is not fighting the same war, he fights to keep the freedom and solace he has found and protect the sanctity of his tribe. Fairbourne promises this after falling in love with Learoyd and his ideals but his commanders in the British and American armies see the situation differently.
Despite hurling you straight into the action, watching Learoyd wash ashore, escape the Japanese and challenge the incumbent leader of the tribe, the film never really gets going. Although there are some jungle scenes early on vaguely reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s masterpiece Aguirre, Wrath of God (1972) the characters feel even more inaccessible. This is not due to their expressionless exteriors like Aguirre…, rather a lack of desire to find a connection with them. Fairbourne is the closest the film comes to providing a character who is worthy of interest but he is never fully utilised. Learoyd occasionally demands attention but too often loses it in a mire of sanctimonious dialogue.
The main problem of this film is the direction however, the faults in the story and characters could have been forgiven had Milius created a more visually intriguing and stimulating film. The barrage of watery flashbacks, nauseating montages and jarring segue between acts leave little to be admired.
Farewell to the King is certainly not a bad film, it is a mildly enjoyable romp in jungle with Nick Nolte and Nigel Havers being at least watchable. The problem is that the memory of Apocalypse Now, and to some extent The Mission (1986), haunts Milius. An almost impossible achievement to repeat, swapping Conrad’s darkness for sweeping Hollywood dialogue was not a good choice. The rating of 2.5 stars here is telling, if Apocalypse Now is 5 stars then this film is exactly half as accomplished, a fair attempt rendered poorer by his own high standards.
Farewell to the King is released for the first time in Widescreen DVD format on 14th May 2012 courtesy of Second Sight.