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FAREWELL TO THE KING – Basil Poledouris


Original Review by Jonathan Broxton

Farewell to the King is an action-adventure-drama written and directed by John Milius, adapted from the 1969 novel L’Adieu au Roi by Pierre Schoendoerffer. The film stars Nick Nolte as Learoyd, an American soldier during World War II, who escapes from a Japanese firing squad and flees into the jungles of Borneo. Over time, Learoyd is adopted into a tribe of Dayaks, the original inhabitants of the island, and becomes their leader, finding peace and tranquility in his new, simple life. That life is shattered, however, when British soldiers led by Captain Fairbourne (Nigel Havers) and Colonel Ferguson (James Fox), approach the tribe and try to convince Learoyd to re-join the war against the Japanese. When he refuses to do so, Learoyd quickly finds himself having to fight to protect his new tribe. The film, which shares tonal and story similarities with films ranging from The Man Who Would Be King, Heart of Darkness, and Dances With Wolves, to Avatar, is virtually forgotten today. Behind-the-scenes in-fighting between Milius and the studio led to the film staggering into cinemas in the spring of 1989, having been heavily re-edited against the director’s wishes. It was not a success, either critically or financially, and would likely not be on anyone’s radar today were it not for the score, by Basil Poledouris.

Basil Poledouris and John Milius were old friends from the time when they were both students at the University of Southern California, and the two had worked together on virtually all of Milius’s directorial efforts, including Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian, and Red Dawn. Milius’s aesthetic was to be bold and emotionally direct, and as such he inspired Poledouris to write some of his career-best film music. Farewell to the King is one of those. Performed by the Hungarian State Orchestra and conducted by the composer himself, the score is a multi-thematic and exotic orchestral masterpiece, which blends together a number of truly gorgeous melodic ideas with a great deal of action, enlivened regional percussion. Poledouris himself said at the time that he was inspired by the music of John Barry while writing the score, and that influence is clearly prevalent throughout many of the cues.

After a few moments of build up in “The Trek” – pan flutes and metallic percussion items playing tribal rhythms to depict Borneo itself – the main theme is introduced in the “Main Title”. It contains one of Poledouris’s all-time great melodies, a gorgeous, sweeping, noble idea which begins with pan flutes, eventually gives way to stirring strings and brass, and features some beautiful interplay between the instruments. The whole thing speaks to the beauty of the location, the nobility of Learoyd’s quest to find honor and redemption, and the sacrifice he makes to protect his people. Structurally, the theme is interesting as it has both an A-phrase (beginning at 0:10) and a more exotic B-phrase (beginning at 0:28), which are usually played sequentially, but can also be played separately when the narrative calls for it.

The second main theme is related more directly to Learoyd himself, and is quieter, more intimate, and more conventionally romantic. It is first heard in the third cue, “War is Over,” beginning at 0:42, and is the one most clearly influenced by John Barry, although I have also always felt it had some similarities with the themes that Jerry Goldsmith wrote for the films Medicine Man and Powder. Poledouris’s music is lovely, combining stirring, emotional strings with flutes and harp accents; the second statement of the theme which begins at 2:30 is orchestrated for the full string section accompanied by noble brass, and is just sumptuous.

These two themes combine to form the backbone of the score, and there are several outstanding statements of them in numerous cues throughout the work. “Nigel’s Trip” features a peaceful take on Learoyd’s theme with the most gorgeous undulating string countermelody, before effortlessly switching to a sublime flute performance in the second half. “This Is My Child” opens with a gentle, hypnotic dance for strings and woodwinds, but becomes more urgent and agitated as it develops, before it eventually melts into a series of warm and satisfying statements of both the Main Theme and Learoyd’s theme. “Learoyd Surrenders” blends the textural Borneo ideas from the opening cue with the orchestra, and features some especially impressionistic woodwinds; as the cue continues there are a number of slightly bittersweet statements of both Learoyd’s theme and the Main Theme, which are regularly interrupted by darker orchestral textures representing the encroachment from the outside world into his idyllic life. “Day of the Dead” is graceful, reflective, and contemplative, with hints of the Main Theme on pan flutes that build to an energetic rhythmic finale.

Interspersed throughout the score are several moments of action, for which Poledouris dipped back into his bag of tricks from Conan the Barbarian. Although nowhere near as apocalyptic as those written for the great Hyborian warrior (the ensemble is smaller, and there is no choir), the action music here is still impressive. For example, “Battle Montage” is full blooded and highly rhythmic, with pronounced tambourines in the percussion section, which gives the whole thing a quasi-medieval sound. The writing for flutes in this cue is especially notable, and there is a clever arrangement of the B-section of the main theme. Later, “Night of the Living” takes the first three notes of the main theme and turns them into a battle fanfare for brass; “Lian the Magnificent” is aggressive and urgent, with the main theme performed by the ethnic Borneo textures. The conclusive “Village Attack” sequence introduces a new repeated melodic phrase for strings that runs through the piece, underpinned by war-like drums, and is quite superb. Moments of tragedy punctuate the violence, and the whole thing ends with a sweeping, emotional statement of Learoyd’s theme.

