Travel books were extremely popular in the mid-1800s, especially those that described adventures in exotic places. Westerners absolutely loved reading Herman Melville’s accounts in Typee and Omoo about seamen who lived among cannibals in the Marquesas or with friendlier folk in Tahiti and Moorea. Fellow seaman/novelist Joseph Conrad also struck literary gold with Lord Jim, about a disgraced and tormented sailor who got a second chance living among Polynesians. With the lure of Tahiti and Fiji still drawing travelers who fantasize about getting away from it all and living in paradise, it’s surprising that more films like “Farewell to the King” haven’t been made. Then again, maybe they’re not all that easy to pull off.
Of the modern-era South Seas films that have plunked Westerners down among native people, only “The Bounty” (1984) really hit the mark—and that film was helped by a bounty of unadorned feminine R-rated beauty. Even with Peter O’Toole’s considerable talents, “Lord Jim” (1965) overstayed its welcome, and Burt Lancaster’s swaggering acrobatics couldn’t elevate “His Majesty O’Keefe”(1953) above the standard pirate fare. So it was with a mixture of apprehension and eagerness that I popped in “Farewell to the King,” a 1988 film starring Nick Nolte. With a script and direction from John Milius, who wrote the screenplay to “Apocalypse Now,” I hoped it might be a wonderful addition to the genre. After all, the concept showed promise: An American deserter after the fall of Manila gets lost in the jungles of Borneo and falls into the hands of headhunters. After a fight to the death, Learoyd finds himself Rajah, king of these people. But an advance squad of Allies trying to enlist the natives in a defense of the island against the Japanese threatens to disrupt Learoyd’s idyllic existence. And things get even worse when the Japanese land on the island before the Allies do.
As the sarong-wearing, bare-chested, long-haired Learoyd, Nolte looks only slightly less scruffy than he did on his recent police mug shot. And though he tries his darnedest to display a wide range of emotions and reactions, his own limitations and a surprisingly trite script run the cheese factor and cliché count to dangerous levels. If we were talking radioactive isotopes, the Geiger counter would be going crazy.
“I brought them the joy of song,” Learoyd says in voiceover narration, while in another scene we see him wave to the crowd as he enters his honeymoon hut. When a dispute over a child that comes straight out of the Old Testament threatens to set the villagers against each other, Learoyd settles the matter in a very un-Solomonlike manner. “My child,” he says, like a petulant child himself, then hugs the little girl for the longest time. During each of these moments, the cheesiest music plays, as if to tap into our Pavlovian reflexes and make us feel all warm and fuzzy. The trouble is, the lines themselves aren’t all that great. And for an idyllic existence, there’s precious little time spent illustrating the good life or developing character relationships outside of the basic storyline. Everything is way too short-cut scripted. The battles come and go too quickly, with no build-up or twists, and the plot skims along like an outrigger on a glassy sea with nary a ripple. Even when King Learoyd has a few demands that he wants the botanist to take to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, it’s all so unbelievably facile. One guard says something about no access, and the next thing you know Doug is signing the treaty and saying all sorts of noble things about this deserter.
Based on a novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer and filmed in Waimea Bay, Hawaii and Malaysia, “Farewell to the King” just isn’t as rich or exciting as you expect it to be. And Nolte doesn’t mesmerize us the way we need a white king in Borneo to wow us. The two most engaging performers are actually the first whites to drop in on Learoyd’s little paradise: Nigel Havers as a British botanist in the service of His Majesty’s armed forces, and his radio man, an affable African (Frank McRae). When they’re on camera they’re fun to watch. What’s more, they make you realize that others in this film aren’t all that fun to watch. As an adventure in paradise, “Farewell to the King” is paint-by-numbers when it had the potential to be a Gauguin.
Video: The Deluxe Panavision print is faded and grainy throughout, though understandably this isn’t the sort of film a studio would spend money on to restore. That said, it’s still quite watchable.
Audio: The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround with a French audio option that comes with an asterisk: it contains “some missing dialog.” Like the film, the sound isn’t as rich and full as you’d hope, with a flatness that drives the bass and treble to a middle tonal ground.
Extras: There are no extras.
Bottom Line: “Farewell to the King” was a strong enough concept to have inspired a much better film than this one. Flat lines on paper end up being flat lines delivered, and the plot itself takes a straight-arrow course that makes the entire journey feel disappointing.