Like many movie makers preoccupied with heroism, John Milius seems to have both a little boy and a wild tiger clawing each other within his breast. And sometimes they run after each other with such savage persistence that one or both are churned into butter.
"Farewell to the King" (selected theaters) should have been a major Milius film, maybe even a great one. It's based on the same themes, the Conradian descent into a heart of darkness during warfare, that animate his script for "Apocalypse Now." And it's full of majestic scenery, flourishes, big sweeping gusts of machismo.
It's shot on location in Borneo and Milius' cinematographer, Dean Semler, gets the feel of the jungle. It's rotten and murky, heavy with disease and bugs, sticky with heat, so tangled up with undergrowth and rot that when the characters break through to a hilltop, you get a stabbing sense of relief.
But there's something almost gelded about "Farewell." It has the musculature it needs, even whispers of the soul, but not the raw, seething guts.
Based on Pierre Schoendoerffer's novel, it's about a rebellious American G. I. in World War II, deserting, descending into the jungle, becoming an emperor of the native headhunters, the Dayaks, and then suffering betrayal by the British after his tribe is recruited for jungle warfare against the Japanese.
The hero, Learoyd (Nick Nolte) is real Milius wish fulfillment, despite the fact that he's an ex-Communist who probably wouldn't have bought a ticket to see "Red Dawn." Learoyd is the man in flight from society and rules--the deserter who opts out of civilization, who believes in primitive loyalties, simple pleasures and natural nobility. And Nolte plays him just as Gary Busey played the wild-man surfer, Leroy, in Milius' best film, "Big Wednesday," with charged, animalistic movements, a mixture of explosiveness and tigerish reserve.
Learoyd has two communities around him: the Dayaks, who have made him king, and the little band of British commandos, including his eventual bond-buddy, the narrator-botanist (Nigel Havers). Facing them is the Japanese Army, resorting to cannibalism to survive, led by Learoyd's chief nemesis, a ghostly equestrian colonel.
But the Japanese warriors are only ghost enemies, the test. The real scourge are the distant bureaucrats who hate the smoke of battle and regard the soldiers as their pawns. Prissy Col. Fergusson, (James Fox), betraying by the book, wrinkling his lip in disgust at what he has to do, is a prototypical Milius villain: the mercenary, the numbers man, the creep king.
There's lots of potential here, but it's muffed. "Farewell " doesn't have the dark power of "Apocalypse," the rowdy adventure of "Conan," the sheer Fordian beauty and reverie of "Big Wednesday." Sometimes it sinks to condescension, as in Milius' attempt to make noble savages of the Dayaks--Learoyd's "Commanches."
Milius has always had a weakness for rhetoric, and, in "Farewell" (MPAA rated PG-13 for language and violence), he's trapped himself somewhere between Akira Kurosawa and David Lean. But what he needs is the liberating spontaneity and perverse humor of his other great model, John Ford. Ford had the strategy down. Sing your ballad of nobility, of tragedy, of history's price, then have somebody tumble. That kind of invigorating kick is exactly what "Farewell" lacks.
'FAREWELL TO THE KING'
An Orion Pictures release of a Ruddy & Morgan Production. Producers Albert S. Ruddy, Andre Morgan. Director/script John Milius. Music Basil Poledouris. Camera Dean Semler. Editors Anne Coates, C. Timothy O'Meara. Production design Gil Parrondo. With Nick Nolte, Nigel Havers, Frank McRae, Gerry Lopez, James Fox, Marius Weyers.
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
MPAA rating: PG-13 (parents are strongly cautioned; some material may be inappropriate for children under 13).