KUCHING, Sarawak, East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo — Borneo. For most of you Borneo doesn't exist -- an imaginary name on a map like Tibet or Tierra del Fuego. The ends of the earth. But I know that it exists. I was there . . . .
--Opening lines of "Farewell to the King,"
a screenplay by John Milius.
It figured that if a movie company ever came to this end of the earth, to the dense jungles of the legendary Iban headhunters, it would be led by John Milius. P. T. Barnum would have loved the symmetry of it. The Wild Man of Hollywood--the writer and/or director of "Dillinger," "Apocalypse Now," "Conan the Barbarian"--meets the Wild Man of Borneo.
Calendar loved the symmetry of it, too. So we looked Borneo up on a map--it's the third-largest island in the world, straddling the Equator due south of Hong Kong--and found our way here. Both Milius and the headhunters, we discovered, have almost been tamed.
DAY 1: Gods Bless Us, Everyone
A propeller-driven DC-3, rented from a company in Singapore and coated with phony World War II camouflage, moves slowly across the sky toward a clearing in the thick jungle of Sarawak, a Malaysian state in northwest Borneo.
In a moment, four stunt men are expected to parachute out of the plane and etch their images onto strips of 35-millimeter film spinning simultaneously through three Panavision cameras set up below. At the edge of the clearing, waiting for their cue to rush into camera view and greet the paratroopers, are two groups of short, thin, brown-skinned extras dressed up as natives--men in red loincloths, the women in red and black sarongs.
A few yards away, a blue beach umbrella provides shade for two big, bearded men sitting in canvas-backed chairs. One is John Milius, director of "Farewell to the King," a World War II adventure story about a redheaded Irish-American soldier (Nick Nolte) who becomes king of the jungle and leads his tribes against the occupying Japanese forces. The other man is actor Frank McRae, a 6-foot-5, 260-pound former pro football lineman, one of the film's co-stars.
McRae is following the DC-3 through a pair of binoculars and, as it moves directly overhead, his chair suddenly collapses under him. The extras--some of them former headhunters who still have trophies hanging in their jungle homes--laugh as the huge black man collects himself and dangles the rubble from his fingers like a dead crane.
"Another endangered species of Borneo," McRae says, tossing the chair aside. "We need to get some stronger chairs."
Milius has paid no attention to the commotion. He's been following the plane.
"Now why didn't they jump that time?" Milius says, opening the gray thermos of cold water that's constantly at his side. "This is going to be a long afternoon."
There are two base camps for the film crew on this 95 day (it's not the heat, it's the humidity). One is about a half-mile away, where separate lean-tos have been set up and designated with hand-printed signs for Milius, actors Nolte, McRae and Nigel Havers and for the functions of catering, makeup and wardrobe.
The other camp is permanent. It is the 320-room Holiday Inn 30 miles east in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The hotel is within a two-hour drive of every jungle, river, cave or beach location being used for "Farewell to the King." The crew returns there every night.
The rooms are deluxe in the Holiday Inn, with mini-bars, hair dryers and cable TV that pipes in an odd mixture of unedited American movies, Malaysian news and Muslim prayer. The windows face either the Chinese mercantile district of downtown Kuching (population: 150,000) or the polluted Sarawak River and the continual parade of debris riding it toward the South China Sea.
In the four-level Kuching Plaza next door, you can get one-hour photo service, browse an assortment of used swords and blowguns, order takeout from Kentucky Fried Chicken or pick up Michael Jackson's latest album, "Bad."
There are three modern restaurants in the hotel, and two bars. The bar with the pool table and dart board has been taken over by the mostly Australian film crew and renamed "the Learoyd," after the title character that Nolte--who lives with his wife and their 18-month-old son in a 10th-floor penthouse--plays in the movie.
In the more formal Rajang bar, cocktail menus encourage guests to try a "Headhunter," a zombie-style cocktail that comes in a mug whimsically shaped like a native's head, and "let your imagination transport you to days gone by of tribal customs, romance and adventure!"
Those days are not as long gone by as Sarawak's fledgling tourist industry makes them seem. The older Iban extras hired for "Farewell" will tell you that when they were young men, they had to take a head before they could take a wife. A head--smoked, cleaned and properly hung--was a sign of both maturity and respect for a potential bride.