There’s a reason why for decades filmmakers could not make a movie on Sarawak’s first White Rajah. Is the time finally right for it to happen?
THE year is 1838. A battle-scarred English soldier of fortune arrives on the exotic island of Borneo, fights off pirates and puts down a rebellion for the Sultan of Brunei and four years later is rewarded with his own kingdom.
That, of course, is the well-known story of James Brooke, founder of the White Rajah dynasty in Sarawak in 1842.
One would think such a swashbuckling real-life character would be great fodder for Hollywood treatment.
Indeed, two film producers, American Rob Allyn and Briton Simon Fawcett, have apparently teamed up with Sarawak’s Tourism, Arts and Culture Ministry and the Brooke Heritage Trust to make such a movie.
It all sounds very good except these people aren’t the first to do so.
You see, Hollywood has been trying to make a movie on James Brooke since the 1930s.
And the person helming the project back then was none other than Hollywood legend Errol Flynn who wrote a film script called, yup, The White Rajah.
Just two years earlier, Flynn had won acclaim playing a fictional swashbuckling pirate in Captain Blood and considered himself the perfect actor to play Brooke.
With Warner Brothers buying the film rights, it should have been a breeze to produce it. That would probably have been so if not for Lady Sylvia, the wife of the third and last Rajah, Vyner Brooke.
Sylvia, who carried the title of Ranee, went to Hollywood to meet Flynn and strenuously objected to his script, which she called an “absurdity”.
Philip Eade, in his book, Sylvia, Queen of the Headhunters, has her describing the plot as a “ridiculous story about a girl who dressed up as a boy and chased James Brooke through the jungles of Sarawak.”
The Ranee insisted on historical accuracy and the biggest inaccuracy in the script was the portrayal of Brooke as a Casanova, which Sylvia deemed impossible because Brooke, while serving in the Bengal army of the British East India Company, had sustained a wound that “forever stilled his sexual passions.”
When Flynn protested, “You can’t have a motion picture without love”, Eade writes that Sylvia replied, “And you can’t have James Brooke with it.”
And this is probably why The White Rajah could never be made for the last 80 years.
According to historybuff.com, Warner Brothers tried numerous times to film it, only to run into all sorts of difficulties, including the Second World War and the implacable Ranee.
The studios finally gave up and sold the rights in 1968. Sylvia died in 1971. Historybuff calls The White Rajah the “most doomed movie in Hollywood history.”
And now Rob Allyn’s Margate House Films has been trying to bring James Brooke to the big screen since 2013.
The website calls it a “historical bio-epic” set in 1840s Borneo on “the life story of the Victorian British adventurer who became King of Sarawak and embarked on a lifelong crusade to end piracy and head-hunting – only to face charges of murder and piracy himself.”
That sure sounds exciting. But the movie was supposed to go into production in 2014. Is history repeating itself?
Margate House’s quick plot summary makes no mention of any romance or love interest. Does it mean it will dispense with the angle that Errol Flynn deemed crucial to the plot?
Perhaps that will be the wisest thing to do in our current conservative climate. After all, James Brooke’s sexuality has been much debated.
He was fighting the first Anglo-Burmese War in 1825 when he was shot in the testicles, hence Sylvia’s dramatic statement of stilled passions.
Ronald Hyam in his book, Empire and Sexuality, The British Experience, observes that Brooke devoted his life to Sarawak and its peoples but showed an “embarrassingly total lack of physical interest in women.”
Instead, he showed great affection for his nephews and chose his sister’s son, Charles, who had to change his name from Johnson to Brooke, as his successor.
Brooke befriended many boy proteges, especially 13-year-old midshipmen.
More telling is his well-documented attachment to a Sarawak prince by the name of Badrudin of whom Brooke wrote, “my love for him is deeper than anyone I knew.”
This remark and his subsequent close relationship with 16-year-old Charles Grant, the grandson of the seventh Earl of Elgin, have been pounced upon by those who believe Brooke was either homosexual or bisexual.
Others point out that such male relationships in the Victorian era were not that unusual and often platonic, meaning Brooke was a confirmed old bachelor or “homo-social”, simply preferring the company of men without any sexual connotation.
Towards the end of his life, Brooke shocked his family when he named a secret, illegitimate son in his will but the identity of the mother was never revealed.
It remains unknown if the child was really his offspring or a ‘beard’ for Brooke.
It will be interesting to see how Allyn and company will tackle this most delicate aspect of the first White Rajah. Will the Brooke family remain steadfast to Ranee Sylvia’s stand of “No sex please, he’s James Brooke” or allow the scriptwriters some latitude to hint at bromance?
But, seriously, even if 21st-century Brookes are broad-minded enough to allow such a historically correct inclusion to the storyline, I wouldn’t recommend it to the producers.
That is if they don’t want to incur the wrath of our anti-LGBT lobby and worse and most ironically, cause the movie to be banned from Malaysian cinemas!
Instead, I would suggest they introduce a healthy, heterosexual character, possibly Charles Brooke, who really had the most interesting story of all three rajahs and had plenty of romantic liaisons, including fathering a son with a local noble woman.
Charles spent years living with the Ibans and practically went native, preferring their lifestyle and culture over English society and mores.
Come to think of it, the producers might as well make a movie about Charles and avoid the White Rajah jinx. As historybuff.com concluded cynically: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
To Aunty, it is the Brookes’ love for Sarawak and their subjects that is truly remarkable. James died in relative poverty and his successors, after ruling 104 years, did not leave behind a state that had been plundered and ravished.