Reviewed by: Owen Van Spall

Zak Knutson and Joey Figuero’s highly enjoyable documentary, Milius, is an exploration of two kinds of Hollywood myths. There are the myths that enthralled screenwriter and director John Milius, and which drove him to craft epic hero odysseys like Conan The Barbarian and the quintessential journey to the dark side that is Apocalypse Now. Then there is the myth of Milius himself: part self-created and part the creature of (as various interviewees in this film claim) an unfriendly media not used to a boisterous figure who enjoyed upsetting the liberal Hollywood apple cart. One set of myths made for unforgettable cinema but, as this film suggests, the other hindered what might have been a movie career to rival that of MartinScorsese or Steven Spielberg, who were Milius’s travelling companions in the heady days of Sixties and Seventies American cinema.

Even viewers who do not know Milius the man, know the line, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning" from Apocalypse Now. Knutson and Figuero go beyond these classic works to look back at not only Milius’s directing work on the other films such as Dillinger, The Wind And The Lion and Big Wednesday, but also gather a star-studded roster of movie talking heads to help further contextualise Milius as one of the Seventies American movie brats who filled the niche opening up in cinema following the collapse of the old studio system in Hollywood.

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George Lucas, Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Scorsese, Harrison Ford, Sam Elliott, Michael Mann, and Francis Ford Coppola are just a few of the interviewees on board for the ride. The stories they tell, from a tuxedoed Milius munching on a conciliatory burger in a diner following his snubbing at the 1979 Oscars for Apocalypse Now (the best Oscar afterparty ever in Spielberg’s opinion) to Milius’s many inappropriate uses of his beloved firearms, are a timely reminder of just how closely knit many of today’s America’s household name directors were. Were you to wander into screening room somewhere in California on the right day back then, you might have caught them all together. Milius was there at the coal face of the birth of the new Hollywood, before the blockbuster system took over.

When Spielberg, Coppola and their contemporaries first encountered Milius in the Sixties and Seventies, he had already decided that he must be larger than life. Larger than his movies. The documentary pinpoints this drive to project a truly monumental image as lying in his failure to pass the medical tests required by the US armed forces for service in Vietnam. Denied a life story ending in a glorious combat death, Milius settled on crafting epic stories for the movies instead, including his own story of John Milius as the bete noir of a politically sensitive liberal Hollywood.

He styled himself as a libertarian ‘zen anarchist’, never far from a Magnum 44 pistol and a cigar. Guns, bikes, surfboards, women and war made up the iconography of Milius, and he no doubt had and has no problem with that. But many of his peers are at pains to stress in their interviews that there was more to the man than that. Besides being personally loyal and charming, Milius, they claim, was fascinated by the myths of America, heroes, the frontier, and war, and he enjoyed picking under the surface of such myths. Few could write dialogue that punched harder. Aside from his credits as writer on the aforementioned films, Jeremiah Johnson and The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean, Milius also was frequently brought in to add that extra something to other writers’ scripts. Would Jaws (he wrote Quint’s USS Indianapolis monologue), Dirty Harry, and The Hunt For Red October be regarded in the same way without his input?

The reputation for contrariness and controversy that he fostered as early as his classroom days at the University of Southern California film school, (in an Seventies interview Milius chuckles that liked to retouch ‘hippy’ peace badge logos to look like B52 bombers) meant few in the more liberal Hollywood system were willing to offer him support when he needed it later.

Lucas and other interviewees conclude that Milius’s politics and his big mouth meant that when his 1984 Soviet-invasion-of-America epic Red Dawn was shot down by critics as an inflammatory piece of propaganda, and other films like Farewell To The King failed at the box office, doors began to close in his face and directing opportunities (his real passion) began to fall away. Though Milius himself offers no apology, even he seems surprised by how misunderstood he was.

The film touches on more current work, but his biopic of Genghis Khan (surely a suitably epic Milius project if ever there was one) remains in pre-production following a stroke which cruelly robbed Milius of his ability to speak.

In interviews, Scorsese credits Milius with a style of writing that was "primal", whereas Sydney Pollack remarks that ultimately "John is a romantic at heart". It is this duality in the myth that makes Milius so fascinating, regardless of what you think of his politics. A somewhat longer and deeper study of Milius would have been preferable as it feels like the film is skipping certain periods of his life and work at times, but given the man’s career is not yet over, perhaps the definitive Milius review can wait.

Reviewed on: 17 Oct 2013
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A look at the life of filmmaker, John Milius.
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London 2013

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