Farewell to the King (1989)

The Days of High Adventure: A Journey through Adventure Film

Director/Screenwriter: John Milius

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By Roderick Heath

John Milius, New Wave Hollywood’s wilfully wild, pseudo-shamanic antihero, was an anachronistic figure even as a crucial member of the vanguard of young filmmakers who helped reinvent commercial Hollywood cinema in the 1970s. A collaborator with Francis Coppola and George Lucas, reputedly lovingly caricatured by Lucas in American Graffiti (1973) and the Coen Brothers in The Big Lebowski (1997), Milius belonged to ranks of that also included Terrence Malick, Michael Cimino, Paul Schrader, Walter Hill, John Sayles, and Philip Kaufman, who laboured as screenwriters or script doctors whilst trying to get a directing career moving. Several of the films Milius helped pen, including Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Magnum Force (1973), and Apocalypse Now (1979), seem as or more powerfully under Milius’ influence as their directors. Milius found directing success with Dillinger (1973), The Wind and the Lion (1975), and Big Wednesday (1978), and with the big hits Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984), seemed poised to enter his major career phase.

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Yet Milius soon after almost vanished from cinema screens, partly because two ignored films caused him, like some other failing ’80s heroes that include Joe Dante and John Carpenter, to take refuge in TV movies, and also because Milius, as a demonstrative conservative and gun freak, rendered himself fatally excluded from the mythology of modern Hollywood and critical sympathy. Milius’ wingnut sensibility has always seemed a rebellious outflowing of the transgressive, bullish streak of the self-described “Zen anarchist” (or Zen fascist, depending on which account you read), a streak that certainly informs his films, which reveal a depth of humanistic feeling, literate intelligence, and emotional veracity far greater than his image would suggest. It doesn’t feel like any particularly great contradiction to say that the hero of Farewell to the King, who describes himself boastfully as a Communist, still seems like a Milius self-portrait, as both contain the seeds of gleeful, provocative pride, and an awareness of their externality as instinctive battlers in a settled, pacified, and blandly centrist world.

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Milius’ small but largely impressive directorial oeuvre encompasses a wealth of artistic contradiction and richness, and makes him stand alongside Steven Spielberg as the foremost practitioner of the adventure tale in modern cinema. Even Red Dawn, commonly caricatured as an apotheosis of mindless Reaganite aggression, is actually as often a darkly pensive and brutally ambivalent fantasia of war on a home front as it is a rousing, gleefully partisan action flick. Milius’ follow-up, which might have been expected after the popular success of his last two films to have been a big event, nonetheless sank practically without trace. To describe this as a pity is rather too weak, as Farewell to the King saw Milius produce his most self-analytical and contradictory work; indeed it could be one of the great modern American films. The experience wasn’t a happy one for the filmmaker, who felt that it was his best work but one compromised by studio editing. Adapted from a novel by French critical but empathetic war writer and filmmaker Pierre Schoendoerffer, Farewell to the King is Milius at his most high-flown and heroic, yet self-critical and fascinating in the contradictions of his instinctive humanism and admiration for warrior grit. Moreover, he follows Schoendoerffer’s intriguing and purposeful rewrite of Conradian tales like Lord Jim and Heart of Darkness, which Milius helped to transform into Apocalypse Now, in a post-colonial fashion that plays some engaging and ironic games with the notion of a white man lording it over an aboriginal populace, as well as celebrating, as many of Milius’ works do, a contrapuntal, multicultural energy in cultures meeting and melding even in the course of clashing. The tone of Farewell to the King is established by an opening voiceover from British botanist and former soldier Fairbourne (Nigel Havers), who, looking back on his personal glory days as the film will detail, rhapsodises: “He was the last King of Borneo. It’s all right to tell his tale now. The wind has swept away the stench of the corpses. And all that we remember is the flare of our youth.”

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Milius’ films are repeatedly defined by a quality of being at once immediate and nostalgic, alternately weirdly joyous and somberly elegiac in their sense of life and death. His titanic heroes are often deeply aware of their own mortality and the wane of their best days even as they best great enemies and elements: certainly this is true of the surfer-knights of Big Wednesday, and here again this mood dominates. The contradictory viewpoint defined by Fairbourne’s words sustains this sensation, as he looks back with a commingled sense of horror and moral reckoning, but also ecstatic longing for times of action and consequence. Fairbourne is parachuted into Borneo in early 1945 along with a sergeant, Tenga (Frank McRae), who’s African, under assignment to organise the mountain tribes into a guerrilla force to help kick out the Japanese. He finds that many of the tribes have already been united under a king, and more fantastically, the king is a former American Navy sailor named Learoyd (Nick Nolte). Shipwrecked on Borneo after fleeing the fall of the Philippines with some other sailors who were then killed by Japanese patrols under a colonel who rides a signature white horse, Learoyd struggled through the jungle and was found near death by villagers. They were fascinated by the totemic dragon tattoo on his chest and spared his life. Eventually, Learoyd grew strong again and learnt the local dialect, as prelude to his challenging for supremacy over the tribe that adopted him.

