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‘Farewell to the King’

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 03, 1989


John Milius
Nick Nolte;
Nigel Havers;
Frank McRae;
James Fox
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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John Milius, the director of the new Nick Nolte film "Farewell to the King," is a connoisseur of sweeping masculine yarns. He has a passion for exotic, faraway places, for deserts and jungles -- both urban and natural -- where men test themselves, define themselves and lead epic lives. Myth is what entices him. It's safe to say that very few dishes will ever be washed in his movies.

But scrubbing down the dishes might be more rousing than watching "Farewell to the King." Adapted by the director from the Pierre Schoendoerffer novel "L'Adieu au Roi," the picture elaborates on the adventures of an American Army sergeant named Learoyd, who deserts his service after washing ashore on Borneo in 1942 after the battle of Corregidor. Narrowly escaping capture by the Japanese, Learoyd fights his way inland through the jungle until he is discovered, nearly deranged, by a tribe of headhunting Dyak Indians. Cowed by the fire-breathing dragon tattooed on his chest, the Indians decide not to kill him and, instead, allow him to live with them, learn their language and, eventually, become their master.

"Farewell to the King" is enshrouded with an atmosphere of arrested adolescence -- it's like a boy's utopian dream of the simple, natural life among noble primitives, presented with the straightest of faces. The enemy -- as is the case in most boyish daydreams -- is civilization, and if a British officer named Fairbourne (Nigel Havers) and his radioman (Frank McRae) had not intruded on his idyll with orders to recruit the Dyaks in the British fight against the Japanese, the American might have lived out his days on the island, a king forever and forever contented.

From the evidence presented here, if John Milius has one regret in life it's that he wasn't born David Lean. Countless homages to "Lawrence of Arabia" are scattered throughout; its spirit seems to lurk behind nearly every scene. What Milius has set out to examine in "Farewell to the King" is the conflict within Learoyd over his dreams of peace and freedom for his beloved Indian subjects and his responsibility to the civilized world he has left behind. But except for Fairbourne's s hero worship and the idealized bonds of male friendship, there's nothing very vivid in it. Nor is Milius very adept at drawing out the King's agonies as he confronts his dilemma.

What's most striking about "Farewell to the King" is how indifferently made it is. With the possible exception of "The Wind and the Lion," Milius' films have never been rich in physical pleasures, but by now he seems to have lost all ability to give his scenes any snap. Visually, the picture seems haphazard, and the battle sequences in particular are especially flaccid and uninvolving. In the role of the British officer, Havers is spineless and wan; he is also called upon to be doltishly stupid on a fairly regular basis. Nolte is the opposite -- it's hard to imagine him looking haler or more robust -- but the actor can't seem to figure out what sort of man he's playing. Or whether he's supposed to be playing a god.

Both actors are hampered with some of the most egregiously grandiose movie dialogue ever written. "I brought them the joy of song and the fellowship of the round table," the King informs us. And, later, when Fairbourne learns to respect his American friend, he says, "I have seen you do all manner of things, but now I see you king." Now I see you king? Now you see me out of here.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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