The making of a legend, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s bio-documentary Milius uncovers the gun-toting storyteller and filmmaker that took Hollywood on and lost.
The Crash Reel by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Opening with a quote from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech on Citizenship in a Republic, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s documentary on screenwriter and filmmaker John Milius highlights the courage of the man who, face marred by dust, sweat and blood, strives to succeed. It’s perhaps overegging their assembly of talking heads and film excerpts, underscoring the interviewees’ acclamations of John Milius’ contribution to cinema as a storyteller and “zen anarchist” with Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries, but Figueroa and Knutson’s opening gambit is also John Milius’ signature piece – his script for Apocalypse Now, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s unfilmable novel Heart Of Darkness. And while later he faded into obscurity following the critical panning of Red Dawn, Milius is the story of one man’s ascendance into film history and back again.
After growing up in Missouri and serving in the Vietnam War (but prevented from fighting on the frontlines due to asthma), John Milius came back home and went to film school. At the University of Southern California, he studied alongside Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – none with the slightest hope of entering Hollywood’s film world. And while John Milius was one of the most talented students of his year, his name has since been overshadowed by his more famous classmates. He was, it is revealed in Figueroa and Knutson’s documentary, oppositional by nature – an NRA supporter and Republican who stood against the anti-war protests of the counter-culture and the lefty liberalism of Hollywood. But he was also a great storyteller and dialogue writer, bringing naturalistic but peppy dialogue to the mouths of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry and Robert Duvall in Apocalypse Now, reliving through his characters the Vietnam war and its macho men.
It was a stroke of luck that as Spielberg, Lucas and Milius were leaving film school, both the star system and the Hollywood studios were beginning to crack as Golden Age producers sold their companies off to million-dollar corporations. And with John Milius’ knack for writing screenplays, it wasn’t long before he was bartering for his first job as a director – offering the script for The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean at two prices, one with him at the director’s helm and a much more expensive option without. Finally, his time came with Dillinger, hiding within his macho, moxie-filled films nuggets of philosophy, such as his metaphor of the grizzly bear for the American people in The Wind And The Lion. He also came to Spielberg’s aid in Jaws with Robert Shaw’s Indianapolis monologue, and via Apocalypse Now, and his own films Big Wednesday, Conan The Barbarian and Red Dawn, Milius earned a name for himself, not only as a great writer of men, with dialogue emanating out of his characters rather than imposed upon them, but also as an ideas man, not afraid to court controversy.
Perhaps he just enjoyed making people feel uncomfortable, but once Pauline Kael and Barry Norman panned Red Dawn as violent, jingoistic and fascist, Milius’ curious Kurosawa-inspired persona of samurai, surfing and Teddy Roosevelt was blacklisted in Hollywood, deemed no longer worth the trouble. Fleeced by his accountant, he petitioned producers to become a staff writer on Deadwood before finding his way back into favour with the TV series Rome. And Milius was in pre-production for an epic retelling of Genghis Khan and his conquest of the known world when he suffered a debilitating stroke – the tragedy of the raconteur losing his ability to speak and fighting his way back into filmmaking.
Structured around the question of whether one man can turn himself into a legend, Milius ends with a clip from Big Wednesday, with the suggestion that Milius will return, perhaps even for his best film yet. And as Matt turns away from the call of the waves, leaving his dreams of youth behind, perhaps it might even be a film that goes beyond his out-of-time, macho ethics and flawed American, gun-toting men. Without much contemporary access to the hero of their documentary, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s Milius limits itself to an exploration of this forgotten corner of film history. And yet as they proceed through the writer and director’s film slate, Milius isn’t so much a re-evaluation of the director (they’re certainly not modern-day Truffauts rediscovering Hitchcock) as a hedonistic rattle through one man’s filmography. With revved-up images and a breakneck story, Milius is a high-octane portrait of a film legend, but its would-be myth-makers don’t discover much more than the pedestal.
Milius is released on 1st November 2013 in the UK