The Wild Man of Hollywood Meets the Wilds of Borneo

Borneo. For most of you Borneo doesn't exist -- an imaginary name on a map like Tibet or Tierra del Fuego. The ends of the earth. But I know that it exists. I was there . . . .

--Opening lines of "Farewell to the King,"

a screenplay by John Milius.

It figured that if a movie company ever came to this end of the earth, to the dense jungles of the legendary Iban headhunters, it would be led by John Milius. P. T. Barnum would have loved the symmetry of it. The Wild Man of Hollywood--the writer and/or director of "Dillinger," "Apocalypse Now," "Conan the Barbarian"--meets the Wild Man of Borneo.

Calendar loved the symmetry of it, too. So we looked Borneo up on a map--it's the third-largest island in the world, straddling the Equator due south of Hong Kong--and found our way here. Both Milius and the headhunters, we discovered, have almost been tamed.

DAY 1: Gods Bless Us, Everyone

A propeller-driven DC-3, rented from a company in Singapore and coated with phony World War II camouflage, moves slowly across the sky toward a clearing in the thick jungle of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in northwest Borneo.

In a moment, four stunt men are expected to parachute out of the plane and etch their images onto strips of 35-millimeter film spinning simultaneously through three Panavision cameras set up below. At the edge of the clearing, waiting for their cue to rush into camera view and greet the paratroopers, are two groups of short, thin, brown-skinned extras dressed up as natives--men in red loincloths, the women in red and black sarongs.

A few yards away, a blue beach umbrella provides shade for two big, bearded men sitting in canvas-backed chairs. One is John Milius, director of "Farewell to the King," a World War II adventure story about a redheaded Irish-American soldier (Nick Nolte) who becomes king of the jungle and leads his tribes against the occupying Japanese forces. The other man is actor Frank McRae, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound former pro football lineman, one of the film's co-stars.

McRae is following the DC-3 through a pair of binoculars and, as it moves directly overhead, his chair suddenly collapses under him. The extras--some of them former headhunters who still have trophies hanging in their jungle homes--laugh as the huge black man collects himself and dangles the rubble from his fingers like a dead crane.

"Another endangered species of Borneo," McRae says, tossing the chair aside. "We need to get some stronger chairs."

Milius has paid no attention to the commotion. He's been following the plane.

"Now why didn't they jump that time?" Milius says, opening the gray thermos of cold water that's constantly at his side. "This is going to be a long afternoon."

There are two base camps for the film crew on this 95 day (it's not the heat, it's the humidity). One is about a half-mile away, where separate lean-tos have been set up and designated with hand-printed signs for Milius, actors Nolte, McRae and Nigel Havers and for the functions of catering, makeup and wardrobe.

The other camp is permanent. It is the 320-room Holiday Inn 30 miles east in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The hotel is within a two-hour drive of every jungle, river, cave or beach location being used for "Farewell to the King." The crew returns there every night.

The rooms are deluxe in the Holiday Inn, with mini-bars, hair dryers and cable TV that pipes in an odd mixture of unedited American movies, Malaysian news and Muslim prayer. The windows face either the Chinese mercantile district of downtown Kuching (population: 150,000) or the polluted Sarawak River and the continual parade of debris riding it toward the South China Sea.

In the four-level Kuching Plaza next door, you can get one-hour photo service, browse an assortment of used swords and blowguns, order takeout from Kentucky Fried Chicken or pick up Michael Jackson's latest album, "Bad."

There are three modern restaurants in the hotel, and two bars. The bar with the pool table and dart board has been taken over by the mostly Australian film crew and renamed "the Learoyd," after the title character that Nolte--who lives with his wife and their 18-month-old son in a 10th-floor penthouse--plays in the movie.

In the more formal Rajang bar, cocktail menus encourage guests to try a "Headhunter," a zombie-style cocktail that comes in a mug whimsically shaped like a native's head, and "let your imagination transport you to days gone by of tribal customs, romance and adventure!"

