Thursday, July 15, 2010

Film Review: FAREWELL TO THE KING (1989, John Milius)

Stars: 3.7 of 5.
Running Time: 117 minutes.
Tag-line: "In the midst of war, one man vanished into the jungle, and emerged as king."
Notable Cast or Crew: Nick Nolte, Frank McRae (RED DAWN, 48 HRS.), James Fox (PERFORMANCE, PATRIOT GAMES), Nigel Havers (EMPIRE OF THE SUN, A PASSAGE TO INDIA), Gerry Lopez (CONAN THE BARBARIAN), Aki Aleong (KUFFS, THE HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG), Marilyn Tokuda (ALL OF ME, XANADU). Based on the novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer (THE ANDERSON PLATOON). Music by Basil Poledouris (ROBOCOP, CONAN THE BARBARIAN).
Best one-liner: "No one moves very far out of line. When you're young you think you're blazing a trail. When you grow older, you realize you're beating a path."

Men carried by the waves. Breakers dwarf their vessel, toss them to and fro like a child's toy. One could say that the winds of war have delivered them to this point, but their final destination depends on the whimsies of that fickle, briny deity known as The Sea.

The sole survivor of a Pacific shipwreck and subsequent massacre by the Japanese, Nick Nolte's 'Learoyd' wanders the dark and hostile rainforest. He is a man, disintegrated. On the outside, raging in the ocean and surrounding lands, is manmade chaos- The Second World War. On the inside is anxiety and despair, further aroused by natural chaos- the untamed jungle. He renounces his connection to his so-called civilization and throws away his pistol. Soon thereafter, he is captured by the indigenous people, 'reified,' and reborn.

On the verge of execution, Nolte's intricate tattoos prove serendipitous, and not long afterward, he is crowned their king. He builds a life for himself, and for his people. It is a genuine way of life, something Hemingway might refer to as "afición."

The jungle no longer teaches Herzogian lessons of darkness, but rather poses Hemingway-esque opportunities for redemption and transcendence- a way to recapture an authentic existence. Before long, the British and the Japanese rudely trespass upon Nolte's idyll, and each actively desires something from him: The British- cooperation and corruption; The Japanese- death.

"I quit your world," says Nolte- but the High Command, the politicians, and the bean-counters haven't quit Nolte, and so long as he draws breath and can hold a weapon, he's useful to the war effort. There's wheeling and dealing; Nolte wants guarantees, and he doesn't want his people bulldozed and redacted from the impending final reports and postscripts of the Second World War. James Fox is Colonel Ferguson, a man flummoxed by and dismissive of Nolte's 'peculiar' requests.

Nigel Havers is Captain Fairbourne, a man who begins to see Nolte's point-of-view, though he never truly graps the idea of an authentic existence- it's already been tainted by the war before he arrives (or, more accurately, just as he arrives).

John Bennett Perry plays Douglas MacArthur, another of Milius' "great men of history" who waft through his films, often portrayed as idealized, patriotic spirits, more abstractions than men. "History is written by unusual men, some who become kings, and some who make no more mark than a stone thrown into the ocean"- MacArthur, as channeled by Milius, is initially sympathetic to Nolte's cause.

But he still doesn't understand. The very way that these men exist brands them as incapable of understanding, because it is inauthentic.

War's about as discerning as the swells of the ocean, and, naturally, Nolte is sucked into the breathless void of bayonet-chopping, machete-stabbing, shotgun-blasting combat.

It is here, and not in the initial world-quitting, that Nolte embraces the hideous animal within. That pure black chaos from the deep which is as alien to the transformed Nolte as the "prim and proper" bureaucracy of destruction. To watch him do it is remarkable and terrifying.

In a way, FAREWELL TO THE KING might be John Milius' most John Hustonian flick, combining the culture shocks and "adventure" of THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING with the 'aw shucks' benevolence with which Walter Huston's character becomes a full-time medicine man in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE. Milius was a longtime admirer of Huston, and even had the opportunity to write for him (THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN) and direct him (THE WIND AND THE LION).

Despite all of this, I cannot label FAREWELL TO THE KING as a masterpiece. Milius is an excellent writer and director, but he cannot wring the realness from his situations that someone like Huston (or Herzog) can. Another problem is the score by Basil Poledouris. I very much appreciate his work in films like CONAN THE BARBARIAN and ROBOCOP, but here, when the narrative stakes are a little higher, it comes across as oddball Oscar bait. Sometimes the music made me feel like I was watching DANCES WITH WOLVES when I should have felt like I was watching AGUIRRE, THE WRATH OF GOD. This was also a problem for me in RED DAWN. Something like Arnold swinging a battle-axe in CONAN THE BARBARIAN is not a sacred image, it's a pedestrian one. And it's one which benefits from sweeping music. I'm not reachin' for the hanky when I see Arnold swinging the axe to Basil's majestic strains, but I'm grinning and sippin' my Schlitz and having a heckuva time. In FAREWELL TO THE KING, I see Nolte replaced by the primeval beast which resides in the pit of mankind's deepest fears. This is a powerful image. This image speaks for itself. When sumptuous strings interrupt this image, they are as profane as the British army which so brutally barges in on Nolte's Shangri-La.

Nearly four stars, but not the quite the tour de force it could have been.

-Sean Gill


Anonymous said...

Holy shit nolte is scary!

J.D. said...

Yeah, those last images of Nolte are freaking me out. Thanks! ; )

I am ashamed to say that I have not seen this particular film yet. Being a big Nolte fan I can't explain myself except to say that this film just never seemed like my cup of java but I suppose I should give it a go some time.

It's a shame that Milius fell out of favor with the bean counters in Hollywood. It would be nice to see him make another film. He really should shoot for European financing. I'm sure he could drum up some interest with one his gonzo ideas/script.

Sean Gill said...

Anon and J.D.,

You know when you're a kid and something grosses you out or terrifies you and you just have the need to show it to someone in order to alleviate some elusive internal anxiety?- the Nolte freeze frames are like that. Perhaps I can sleep easier now after having put them out into the universe and infected others with this dose of Nolte's animal intensity.


Supposedly Milius has some sort of Genghis Khan/Mickey Rourke film in the works, but I'll believe it when I see a trailer. Milius has never been one for 'flavors of the month' and as such, it's kind of sad that his rugged, über-reactionary (but so far right in some instances, he's practically left!) charm has gone by the wayside, except for *groan* upcoming remakes of RED DAWN and CONAN and God knows what else. (I shudder to think of- I don't know- a remake of BIG WEDNESDAY with Zac Efron and the dudes from TWILIGHT or something.) Although I thank my lucky stars that (knock on wood), there haven't been reissues of Milius movies cashing in on THE BIG LEBOWSKI connection- (i.e. a DVD reissue of EXTREME PREJUDICE where the cover proclaims "Written by the real-life inspiration for Walter Sobchak!").

Anyway, I think you'd like FAREWELL TO THE KING, probably based on the Nolte factor alone. Toss is some solid writing and some landscapes worthy of Malick, and you've got a film that, despite a few shortcomings, I'd certainly recommend.