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Learoyd’s narrative is filled with familiar refrains of an Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque tale, as he defeated the warrior Lian the Magnificent in single combat and won the overlordship of the tribe, romanced and married Yoo (Marilyn Tokuda), a princess and sister of Learoyd’s loyal friend Gwai (Gerry Lopez, a Milius regular). After becoming leader of one tribe, he then asserted leadership over many more, building a kingdom. Far from a petty dictator or warlord, however, Learoyd, a labor organizer and radical from before the war, has been working with the energised and receptive locals in building an almost idyllic communal existence, an existence threatened as much by Fairbourne’s call to join the outside world as by the Japanese: the liberalised modern world’s struggle to be born in the eye of World War II’s clash of military-industrial blocs is one Learoyd is already presaging, through living a retroactive dream of recreated chivalry. But one brings the other down upon their head: Fairbourne’s radio communications with his base bring Zeros to rain death upon the villagers, and Learoyd, infuriated, insists to Fairbourne that he will only aid the Allies if they give him and his people a guarantee of post-war independence. Fairbourne puts the proposal to his commanding officer, Col. Ferguson (James Fox), and in turn, Douglas MacArthur (John Bennett Perry). MacArthur, fascinated by the mystique of another man with affectations of the warlord like himself, signs the treaty. But Ferguson keeps Fairbourne mindful that the treaty will certainly be ignored after the war: “History will wash his hands,” he says of MacArthur, “Not yours.”

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“How can a Communist be a king?” Fairbourne prods Learoyd, whose name is a Francophonic pun, to which the Yankee replies, “Only a Communist would’ve thought of it!” Learoyd, first encountered by Fairbourne and Tenga when they’re laid at his feet, seems at first a man who has passed through the gate of some immense experience that’s left him with a seer-like aspect, with an intense, bore-through-your-bones glare and a mastery of a rhapsodic, crypto-spiritual rhetoric expected of a great leader in a “primitive” culture, his blonde hair having grown into a lion’s mane. “He’s white!” Fairbourne gasps to Tenga, “As white as you or I!”, an exclamation to which the Kikuyu sergeant gives a suitably nonplussed expression. When the emissaries of the hated larger world are brought into a roundhouse that is Learoyd’s “palace,” it proves to have been built around a round table, upon which the King climbs and narrates his tale with formal, almost dancelike intensity and strutting showiness. Learoyd has been constructing a pan-cultural wonderland, having adopted the local religious sensibility and its cultural maxims of ritualised displays of power and mastery over unseen forces, which speaks purely to a streak of both dramatic flimflam in the erstwhile royal, and also to a more genuine streak of pantheism and ancestor worship that he grasps intuitively. Milius deliberately revisits a moment in Apocalypse Now when he has Learoyd appear in the night before a captive and trussed-up Fairbourne and Tenga, like Colonel Kurtz does at one point; where Kurtz was malefic in aspect, Learoyd resolves finally as good-natured and boisterous in his half-lunatic, half-genius life-love.

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Learoyd has given to his “kingdom” a host of mismatched cultural tropes that nonetheless bespeak of the inheritance of the modern world in bonding traditions of communal strength, such as adopting an Arthurian roundtable as the basis of a new social discourse, and using the Irish ditty “The Rising of the Moon” as a marching song. In his narration of his rise as King, Learoyd recalls when his first tribe had wanted to make war on another because of a Romeo-and-Juliet love affair, he gave the woman advice out of Lysistrata that shut the war down immediately. His intelligent leadership eventually inspired a unification that grew to include many other tribes, even a practically Neolithic one living in a secret and idyllic glade in the mountains approachable only through a cave. Learoyd’s desire to protect his burgeoning kingdom is registered immediately as an impediment that must be cleared away by Fairbourne, whose adherence to his military and culturally prescribed role is finally unswerving even as he falls under the spell of Learoyd’s charisma and brilliance as a leader, a brilliance that is manifest most strikingly on a level of moral judgement and discernment. Learoyd is not so entirely earnest that he’s lost all sense of the irony of his situation, but he does nonetheless tackle his appointed role more seriously than Fairbourne can, at first, rightly believe. Farewell to the King quickly reveals itself as a piece of considered auteurist self-argument: the moment where Learoyd evoked Colonel Kurtz, who constructed a similar empire in the wilderness but defined by madness and destruction, signals Milius’ reconstruction of the figure into his mirror image, a bountifully intelligent and good-hearted natural leader whose works are destroyed by the evil of the world, the Heart of Darkness inverted.