Those days are not as long gone by as Sarawak's fledgling tourist industry makes them seem. The older Iban extras hired for "Farewell" will tell you that when they were young men, they had to take a head before they could take a wife. A head--smoked, cleaned and properly hung--was a sign of both maturity and respect for a potential bride.

Headhunting is no longer practiced by the Ibans, but other tribal customs are. When the production people on "Farewell" started here in June, they made the mistake of building a $300,000 set (a replica of a jungle longhouse) without "blessing" either the site or the building. It fell down.

"We built the longhouse on two knolls that the (Malaysian) army had cleared for a Boy Scout camp," says Australian production designer Bernard Hides. "What the army engineers didn't tell us was that there was landfill between the knolls. We had this terrible tropical rainstorm and the whole thing just started to slide."

One of Hides' scenic artists got caught under the falling house and broke his leg. Since then, the Chinese and the natives on the film have refused to work on anything that hasn't been blessed.

Hides says that before they began reconstructing the longhouse, there were two days of blessings--first by the Ibans, who blessed the planned buildings; then by the Chinese, who blessed the site. Somebody even called out the minister of the Chinese Church of England.

It took six weeks to rebuild the longhouse and the delay forced the company to rearrange the shooting schedule. They were already pushing their luck getting "Farewell" finished before the start of monsoon season (late November) and if blessings would help, blessings there would be.

Milius wasn't there when the first long-house fell. He was in Hawaii, shooting the shipwreck scene that will open the movie. If he had been here, Milius says he would have made sure the first house had been blessed.

"I would have gotten in touch with their religion and their gods," Milius says. "I believe in everybody's gods. I've always been a practicing pagan."

During the longhouse blessings, pigs and chickens were sacrificed, incense was burned, tuak (rice wine) was drunk, and the new building went up timber by timber from the center pole out, as prescribed by tribal architectural custom.

Hides says that this time the Western architectural custom of pouring concrete foundations was also observed.

"We have had everything blessed since then," Hides says. "It's all a bit of mumbo jumbo, isn't it? But the fact is, we have had no problems with anything we've blessed."

The ceremonies go beyond buildings. Whenever there is a stunt, the stunt site is blessed. Deaths and marriages done for the cameras are undone for the gods. This is the first time a movie company has visited Sarawak and the natives want to make sure the illusions don't linger after it's gone.

King of the Headhunters

John Milius needs little encouragement to transport his imagination to customs and days gone by. Since graduating from USC's film school in the mid-'60s, he has written scripts about such offbeat characters as Jeremiah Johnson, Judge Roy Bean and Dirty Harry. He has directed his own screenplays for "Big Wednesday," "Dillinger," "The Wind and the Lion" and "Conan the Barbarian."

If it hadn't been for "Red Dawn," his last film, Milius' reputation may have remained that of a gruff fantasist with a large appetite for violence. But the rabidly anti-Russian themes of "Red Dawn," released during the 1984 Olympics, left liberals in Hollywood convinced there was a dangerous ideologue at large.

"That was the perfect high-concept movie, 'Russia invades the United States in time for the Olympics,' " Milius says, with a laugh, during lunch break in his lean-to. "It was a definite attempt to strain relations."

Milius makes no apologies for "Red Dawn," which has grossed more than $35 million. He says it was just another movie, an assignment that was mutilated by studio editors who eliminated every scene that portrayed the Russian soldiers as anything other than maniacs.

"I like 'Red Dawn,' but I don't like writing right-wing propaganda any more than I like writing left-wing propaganda," Milius says. "Most of my films are neither left wing nor right wing."

Milius says the connecting themes of his films--"Red Dawn" aside--are individual freedom and moral choice, and their costs. Add the elements of an unsympathetic environment and you have the core of Joseph Conrad's "The Heart of Darkness," which Milius adapted as "Apocalypse Now." He says he was drawn to Pierre Schoendoerffer's novel, "Farewell to the King," for the same reasons.

