Filming ‘The White Rajah’

Back in 2013 I blogged that Rob Allyn, an American film producer with a solid, if unspectacular, back catalogue, had been travelling around Sarawak in Borneo scoping out the possibility of making a film about Sir James Brooke. Despite a reported £15 million dollar budget and official support from the Sarawak government, nothing happened for years. It looked as if this was to be yet another failed attempt to film Brooke’s life.

Before World War II, Errol Flynn pitched the idea of a film based on Brooke’s story to Warner Brothers. Unfortunately, the idea was based on an outline by Lady Sylvia Brooke, the wife of the third Rajah and she vetoed Flynn’s ideas which presented Brooke as a romantic hero, irresistible to women. (Flynn, it must be said, knew what he was good at and concentrated on playing those roles. He, of course, intended to play Brooke.) Lady Sylvia insisted that the plot must reflect the historical reality that Brooke was uninterested in women. (We’ll explore the reasons why this may have been true in another blog post.) Flynn insisted that “You can’t have a motion picture without love,” and Lady Sylvia insisted that you couldn’t have a James Brooke movie with it and Warner Brothers decided not to go ahead.

Errol Flynn

Further possible development of a movie stalled because of the war, but in 1947 Errol Flynn tried again. (You can see his letter to Jack Warner HERE.) The outline Errol pitched cheerfully ignored history, but might have made a decent adventure romance. Warner disagreed, though and the film was never made. In 1968 Warner gave up on the rights.

In 1971 Lady Sylvia died and with her died any concerns about worrying over historical accuracy.

Fast forward to 2013 and, despite a slow start, production went ahead on the latest version of the movie, originally called White Rajah. The movie makers seem to have got a bit nervous of the word ‘white’ and changed the title to Rajah. (I do sympathise because I worry about the racial implications myself, but the dynasty is still known locally as ‘the White Rajahs’ and it’s the way Brooke has been referred to.) Rajah on its own doesn’t make much sense, though, so the film is now Edge of the World.

It’s a big production, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers. It was financially supported by the government of Sarawak and filming takes full advantage of the dramatic scenery of Borneo. The curse that seems to hang over Brooke films has struck again, though. Despite being featured as a ‘First Look’ offering in the 2020 Cannes film festival, covid means it will not have its planned cinema opening, instead going straight to DVD/digital.

Jonathan Rhys Myers as James Brooke

The film was available in the USA on 4 June, but we have to wait until 21 June to see it in the UK. I’ve been lucky enough to see a preview. (Writing doesn’t earn any money but it generates the odd side benefit.) I’ll be reviewing it next week. Until then, if you are interested in my take on Brooke’s story, The White Rajah is still available at £6.99 (or £3.99 on Kindle).