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‘Farewell to the King’

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 03, 1989

 


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


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The best thing you can say about John Milius' rain forest epic "Farewell to the King" is that Borneo's a beautiful country. Or that "King" is a cut above the director's fascistic war games "Red Dawn" and "Conan the Barbarian." Or that Nick Nolte's performance, as an American deserter-turned-tribal-king, is full of gutteral power.

But none of these pluses add up. For the most part, this adaptation of Pierre Schondorffer's 1969 novel L'Adieu au Roi -- with uninspired cribbing from "Lawrence of Arabia," "The Man Who Would Be King" and Milius' own screenplay for "Apocalypse Now" -- goes a-hackneying through the jungle in search of triumph, a journey to the Heart of Artless.

It's a shame because Nolte, as the brawny soldier who ducks World War II to rule the headshrinking Iban tribe in Sarawak, works up a certain bestial, red-maned magnetism. But much like the caged Martin Sheen in "Apocalypse Now," he can only reach through the bars -- in this case, the director's.

Milius covers holes with clumsy voice-overs, rushes through scenes that ought to matter and lingers on ones that don't, and his leaden dialogue trivializes "King's" central relationship, the buddy-buddying between Nolte and British captain Nigel Havers.

Poor Havers: Dispatched (with his trusted Kenyan companion Frank McRae) to marshal Nolte's men against the Japanese, he spends most of his time uttering adulations to King Nick. Rounding out the epic banalities are James Fox as an appropriately admonishing British colonel, John Bennett Perry as Gen. Douglas MacArthur (another warrior king, we are supposed to infer), the blithely incompetent Elan Oberon as Havers' fiance'e, and all-purpose oriental-villain Aki Aleong as the Japanese officer who fights Nolte to the bitter end.

Milius exudes palpable passion for his cine-treatise on freedom (although "freedom" for Milius seems to mean freedom to slaughter great numbers of extras; the finale is a bloodbath). In this, he's helped ably by cinematographer Dean Semler (who shot the "Mad Max" films). But he seems unacquainted with those small moments that lend human flesh to a grand epic. Most of his characters seem to have had their heads preshrunk.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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