"I have always wanted to write this story," Milius says. "Learoyd is a character who could have come out of one of those barbershop magazines of the '50s: 'I fought the (Japanese) with the headhunters in Borneo where I was king.' He's sitting on a throne with sloe-eyed beauties all around--a mai tai in one hand, a Thompson submachine gun in the other. There is some sort of primitive appeal in that to all of us. But the studios were never very excited about it. I don't know if they are now."

"Farewell," a $16-million film set for a late 1988 release by Orion Pictures in the United States, has many inherent problems for Hollywood. It is a World War II movie, a genre so old that it's based on something older than most of today's production executives. Its main protagonist is a reformed Depression-bred communist. The enemies are Japanese, now our economic and political allies, while the bulk of the heroes are pagan headhunters.

It is also being shot in a country that is rife with internal dissent over the relentless bulldozing of its rain forests by the lumber industry, and by government attempts to resettle Sarawak's remaining natives, known collectively as the Dayaks.

Sarawak shares the island of Borneo with Indonesian Kalimantan and, since 1983, the tiny, oil-rich Brunei (ruled by the sultan who just bought the Beverly Hills Hotel). Sarawak was settled by English adventurer James Brooke in 1839 and ruled by Brooke and two succeeding nephews--Sarawak's three "rajahs"--until the Japanese occupation in 1942.

There is some basis of truth to "Farewell." A white man did live with the Dayaks in Borneo during the war, and the natives did aggressively take on the Japanese.

(Most of the Dayaks still welcome white men into the jungle. One of the focal points of the current controversy over lumbering in Sarawak is Bruno Manser, a 33-year-old Swiss artist with an expired visa who is reportedly helping the Penans--the last nomadic tribe of Sarawak--in their fight to stop loggers from moving further into the jungle.)

Two of the Iban extras are former headhunters and they talk about their encounters with the Japanese with the sort of enthusiasm you see at college reunions.

Through an interpreter, the heavily tattooed men--80-year-old Kanyan Anak Empati and 76-year-old Ubam Anak Ujan--say they were loyal to the rajah and the British but did not begin fighting until the Japanese came into the jungle to confiscate their weapons and appropriate their women.

Many Ibans were killed in the ensuing battles, they say, but the Japanese were easily picked off in the jungle with poison darts and the troops soon quit coming after them. Empati and Ujan, demonstrating the movements with their hands, say the Ibans took heads from the fallen Japanese and that their trophies--Empati claims two, Ujan five--still hang in their jungle longhouse.

The rajahs. The headhunting. The sacrifices. These are the things that caught Milius' fancy and that, for one moment in the blistering sun, make him forget that he's sleeping every night in a king-size bed at the Holiday Inn.

"This is a tough film, but you kind of like the toughness of it here," he says, peeling one of the ripe oranges that in Borneo are as green as limes. "This is an adventure. If you're a romantic like me, you think of yourself out building the Panama Canal, or being the Rajah Brooke. You can't think of that if you're in a rainstorm in the San Fernando Valley."

DAY 2: You Should Have Seen the Jungle Then

The word on the set is that Nick Nolte is not feeling well. Upset stomach. It's not malaria. Nobody on the crew has come down with malaria, or been bitten by either a cobra or a scorpion. These were the three things feared most when the crew started arriving here in June.

One of the Malaysian drivers was hospitalized after a venomous caterpillar slipped under his shirt and trod about, and several people--Nolte and Havers among them--have been treated for heat exhaustion. Others have waded through water only to find themselves shuddering at the sight of leeches clinging to them. A little like Charlie Allnut in "The African Queen."

The real trick here, one degree north of the Equator, is not so much staying healthy as staying cool. Today, there was a brief flame-out between production manager Elliot Schick and Nigel Havers, who plays the British botanist from whose point of view "Farewell" is told.

