Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bi, Now: "Farewell to the King" (1989)

This World War II film, set in Borneo, tries so hard to work on so many levels, it is a shame it fails on all of them.

Nick Nolte is an escaping American who witnesses the executions of his comrades by the Japanese. He wanders deep into the jungles of Borneo, lost. Cue Nigel Havers, who finds Nolte's adopted tribe. Nolte, now looking like Robert Plant, has become his tribe's new king. He defeated a staunch warrior in a bloody battle, and had a telling tattoo on his chest (a dragon). Now before you go out and get a painful tattoo and a one-way ticket to Borneo, things are not going well in Nolteland. Havers wants the tribe's help in fighting the Japanese, who are invading the island. He teaches the natives how to use machine guns, and a whole lot o' shooting begins. As the tribe becomes more successful, they run up against a new squadron of Japanese who are not like the others. This squad cannibalizes the villages they conquer in order to keep their strength up (talk about your sushi), and they move through the jungles even quicker than the tribe. Since we know the outcome of the war, we know eventually the tribe triumphs, but with heavy casualties. Here come the spoilers: Havers is injured and returned to "civilization." He gives the location of the kingdom and Nolte is captured. Havers then goes through the trouble of releasing Nolte, and the end credits roll.

Milius' direction is certainly adequate, but the screenplay here is rather vague in its motivations. It presents story ideas, then abandons them in order to get to the next story idea. Nolte is awful as the soldier turned king, desperately trying to channel the spirit of Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz. He talks about freedom, and the beauty of the jungle, and the richness of his people, and you will not believe for one second the words he utters. He is often unintentionally funny, especially his initial bug out in the jungle, and he spends the rest of the film sounding like a hippie. Nigel Havers spends the movie looking at Nolte like he was Raquel Welch. The vague homosexual undercurrent between the two goes beyond friendship, not quite to sex, and settles into an unspoken relationship that must have had the natives talking.

Havers often stands around and has an internal conflict, repulsed at the tribe's headhunting, but basking in Nolte's attention. His fellow straight laced British servicemen go native faster than the Bounty landing party in Tahiti, but all I saw concerning Borneo is that it is very humid and has lots of green.

The climactic betrayal, where Havers gives away Nolte's location, is completely devoid of any reason. There is not one thought given as to why Havers does this, except to keep the film going. I was angry, when by chance, Havers and Nolte end up on the same ship going to the Philippines, the ship happens to run aground, and Havers runs to the hold to free the freshly shorn Nolte. No goodbye kiss, but Havers says farewell to the king, explaining the title.

If you were fighting a war, and an enemy squadron was eating your allies, would that not freak you out? This elite Japanese squad is not shown enough, although their eating habits are so horrific I would become a conscientious objector right away. The same type of ghostly enemy was handled much better in "The 13th Warrior."

Other types of interesting ideas are dropped. What about the fact that then modern technology brings about the deaths of so many backward people? Why did King Nolte let the Brits use his subjects without too much hesitation? Why can't Hollywood find a decent actor to play General Douglas MacArthur?

In the end, "Farewell to the King" is a letdown, not anchored by a strong lead, and trying to be too many things without thinking and exploring its options. I cannot recommend this one. (* *) out of five stars.