DVD Review – Farewell to the King (1989)

Farewell to the King, 1989.

Directed by John Milius.
Starring Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers, Frank McRae and Gerry Lopez.


After escaping a Japanese firing squad during World War II, a renegade American soldier flees to Borneo where he is adopted by a local tribe and made their king.

John Milius’ career in film has seen a fascination with war. Mostly Vietnam, but as in Farwell to the King, WWII. The stories are personal, or – even in something like Conan the Barbarian – carry analogies of real life conflicts. Farewell to the King is something of a forgotten film in his canon. It went by largely unnoticed. It was neither critically lauded or mauled, it was just a brief ripple in Hollywood’s waters.

Based on Schoendoerffer’s novel, L’Adieu au Roi, this is also markedly similar to the now well-borrowed source, Heart Of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad. We’ve seen this story many times before, and not least in another Milius film – Apocalypse Now. The plot lines here carry a lot of similarities. Nick Nolte stars as soldier Leoroyd, who escapes capture and death at the hands of the Japanese and flees deep into the woods and wilderness in Borneo. There he discovers the tribespeople and somehow or other finds himself becoming their King. That is of course the main Conrad stamp that we’ve seen many, many times over. It was old hat in 1989, never mind by the time James Cameron decided to do it again in the bloated and excessive Avatar.

The major problem this film has is that Milius never quite pulls it off. It’s a misfire of almost epic proportions. The film’s structure is problematic. The drama descends all too often into melodrama. There is still something very intriguing about this film though. It’s an interesting watch, with the odd moment that works amongst all the misguided ones. Nick Nolte’s performance is indicative of this. He’s very much into his role. He gets right beneath the skin of Leoroyd. The problem is, Nolte takes it into wild, crazy-eyed, ham territory a few too many times. On occasion Leoroyd comes across as a raving, screaming loon. Perhaps it’s how intended, or perhaps I just couldn’t help but laugh at how similarly crazy-haired and barmy he looked in comparison to his infamous mug-shot a few years ago.

With some films you get the sense that some people involved thought they were carving their names into an Oscar statuette. This is one such film. You can almost hear some of the cast practicing their acceptance speeches when they’re reciting dialogue. It’s not just Nolte, but Coronation Street con-man Nigel Havers, who took a break from playing a cad to play a British Commando. That’s not to say though that neither hits their marks. On the whole they’re very good, but it just descends into a desperation at times. You almost feel like you being mugged of your attention instead of giving it willingly.

Milius’ direction is passionate, but hit-and-miss. It lacks strong focus and he injects too many stylistic flourishes that pass over effectiveness and delve into pretension. The film doesn’t look as eye catching as it could either, despite the interesting locations. Basil Poledouris provides a typically bombastic score, but it’s not enough to elevate and it’s nowhere near as good as his best work.

Overall this is a watchable failure which hits the mark intermittently. The intent and passion comes across just as much as the misfocused energies, but it’s understandable why this film hasn’t been seen by many. If you’ve watched Apocalypse Now once too often and need a break, then perhaps Farewell to the King can offer you something new.

Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★

Tom Jolliffe

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