Havers has been working nearly every day and he admits that he's bored by the jungle setting. He says Borneo is interesting photographically--"it's green and big and sticky"--but found the outback of Australia, where he did "Burke and Wills" two years ago, far more spectacular.

After completing a scene this morning, in the same clearing where the paratroopers had landed, Havers returned to the spot where water is kept and where Milius sits, Buddha-like, under his umbrella. There were no chairs to sit on. Havers complained to Schick who, instead of sending for a chair, began explaining why there were none.

"We have chairs back at the camp," Schick said.

"Well, can't we have them moved here?" Havers asked.

"If we move them here, you won't have them back there."

"I want to sit down here!"

"Elliot, get the chairs," Milius said, tiredly. "We need chairs here because we're here. When we're there , we'll need chairs there. Go buy some more chairs so we'll have enough!"

Later, away from the crew, Milius says the petty griping that goes on here is harder to take than the heat.

"Out here, there is constant complaining," he says. " 'The food's no good.' 'The jungle's too hot.' 'It rains every day.' 'I'm miserable.' " He pauses for a moment, then blurts out, "It's just a job! This isn't Tarawa! This isn't Iwo Jima! This isn't even Guadalcanal! It's just a . . . movie!"

Milius volunteers that despite his image as a tree-dweller, he doesn't care for the jungle himself. He says he loves the romance of Borneo, studying its history and natives, but at 43 he's ready for a softer life than following his imagination to the ends of the earth.

"I would love to make a movie like Blake Edwards does, in Malibu," he says. "Quit at 4 o'clock every day and go to the ballet with my girlfriend. . . . They don't let me make movies like that. I've always been a slob and an outcast. You've got to be a different person."

The Milius philosophy seems as much bad-boy bluster as ideology. A sampling:

On politics . . . "I've changed my whole view of politics since 'Red Dawn.' I've decided that we're all dupes of the banks. There is no right and there is no left, only profit and loss. The whole superpower confrontation is nothing more than a distortion. If you inspected the (missile) silos on both sides, you'd find nothing in them."

On communism . . . "Capitalism has nothing to fear from communism. It's a defunct system. In 20 years, you'll have to go to a zoo to see a communist."

On war . . . "Wars are conducted to get rid of our (military) excess. Reagan got a second term on his promise to the Rockefeller banks that he'd have us a war in 1984 or 1985. What's happened is that people haven't bought this Central America thing, so he's sailing the battleship Missouri around the Persian Gulf saying, 'Shoot me! Shoot me!' "

On guns . . . "The Second Amendment wasn't written so you could have a gun in your drawer and shoot dope addicts. . . . Jefferson didn't know about that. He wasn't even thinking about Indians. His idea was that you'd have a gun so when the government sent people in jackboots around to tell you what to do, you could shoot them."

Somehow, Milius' outrages funnel into a world view that makes sense for both "Farewell to the King" and its exotic setting. Most of his films have to do with people being corrupted in some way by the outside world. The Dayaks of Borneo are corrupted in "Farewell" by the white king who introduces them to Western warfare. They are being corrupted today by tourists anxious to buy their possessions as souvenirs, and by lumber moguls. (Malaysia supplies more than half of the world's hardwoods. Malaysia researcher and author Evelyn Hong, in her book "Natives of Sarawak," estimates that about 30%--or 7 million acres--of Sarawak's hardwood forest has gone down in the last decade and that more than half will be gone by 1995.)

"It's hideous what they're doing," says Milius, after demurring only briefly from commenting on local politics. "We met a guy who is in parliament whose father was an Iban chief, a headhunter. The chief got into timber and when his son was 18 he bought him a Lamborghini."

A Forest of Ironies

There are more ironies in Borneo than you can shake a hand-carved stick at.

