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World War II - Pacific Theater - Farewell to the King

Updated on April 23, 2014
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Theresa Ast, PhD in Modern European History, has taught at Reinhardt University for 25 years. "Confronting the Holocaust" @ AMAZON Books.


Farewell to the King - The Film

Written and directed by John Milius, who also wrote the screenplay for Apocalypse Now, this film (released in 1989) has interesting similarities to Apocalypse Now and some striking character reversals.

For example, Colonel Kurtz goes native in Cambodia during the Vietnamese War, but he is insane and or evil. On the other hand, Learoyd, an American soldier, shipwrecked and washed up on a Pacific island decides to desert.

He manages to escape the Japanese firing squads becoming the sole survivor of his ship’s crew and disappears into the jungle forest of Borneo. Hiding in the jungle Learoyd is found by a head-hunting tribe of Dayaks, who consider him "divine" because of his tattoos.

Learoyd also goes native and repudiates modern western society and culture, but unlike Colonel Kurtz, he is a generous and moral leader of the native tribes people, the Dayaks , and he wants above all things to live in peace in his new home and avoid any further contact with the conflicts and bloodshed of World War II.

Learoyd is the Dayak king when British advance commandoes approach him to lead the native peoples against the Japanese, Learoyd resists.

When his own tribe is directly threatened by the invaders, however, the "king" chooses to lead them and assist the British commandos in the war effort against the Japanese.

The film takes place in Borneo and the story unfolds between April 1942 and Fall 1945.

Actors and Characters:

  • Nick Nolte as Learoyd – American soldier shipwrecked on Borneo
  • Nigel Havers as Captain Fairbourne –British paratrooper sent in to pacify the natives
  • James Fox as Colonel Ferguson - seasoned British officer, Fairbourne’s superio
  • Frank McRae as Sergeant Tenga – Fairbourne’s radio man, Kikuyu African Rifle Corps
  • Aki Aleong as Colonel Mitamura – Phantom Japanese Colonel
  • Marius Weyers as Sergeant Conklin – Fairbourne’s “train the natives” team
  • William Wise as Dynamite Dave - Fairbourne’s “train the natives” team
  • Gerry Lopez as Gwai – Dayak royalty, Yoo’s sister, discovers Learoyd in the forest
  • Elan Oberon as Vivienne- Fairbourne’s fiancée, nurse in the British army
  • Choy Chang Wing as Lian – native troublemaker, headhunter
  • Richard Morgan as Stretch Lewis - Fairbourne’s “train the natives” team
  • John Bennett Perry as General MacArthur
  • Michael Nissman as General Sutherland
  • Wayne Pygram as Bren Armstrong Fairbourne’s “train the natives” team


Farewell to the King

Constructing an Analytical Essay

Directions: Using these questions and your film notes construct a 5-6 page Analytical Essay.

1) Do you see comments or behaviors that reveal racist, sexist, imperialistic or nationalistic attitudes, by the British or Americans? Describe and Discuss.

2) Compare and contrast the two “cultures” depicted in the film: “civilized” western nations, Britain and America and the “primitive/savage” natives of Borneo. What do the Stone Age people represent? Why are they important to King Learoyd?

3) What purposes does Lieutenant Tenga serve in the film? What concepts are illuminated by what he does and says? Is he more than just comic relief?

4) There are two descriptions, two sets if images of war, one at the beginning of the film and another at the end of the film. How do they differ? Use the characters words and metaphors.

5) Discuss the various kinds and levels of loyalty in the film. Who is loyal to who? Is loyalty more than just a character quality? Is it affected by nationality, cultural? Do loyalties change?

6) what roles do women have in these two cultures? How are they viewed and treated by men? What are “good” behaviors for civilized western women?

7) Note the use of, and purpose for, any striking metaphors or “sayings.” Discuss their meaning and purpose for the natives, for the white soldiers, for the film. Examples: “You can no longer avoid history.” and “What’s life without a little salt?”


Farewell to the King

NOTE: Most of us know very little about the white rajahs of Sarawak. Sarawak shares the island of Borneo with Indonesian Kalimantan and tiny, oil-rich Brunei. As recently as 1946, Sarawak was the private domain of a family dynasty and had been since 1841, when James Brooke, an Englishman, was named rajah by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for having put down a local insurrection. The rajah ended piracy and headhunting in Sarawak.

Farewell to the King, however, is based on a 1970’s novel by Swiss writer Pierre Schoendoerffer, who combined the idea of a modern, but mysterious and cloistered white rajah with the actual historical facts and events of the allied efforts in the Pacific Theater of Operations near the end of World War II.


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