“I try to maintain a certain innocence toward my material. I like to say that I do what I do because I like it and that it’s not preachy. When I try to put my finger on what I have to say, it’s very vague. It’s just an attitude. As Herman Melville put it in “Moby Dick”: ‘a free and easy desperado geniality.’ That’s my attitude. Melville was talking about men rowing into the mouth of a whale with their backs to it. I suppose that’s what life is like.”
Co-directors, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, spent five years of their lives, travelled throughout America to over a dozen states, and conducted sixty-five interviews to complete their documentary on screenwriter and director, John Milius. The film premiered at the SXSW(South by Southwest) festival on March 9, 2013. The 103 minute documentary, features commentary from a who’s who of Hollywood heavyweights, such as Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, and Steven Spielberg, among many others. Those interviewed all offer insight, some anecdotally and fondly, others reverentially, about a larger than life figure, that for the most part, has faded into obscurity the past twenty years.
The self proclaimed “Zen anarchist” was born John Frederick Milius on April 11, 1944, in St. Louis, Missouri. He would grow up there until he was seven, when his family moved to California. Interestingly enough, when Milius came of age, he actually wanted to be a member of the United States Army, instead of having a career in Hollywood. Due to his asthma, he was not allowed to enlist during the Vietnam war. In an earlier interview conducted with Milius, he states, in a matter of fact manner, that he viewed filmmaking as the next best alternative to a life in the armed services. He would go on to study filmmaking at USC (University of Southern California), which along with NYU (New York University) and UCLA (University of California Los Angeles) were the only three film schools in existence in the 1960s. One commentator mentions that today, it is harder to get into the film school at USC than it is the medical school.
Initially breaking into Hollywood as a screenwriter, Milius would go onto write and direct some of the most well known films of the 1970s and early 1980s. Milius wrote both “Magnum Force,” the sequel to “Dirty Harry,” and the screenplay for the first “Dirty Harry” film, although he was not officially credited for his work. He also is responsible for writing the speech delivered by Robert Shaw’s character of Quint, about the U.S.S. Indianapolis, in Steven Spielberg’s iconic film “Jaws.” He created Robert Duvall’s napalm loving, Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore in “Apocalypse Now,” while co-writing the screenplay for the film with Francis Ford Coppola. A fact that I had never known before watching the documentary, is that George Lucas almost directed the film before Coppola took over. Milius wrote and directed Arnold Schwarzenegger’s sword wielding barbarian in “Conan the Barbarian,” which was based on the stories written by Robert E. Howard. His body of work also includes the first film he ever directed which was about the life of legendary gangster, John Dillinger, simply titled “Dillinger.” He scribed “Jeremiah Johnson,” which was directed by Oscar winner Sydney Pollack (Out of Africa) and starred fellow Academy Award winner, Robert Redford (The Natural). Additionally, he wrote: an episode of the popular 80s series “Miami Vice;” the screenplay for the Harrison Ford starring “Clear and Present Danger;” and created the HBO series “Rome;” among numerous other works. (As an aside, at the 52nd Annual Academy Awards, Milius and Coppola were nominated for the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Apocalypse Now,” having adapted the script from the Joseph Conrad novel “Heart of Darkness.” They lost out to Robert Benton for “Kramer vs. Kramer.”)
The documentary doesn’t just focus on Milius’ successes, it gives a complete picture of his career. The film explores critical and commercial flops such as “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.” According to Milius, BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Oscar winning actor, Lee Marvin (The Dirty Dozen), was originally supposed to play the lead role. Marvin fell asleep, while reading the screenplay, after drinking too much, and fellow Oscar winner, Paul Newman, picked it up, read it, loved it, and eventually wound up getting the part. While Milius states that he has absolutely nothing against Newman as a person, and that he views him as a great guy, he feels that Newman was completely wrong for the role. Additionally, the documentary, spends time discussing the critically panned “Big Wednesday,” which was Milius’ homage to his love of surfing, as the film follows the lives of a trio of surfers from the 1960’s through the 1970s. The one film, however, that Milius blames for a serious decline in offers coming his way, is the original “Red Dawn,” which was apparently viewed, at the time, with universal condemnation.
Milius is often painted as an extreme right winger, who apparently has a thirst for violence and war, that seems to know no bounds. “Red Dawn’s” portrayal of an America that is under siege by Russian forces and their allies, being challenged by a group of gun wielding teenagers, who call themselves ‘The Wolverines,’ pushed all the wrong buttons at a time when a nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union was a very real possibility. Dismissing the theory that Milius was undone by “Red Dawn” are Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger. The two Hollywood icons have never shied away from letting it be known that they are Republicans. Schwarzenegger ran and won election twice, as a Republican governor in a state that consistently votes democratic. Both Eastwood and Schwarzenegger are quick to point out that it doesn’t matter what your politics are, all that matters in Hollywood, is if you make money.
Twice divorced, Milius has been with his current wife Elan Oberon, since 1992. He has two grown children from his first marriage to Renee Fabri – a son, Ethan, and a daughter, Amanda – both of whom provide commentary for the documentary. In addition to his creative endeavors, he collects guns, was one of the original founders of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, was an avid surfer in his younger years, and has been consumed with learning everything he can about America’s twenty-sixth President, Theodore Roosevelt. In fact, Milius, who has never written or directed a straight biographical film on Roosevelt, helped to earn the former President a posthumous, Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions at the battle of San Juan Hill. This was accomplished thanks to the television movie Milius wrote and directed, 1997’s “Rough Riders.” In addition to the award, Milius was made an honorary member of the Sioux Nation, after filming on “Rough Riders” was complete.
Sadly, toward the end of the documentary, the viewer learns that perhaps one of the reasons that Milius hasn’t had much output in recent years is due to the stroke he suffered. For a long time, even though he wasn’t creating his own stuff, Milius was very much in demand to work on re-writes for other screenwriters and directors. The stroke, temporarily took his voice from him, and although he is able to communicate somewhat now, thanks to intense therapy, he is still not one hundred percent. Steven Spielberg, who is a very close friend of Milius’ since they met in film school, states that the loss of Milius’s voice, to him, is the worst thing that has ever happened to a friend of his, other than death.
I watched the well researched documentary on Netflix instant streaming a few nights ago. As I watched, I kept wanting to learn more about a man I scarcely knew before watching Figueroa and Knutson’s film, and I certainly did just that. Featuring interesting commentary, intercut with clips from Milius films, as well as archival footage, the documentary is a must watch for cinema lovers.