The local production person for "Farewell" is the grandson of the man who had the opium concession for Rajah Brooke. Drug trafficking is a capital offense in today's Malaysia and government agents demonstrate the point by hanging a dummy every few minutes in the miniature gallows set up in front of the Sweet & Nice candy shop at the Kuching Plaza.

Shops in Kuching sell intricate, hand-carved Dayak figures--some six feet tall--but merchants say they don't get many of them because the best native carvers are often busy helping loggers haul away the very trees they use for carving.

The Japanese military invasion may have failed here, but the economic one hasn't. More than half of Sarawak's hardwood goes to Japan.

In his script, Milius describes young Dayak women as "bare-breasted and beautiful." No doubt, they were. But when the company began assembling the cast, it was learned that the women of modern Sarawak won't bare their bosoms for a movie or anything else. (John Culhane, a correspondent for Reader's Digest, had his passport temporarily confiscated in the Kuching airport because he was found in possession of a copy of Playboy, the one with Jessica Hawn on the cover.)

"This is a different place now," says Milius, whose previous knowledge of Borneo came from books. "It will be gone in 10 years, but it is still the edge of civilization. We're lucky to see it."

DAY 3: A Wok on the Wild Side

Producer Andre Morgan, who has lived in Hong Kong for 15 years and knows about these things, has organized an exotic meal which will involve several courses of wild game. It will be held in the jungle somewhere south of Kuching, conducted by an adroit Chinese chef who was last seen trying to locate some fresh anteater.

Nolte and Milius are not going to attend. Nolte is still holed up in his suite with the rajah's revenge. Milius doesn't like culinary adventures.

"I have no desire to eat anything that sounds funny, unless I have to," he says. "I've eaten rattlesnake as a kid, but now I prefer chicken, rice, noodles, shrimp. Things I can look at and recognize."

Milius, who claims to have lost 20 pounds since coming to Borneo, says he used to eat a lot of red meat and dairy products. But that all changed when he met actress Elon Oberon six years ago and she put him on a diet that cured his lifelong asthma.

"I had terrible asthma. I had pneumonia almost every year and the flu two or three times a year. I tried everything--witch doctors, inhalers. Then I met Elon. She made me cut out dairy products, red meat and salt. I don't have any problems (with asthma) now."

Actually, Milius is seen sneaking bites of meat on the set now and then. But today he is working with Oberon--the only actor for whom he wrote a specific role in "Farewell"--and as they lunch in her dressing room at an abandoned Kuching airport, she inspects everything on his plate.

Oberon is having one of her big days on "Farewell" and the cast, crew and extras baking on the tarmac are being cautiously patient. She is the boss's lady, the "beautiful dark-haired" Vivienne in the script, and she is getting special handling.

Milius normally directs like his mentor, John Huston, who told him to "concentrate on the story, leave the details to others and sit whenever you can." Today, Milius is up and directing Oberon with the care of an eye surgeon, being certain that she's happy with each shot before moving on to the next.

It is causing some amusement among the crew. Oberon's character, the fiancee of Havers' botanist, was a nurse in the shooting script. She is now a special forces officer. After a session with Nolte's personal makeup man, she looks like one of the Andrews sisters.

The scene being shot is one where Vivienne and the botanist meet at an airport in New Guinea, where he has come to negotiate freedom for Learoyd's tribes in exchange for their help in driving out the Japanese. Oberon and Havers meet at the airfield, hug and drive off in a Jeep. It is taking most of the day.

"I love directing her, I really do," says Milius, anticipating the first question after Oberon leaves the room. "I get a big kick out of making her look good. . . . "

Oberon (no relation to Merle) says that when she met Milius at a party a few years ago, something just popped--"like your ears pop in an airplane. Pop!"

It made an even bigger impression on Milius. The twice-divorced director says he "is desperate" to marry Oberon but she won't have him. Her version is that she's not quite ready. Nevertheless, they have arranged to have their relationship "blessed," like the long-house, while they're in Borneo.

"They (blessings) make you feel protected," Oberon says. "It almost puts a bubble over you. You can actually feel it."

