Review: Farewell to the King (1989)

Nigel Havers and Nick Nolte star in Farewell to the King, a story about tribal power and much more

When Captain Fairbourne (Nigel Havers) parachutes into the jungles of Borneo, the last thing he expects from the native tribes is a white king. Yet he soon finds himself face to face with Learoyd (Nick Nolte), an ex-American soldier who narrowly escaped a firing squad in the Second World War before rising to become king of the tribe.

Based on the novel by Pierre Schoendoerffer, Farewell to the King, tells a myriad of tales. It tells the story of an American solider forced to see his comrades executed, who faces death when stumbling half-deranged across tribal people. It details his recovery and rise to head of the people and offers a tantalising glimpse into another society.

Yet it also tells other tales; the British commando who has come to negotiate with such people and his gradual acceptance of Learoyd’s legitimacy as King. It tells the story of an entire people who are dragged into contact with the civilised world and the events of a war which they find themselves part of.

Perhaps most importantly, the film humanises the tribe people, taking care to neither belittle them nor accuse them of barbaric behaviour. Whilst they may still bring back the heads of those who have been beaten in battle, this is presented as more of a cultural difference than a flaw. Perhaps most significantly they are shown as people, most notably through their sense of humour, whether they are stomping around in someone else’s boot or laughing at having tied their new found additions up in their hammocks.

Farewell to the King also poses the age-old question of intervention; is it right to intervene with other developing cultures? The situation is made more complex with the idea of two interventions. Giving arms and ammunition to a people is one thing, whilst rising to become their king is another.

John Milius’ adaptation is a brilliant blend of war action and thought-provoking drama, taking time to focus on individual relationships and understandings as well as portraying the brutality of conflict, making it sure to both provoke discussion as well as appealing to a wide range of audiences.

Best scene: When Fairbourne is tied up in his sleep.

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