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Milius intriguingly comments on a scene from one of his favourite movies, Lawrence of Arabia (1962; Milius notably utilised Lawrence’s editor Anne V. Coates), in which Fairbourne, like Lawrence, recognises himself, as a neutral in a tribal setting, as capable of enacting a prickly law to satisfy both sides. But whereas Lawrence took a guilty but liberated, sadistic pleasure in acting like godlike judge of a murderer, Fairbourne is faced with a worse predicament: as per the custom of one tribe, the child of a recently dead mother must also die, but another of Learoyd’s tribes, from which the mother came, would then demand vengeance on the killers, thus evoking the spectre of another blood feud. Fairbourne volunteers to execute the child instead, and seems primed to do so before Learoyd suddenly interrupts and claims the child. “How could you do that?” Learoyd demands, appalled, of the Englishman, who retorts in relief, “How could you let me?”

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Finally, once the threat of violence from the Japanese becomes unavoidable, and the Allies sign off however speciously to Learoyd’s demands, he begins planning for action, with Fairbourne bringing in a handful of Allied specialists, including South African explosives expert Conklin (Marius Weyers). Fairbourne, afflicted with malaria, nearly turns a scouting mission into a disaster, as he dizzily gets too close to Japanese guards while trying to take photos and provokes a gunfight. Fairbourne stumbles off into the jungle, and Learoyd has to track him down, managing to locate him at the same time as the white horse-riding Japanese colonel, forcing Learoyd to make a heroic dash carrying a limp and senseless Fairbourne across a rice paddy. The colonel, Mitamura (Aki Aleong), proves to be more than just an image of death and a symbolic antagonist, but the very real threat that hangs over Learoyd’s world.

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The pantheistic urges in the works of David Lean and Akira Kurosawa, two of Milius’ favourite filmmakers, become in his work overarching truths, perhaps indeed the only specific truth. The symbolic as well as physical force of the waves in Big Wednesday is again invoked here, the thundering, glittering surf from which Learoyd crawls twice in the course of the film. Just as the surfers of the earlier film are reborn through tackling the giant waves, here they presage Learoyd’s deliverance from the larger world’s predations and Arthurian anointment as the Once and Future King. Few would think of Milius in the same frames of reference as Terrence Malick, and yet Milius’ concerns here are strikingly similar to Malick’s meditation on modern war crashing into the idyll of Pacific tribes in The Thin Red Line (1998), rendered in altogether different but ultimately no less mythopoeic style, and indeed perhaps less naïve in its contemplation of tribal and modern civilisations less as conflicting realms of innocence and corruption, but in a dialectic of experience and impulse. The constant, nagging desire underlying modern Western civilisation best defined by Rousseau, to revert to a pre-technological state and regain the pleasures of the physically and morally simple ,is one Milius wrestles with in his films, hand in hand with his love of warrior nobility, a nobility he’s not above pondering critically. One of Farewell’s most affecting shots depicts Learoyd cradling Yoo, the light falling on her while he remains mostly in darkness, saying of war that it’s “the only good thing men can do.” To which he wife replies with sad scepticism, “Men dream.”

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War indeed presages destruction of Learoyd’s loves as all conquest presages the absorption of the renegade by the greater force. Yet so appealing is the world that Learoyd has built that almost everyone who comes to it finishes up being absorbed into it—black African Tenga, white African Conklin, even Japanese soldiers—except for Fairbourne, who is kept tethered to his sense of duty less by philosophy than the fact he’s in love with Ferguson’s secretary Vivienne (Elan Oberon) and, more implicitly, to an awareness that reality cannot be circumvented; as a scientist, he understands the genesis of species. Ferguson himself, sensing the danger of Fairbourne’s admiration for Learoyd and his world, warns him to avoid going native for reasons that are as arbitrary as they are consequential: “It’s not contempt,” Ferguson tells Fairbourne with contemplative gravitas, “It’s a line of conduct.” Ferguson’s mutually exclusive worldview cannot, however, help but be defined by contempt, and jealousy for anyone who considers existence outside of a settled order, a dream Learoyd has tried to make true. Like all utopian dreams, Learoyd’s finally founders on reality, and yet his world is the dream of the world in small.