If the Ibans have a blessing for improving the flavor of wild game in Borneo, one of the guests at Andre Morgan's exotic dinner would have ordered it. To his bemused taste buds, most of what's being served tastes like something sauteed in hell.

Nobody knows what is being served until the last course is finished. The first dish is something gray and dry and bony. The second is white, wet and bony. The third looks like a stack of roofing tacks, covered with sweet-and-sour sauce.

When the last bite has been washed down with the local Tiger beer, Morgan reads off the items from the menu, occasionally punctuating the horror by holding up appropriate photographs from a book titled "Mammals of Borneo."

In order of appearance, the meal included: civet cat, python soup, flying fox (bat), samba deer, tiger prawn, mouse deer, porcupine paws, wild boar and monitor lizard.

A kingdom for a burrito.

DAYS 4, 5, 6: Adventureland

What you discover within hours of arriving in Borneo is how easily you can arrange to go into the jungle and see how the natives live. Nick Nolte and Frank McRae did it. Milius did it. So here we are, on the Soon Hong Express No. 8, a longboat zipping up the Baram River from the coastal oil town of Miri in northern Sarawak.

Soon Hong has a large fleet of river buses operating out of Marudi, a former Chinese trading post on the Baram about 50 miles inland. The river is the only mode of transportation--for the ubiquitous log barges and man--in most parts of Borneo, and the "express" turns out to be a local, darting to and from the thick, brush-covered banks to load and unload people and cargo.

Inside the narrow cabin, passengers are entertained by a color TV and a VCR. The first video feature is "Hamburger Hill," a movie still playing in American theaters and not due for video release anywhere for several months. But you can see it 12,000 miles from the nearest Music Plus because video piracy is as common here as bare feet.

Christian missionaries converted most of the Dayaks after the war, adding another layer to the cultural differences between them and the Muslim minority that governs. Tourism, now being aggressively pursued by the Malaysian government, is quickly adding capitalism to the stew.

The Dayaks have traditionally lived in longhouses, single rectangular buildings that house entire villages--sometimes more than 100 families and 1,000 people to a house. More and more of the long-houses are cooperating with Sarawak travel agents who arrange overnight stays--complete with ceremonial floor shows--for tourists.

The wild boar and deer that are still around are hunted by tribesmen using spear-tipped blowpipes and darts that are soaked in a lethal blend of toxic pwa tree sap and cobra venom.

Or they just use a shotgun.

The West is here and the Dayaks are changing fast. Shotguns, generators, Izod shirts, VCRs. At Long Terawan, a Berawan village not far from the border of Brunei, costumed schoolchildren entertain guests with a traditional hornbill dance, to native music being played on a ghetto blaster that would go for about $180 at Circuit City.

Back at the Kuching Holiday Inn, you can sign up for the two-day Skrang River Safari Tour and spend a night at an Iban longhouse. The tribe will do a war dance for you, share some tuak--maybe even a wild boar--and show you some of their old skulls before you bed down in the travel agency's mosquito-proof guest house.

Price: About $100 per person.

There are more elaborate tours, such as this one up the Baram, Totoh and Melanau rivers to the Gunung Mulu, a mountain hosting the largest caves (and one of the largest bat colonies) on earth. You have to climb some steep bluffs and hike through some rugged jungle to get to the caverns, but it's a setting fit for Tarzan, or King Kong. It's "big, green and sticky," as Nigel Havers said, and quite a bit more.

Foot-thick vines dangle 100 feet down from the forest canopy and the air is as thick and aromatically rich as steam rising from a beef broth. There are snails and beetles as big as baseballs, lizards that bark like schnauzers and black sluglike leeches ready to hitch a ride on anyone unwise enough to wander in barelegged.

For visitors from places where people shoot at each other on freeways, it is both unsettling and comforting to learn that the No. 1 killer of man in the jungle is the falling tree branch.

