Way back in 1989 one of John Milius’ least known but best movies came out and quickly vanished. Farewell To The King is one of my favorite films. It is a shame that it has more or less dropped off the face of the earth. The last home video release was in 2008 on DVD.
The story is set in Borneo during WW2. A British commando team is dropped off in the jungle and the leader discovers a tribe lead by a White American soldier played by Nick Nolte who escaped the Japanese to become the king of a local tribe of savages. He explains to the British officer how he came to be there and was made King by the Indig because of his white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. He takes a local bride and became their leader. On top of that, it turns out he is a damn good leader, kind and just and the locals love him.
After being wounded and going back to British lines, the officer tells the brass about this White man king and the Big Brains decide to send a larger commando team back with him to get Nolte to rally his tribe to help them accomplish a mission against the local Japanese troops.
Of course things hit a few snags and there are some betrayals all making for a hell of a good film full of action and violence and pathos. Milius described it as one of his most personal films.
Unfortunately the final product isn’t what Milius intended for us to see. The studio being the studio, used the power of the edit to make their heavy hand felt and the result was predictable. Box office failure. It’s still a great film and Milius has since come around to admitting he is more or less pleased with it after years and age put some distance from his anger at the studio execs.
“I have always wanted to write this story,” Milius added. “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.”
“I would say it’s a film about loyalty and trust, freedom and justice,” said Nolte. “And it compares a savage but innocent society to the outside world which is the most corrupt society of all.”
“I’m a story teller,” said Milius. “I’m a modern technology version of the Borneo tribal storyteller who squats near the fire in the long house and tells his tale. We’re all telling the same tale. It’s about the struggle of people to survive and, more important, to be free. It’s about the necessity of making moral choices – and their costs. But it seems more real when you see where it really happened – and the people it really happened to. It’s set in the 1940s and many people lost their freedom in the 1940s and were taking action and having adventures to get it back. Human beings like to hear stories about how they’ve survived and stayed free.”
[The film] was thrown away. I, as usual, was attacked viciously but in time it’s come to be regarded as one of my best. In a way – I don’t know why – I guess this film is more heartfelt than anything I’ve done since Big Wednesday… The producers – Al Ruddy and Andre Morgan – who are friends of mine now – were lied to by Orion executives. They did a very careful divide-and-conquer and turned us against each other. They [Ruddy and Morgan] would love to recut it the way I wanted… We’d all love to recut that movie and rerelease it”
Milius’ former agent who was head of Orion Pictures at the time, wrote in 2002 that:
Many things stopped Farewell to the King from being successful. There were endless arguments between Al and John, and between John and us over the cutting of the film. John ended up being mad at me for years, but we’ve become close friends again. In the end, the film just didn’t play. Perhaps audiences weren’t ready to see a white soldier become the king of an indigenous tribe in Borneo. It was one of a group of daring Orion movies that didn’t make money but, in retrospect, is a movie we are all very proud to have been a part of“
I give it a full 5 out of 5 stars.
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