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The contradictory character of Fairbourne’s reminiscences extend when the “days of peace” end and Learoyd’s band of warriors venture down through the jungle to do battle: “The death-agony of the Japanese Army in Borneo was as sad as the sinking of a great ship…hunger, men eating weeds, leeches, insects, and each other—despair—madness…for me, for us, the same period was as thrilling as a cavalry charge, may god forgive us.” This cues an ironically high-flown montage of Learoyd, Fairbourne, and the others exalting in triumphant battle against their crumbling foe, cueing even a nod by Milius to Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as they destroy a bridge modelled on the one in Lean’s classic as Basil Poledouris’ score surges in heroic zest. But boyish triumphalism gives way to fathomless horror as their guerrilla army must contend with Mitamura’s elusive “phantom” column, which, fleeing the Allies on the coast, works its way inland apparently wiping out everyone in its path. Tracking this enemy, Tenga is the first to realise that Mitamura’s column has turned cannibalism into a survival method, and the realisation of the depths to which Mitamura’s men have sunk sparks a race to prevent the column from reaching the Comanche capital. Milius pulls off a bravura sequence with nightmarish overtones as Learoyd and his army try to set an ambush for the column in the moonlight, the eerie sight of the enemy marching silhouetted against the sky, only to vanish when the moon is swallowed by cloud; when Fairbourne fires off a flare, a strobing vision of yowling, demonic enemy soldiers charging their position are glimpsed before a chaotic melee is joined. As dawn comes over the battlefield Learoyd realises that the much of Mitamura’s force slipped through, and nothing now stands between it and the home village.

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The escalation of war into blood-rage apocalypse reaches apotheosis as the column massacres the home village, including Yoo, who is last glimpsed facing the arriving army with a machine gun in hand like a stone standing against the tide. Learoyd’s heart-wrenching scream of despair erupts from the roundhouse where he finds the bodies of the slaughtered villagers. He sets alight roundhouse as their pyre, and then tracks down the column, trapped in a gorge, and slaughters the soldiers en masse in a moment of nihilistic vengeance that coincides, not coincidentally, with the bombing of Hiroshima: Learoyd’s attempts to remain separate from the tide of history have instead only led him to mimic its patterns precisely. Learoyd, once the wildness of grief is exculpated, throws away his gun and vows never to kill another man, leaving Fairbourne to continue the hunt for Mitamura. Fairbourne is injured in battle and crawls into a grotto where he desperately pleads with the shadows for Learoyd’s aid. But he awakens instead in a British Army hospital with Vivienne, and he learns that Mitamura finally surrendered to Learoyd, whose warriors have since fired upon the Allied soldiers trying to enter the highlands. Faced with either betraying Learoyd by giving Ferguson vital information on how to force Learoyd into surrender—he knows that the tribes can’t live without the supplies of salt they get from the sea, and can easily be cut off from obtaining it—or precipitating another military assault on the kingdom, Fairbourne chooses the lesser evil, and soon Learoyd and Mitamura hand themselves over in exchange for salt supplies. Learoyd is beaten to a bloody pulp by Australian soldiers angry at his resistance, whilst Mitamura is sentenced to be executed for war crimes.

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The final irony of Farewell to the King comes as Mitamura proves hardly a monster, or even an effete psychopath, but rather a gentlemanly and magnanimous soldier with perfect English: whereas Learoyd and the tribal folk, who have personal reasons to hate this enemy, accept his surrender and absorb him into their number as a repentant, the larger world can only claim his head. He explains calmly to a stiffly inquisitive Fairbourne that he tried to obey his orders as long as possible. He accepts the consequences without dispute: thinking with genuine weight on Fairbourne’s questions, he essentially states that far from representing any degenerate tendency, he represents only a last recourse for the particular, world-shaping principles to which he was obedient, in this case imperialistic militarism. The peculiar beauty of Farewell to the King is finally highlighted in the care with which it complicates the seemingly Boy’s Own precepts of the tale to a point where villains and heroes, past and present, tribe and superpower are all hard to distinguish except in the push and pull of noble and bestial impulses in all of the characters. Learoyd, for his part, is sent home as a prisoner to be tried for desertion on the same ship that Fairbourne takes out of Borneo. When fate gives him the chance after the ship runs aground a reef, Fairbourne springs Learoyd from the brig, and Learoyd is able to leap overboard and swim to shore, vanishing into the unknown with a final surge of Poledouris’ scoring of “The Rising of the Moon.” Fairbourne salutes him, exultant at his first act of rebellion and truest act of loyalty.

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