DAYS 7, 8: The Last Rajah

Nolte has a light case of typhoid fever and a bad case of hookworm. He doesn't know this yet. He thinks he's been poisoned by the film's caterers and he has just enough strength left to lead a modest rebellion.

"It's got to be the food," Nolte says, sipping from a bottle of Perrier on the sixth day of his weak stomach. "The local doctor thinks so. We've just had too many cases of dysentery. There have been about 12 of us."

In a few days, doctors will discover that Nolte's problems are being caused mostly by the microscopic hookworms that apparently wriggled into his blood stream through his bare feet. A stickler for verisimilitude (you'll recall he went weeks without taking a bath to get the scent of his character in "Down and Out in Beverly Hills"), Nolte has been working barefoot in the jungle for two months.

Meanwhile, he has convinced producer Andre Morgan to provide takeout lunches for the company from the Holiday Inn menu, and word of this has swept through the crew like good news from home.

Nolte has been here since July, one month before filming began. He has immersed himself in Dayak culture, studying the Iban language with Wilfred Gomez, the London-educated Iban who recruited most of the native extras. Gomez also took Nolte and Frank McRae to his people's longhouse 170 miles from Kuching.

The actors are believed to be the first outsiders ever allowed into that longhouse, and they got the full ritual--war dance, native costumes, tuak. Nolte was selected guest of honor and given the "privilege" of slaughtering a pig. They all ate red ants and hearts of palm and slept on straw mats on a wooden floor.

Just before they left the next day, one of the women asked McRae to name her months-old son. McRae tells the story with great emotion.

"I named him after me. I said, 'My name is Frank and the origin of that word is 'free man.' I hereby christen this baby 'Frank, a free man.' They (the Ibans) loved it. They cheered and cried. It was something."

Nolte says he got the sense of longhouse living that he wanted from the visit, and they incorporated a lot of the ritual into the movie. But he also stuck his foot in his mouth trying to speak Iban.

"I said some dialogue out of the script in Iban. It means something like 'Man beware of the law.' Some old man jumped up and said, 'No, give me a gun, give me a gun.' I don't think he was particularly pleased. I shut up."

It is hard for a Westerner to spend much time here and not form an opinion about the plight of the Dayaks. There are unmistakable parallels between them and the American Indians, something Milius sensed while writing "Farewell to the King."

In the script, Learoyd tells the British botanist that he calls his people "Comanches" because they remind him of pre-settled American Indians and he intends to keep them that way.

"I won't have these people end up selling kachina dolls and beads by some train at the Grand Canyon," says Learoyd. "My Comanches will stay Comanches . . . free men."

Milius says that when he visited a longhouse in Sarawak, it reminded him of a summer that he spent with American Zuni Indians when he was a teen-ager.

"I acquired a sadness about those people," he says. "They lived in mud adobe hogans and danced with rattlesnakes and all that. They also had tiled floors and television sets. There was no place for them. There was a sense that they would be edged out in some humiliating way, selling jewelry and kachina dolls. I got an absolute flavor of that in the longhouse here, too."

Milius, Nolte and Andre Morgan are all reluctant to say much about the way the natives are being treated in the interior. They have a film to finish and the government doesn't appreciate outside criticism.

"There isn't a whole lot you can do about (the timbering and resettlement issues) or say about them," says Nolte. "We're working with the authorities and they don't want to talk about it. They understand the political nature of the film, but their main interest is tourism. Borneo will look great in the film."

Borneo still appeals to the adventurer--or, more accurately, the fantasist--in Milius. There is a simpler order to what's left of life in the jungle. Romantic feudalism, that's what it was here. That's Milius' favorite form of government. There's a whiff of it yet, if you think about it.

"We could have shot this film in the Philippines for a lot less money," he says. "But this is where it happened. These are the real people. These are real Iban. This is the land of Rajah Brooke. You know, the older I get, the more I feel I am like a Viking."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
65°