Two other standalone pieces of music are also worth mentioning. “The Training March” is a jaunty, almost comic-sounding march steeped in the pomp and circumstance of English military tradition, while the “Imperialist Waltz” is a lovely piece of fluff, charming and elegant, with a rich and sumptuous classical sound.

The final two cues, “This Day Forth” and “Farewell To My King,” provide satisfying conclusive statements of both main themes. The former is quiet, sparse, and reflective, while the latter is hopeful and elegant, and features an especially notable version of the main theme on pan flutes. The interplay between the main theme and Learoyd’s theme, as it switches back and forth between the pair, picking up a different woodwind texture each time, is just delightful, while the constant string counterpoint is wholly appealing. The whole thing builds to a joyous and celebratory finale featuring tambourines, gongs, metallic percussion, and enormous swells of emotion, ending the score on a thematic high.

The score for Farewell to the King was released commercially by both Varèse Sarabande in America and by Milan in Europe at the time the film came out, with identical content, except that the Euro version was released with its French title L’Adieu au Roi, and the accompanying packaging was also in that language. Both of these releases quickly went out of print, and for many years commanded ridiculously high prices on the secondary market. In 2006 Belgian label Prometheus Records and producer Ford A. Thaxton released an expanded album, just months before Poledouris’s death, which increased the album’s running time to over an hour and re-sequenced it into film order. This album is still available from soundtrack specialty outlets, and adds a great deal of depth and nuance to an already excellent original program.

With all the love that is regularly given to his Conan scores, as well as to crowd-pleasing blockbusters like Robocop and Starship Troopers, I often feel like Farwell to the King is Basil Poledouris’s forgotten masterpiece. Had John Milius been allowed to present his film as he originally intended, and had the film been a critical and commercial success as a result, it’s likely that this beautiful music would have reached a much wider audience than it did. Instead, the whole thing languishes in relative obscurity, a film that almost nobody saw and which even fewer people liked, with music that is difficult to acquire. Despite all this, I still feel that I must unequivocally recommend this score to anyone who has even the slightest interest in Basil Poledouris’s music. We all know he could raise our spirits with rousing action music and bombastic fantasy and sci-fi scoring, but he was equally adept at touching our spirits with intense musical beauty, and Farwell to the King is one of the finest examples of him doing just that.

Buy the Farewell to the King soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • The Trek (1:37)
  • Main Title (1:36)
  • War Is Over (3:21)
  • Learoyd and Nigel (2:40)
  • Battle Montage (2:36)
  • Nigel’s Trip (4:13)
  • Realization (1:33)
  • Night of the Living (1:16)
  • This Is My Child (3:21)
  • Lian the Magnificent (1:22)
  • The Woman Saved Me (1:23)
  • Learoyd Surrenders (4:24)
  • The Training March (2:45)
  • Day of the Dead (1:04)
  • Imperialist Waltz (1:46)
  • The Village Attack (2:31)
  • This Day Forth (2:40)
  • Farewell To My King (2:23)
  • Prologue – The Trek (1:38)
  • Main Title (South China Sea) (1:37)
  • Flare of Youth (1:53)
  • Trek (1:25)
  • Mitaura (0:53)
  • The Women Saved Me (1:24)
  • Learoyd Slays Lian the Magnificent (1:21)
  • Honeymoon (0:38)
  • Zed Force (2:44)
  • Learoyd Saves the Child (3:22)
  • Learoyd Saves Nigel (2:43)
  • Nigel’s Trip (4:14)
  • Battle Montage (2:37)
  • Realization (1:36)
  • The Wait (1:45)
  • Night of the Living (1:14)
  • Day of the Dead (1:14)
  • Village Attack (2:57)
  • This Day Forth (2:41)
  • The War is Over (3:20)
  • Imperialist Waltz (1:47)
  • Learoyd Sacrifices (4:23)
  • Farewell to My King (2:25)
  • Main Title [Flute Version] (1:37) BONUS
  • Battle Montage [Alternate Mix] (2:37) BONUS
  • Sorrow (0:49) BONUS
  • Grief (0:53) BONUS
  • The Jungle (1:42) BONUS
  • Japanese Radio Source Cue (2:18) BONUS
  • Rising of the Moon (1:14) BONUS
  • Main Title [Alternate Mix] (1:37) BONUS

Running Time: 43 minutes 43 seconds (Original)
Running Time: 62 minutes 38 seconds (Expanded)

Varese Sarabande VSD-5216 (1989)
Prometheus Records PCD-159 (1989/2006)

Music composed and conducted by Basil Poledouris. Performed by the Hungarian State Symphony Orchestra. Orchestrations by Steven Scott Smalley. Recorded and mixed by Eric Tomlinson. Edited by Tom Villano. Score produced by Basil Poledouris. Expanded album produced by Ford A. Thaxton.

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