Directors: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson
Stars: John Milius, Peter Bart, Bill Cod
Released by Studiocanal 18th November 2013.
Milius is a documentary telling the life story of one of the most influential and controversial film directors, screenwriters and producers in the history of Hollywood, John Milius, whose work includes contributions to such legendary films such as Apocalypse Now, Jaws, Conan The Barbarian, Dirty Harry and Red Dawn.
Debut directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson have produced a suitably punchy, fast moving and highly enjoyable documentary about one of the undeniably significant 1970s Hollywood scriptwriters and directors, John Milius. A self-made legendar’ figure and a provocatively right wing, gun toting individual in supposedly liberal Tinseltown (the scriptwriter/director has always been to the right of Genghis Khan; a figure he both admires and the subject of his yet to be filmed script), the hefty, bearlike John Milius (the basis for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski) makes for a fascinating subject in Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s pleasurable overview of his life and work.
With the add of numerous clips from the films he helped create and exclusive interviews with such Hollywood leading lights as Francis Ford Coppola, Harrison Ford, Michael Mann, Robert Zemeckis, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone, Bryan Singer, Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charlie Sheen and Martin Scorsese, Figueroa and Knutson entertainingly chart Milius’ existence: his birth in 1944, his childhood ambition to join the military, through his formative years at the University of Southern California Film School to his recruitment by Roger Corman’s American International Pictures (writing the execrable 1968 Dirty Dozen rip off, The Devil’s 8) and the beginning of his illustrious but haphazard Hollywood career.
As the documentary relates, Milius turned to writing after he was refused entry to the US Marine Corps because of his chronic asthma. Fortunately, he was soon able to sell his early screenplays for record amounts and forged a Hollywood career beside his USC Film School contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (both of whom feature prominently in the documentary and who obviously hold the writer in the highest regard). In the late 60s, Milius’ first scripts Los Gringos and Last Resort drew the attention of industry insider Mike Medavoy, who became his agent, leading to his name being mentioned in the Hollywood Reporter. Milius’ name would soon return to the pages of the film industry bible with a succession of imaginative, well written scripts.
The doors to the kingdom opened with his brilliant, and unaccredited, rewrite of the classic 1971 Don Siegel/Clint Eastwood police procedural picture Dirty Harry; Eastwood’s famous “Well, do you, punk?” speech was all from Milius’ pen. Milius scripts for Evel Knievel (1971), John Huston’s Paul Newman western vehicle The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972), which should have been directed by Milius and starred Lee Marvin), Robert Redford’s western Jeremiah Johnson (1972) and Ted Post’s Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973, co-written with future Oscar winning maverick Michael Cimino).
In 1973, having persuaded Corman’s A.I.P. to direct his own script, Milius directed the magnificent biopic Dillinger (1973), starring the indomitable Warren Oates as the infamous, 1930’s Tommy gun welding bank robber. Arguably the best picture of Milius’ directorial career, the low budget Dillinger delineated the saga of the Depression era antihero infinitely more adroitly, with far greater pathos, while acknowledging that Dillinger was merely a ruthless criminal, than Michael Mann’s 2009 flaccid, mega bucks flop version of the same story. Milius’ ten page long, telephone dictated speech for Robert Shaw’s Quint character in Spielberg’s 1975 box office game changer Jaws and his script for Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 masterwork Apocalypse Now, combined with his own directed feature films The Wind and The Lion (1975) and Conan The Barbarian, conformed the writer’s Hollywood A-list status.
But as the 80’s progressed, Milius’ brand of machismo and love of firearms, culminating in his preposterous 1984 World War III Soviets invade- America flick, Red Dawn (starring Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen), irrevocably damaged his Hollywood career. Fellow 70’s scriptwriter and director Paul Schrader relates that he liked Milius and found him good company, but that he never really took his macho, right wing posturing seriously. Unfortunately for the self proclaimed “Zen anarchist”, many influential Hollywood power brokers did, leading to Milius becoming an increasingly isolated figure. Milius’ Hollywood pariah status was only further compounded the commercial failure of his films Farewell To The King (1989) and Flight Of The Intruder (1991), being made bankrupt by his accountant best friend and by a severe stroke a few years ago, from which Milius is thankfully steadily recovering.
To a fault, Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s documentary empathises with the ostracised Milius. Their film celebrates his life’s work, but without really offering any in depth analysis as to why so many scripts produced by the writer/director were of such superior quality. Yet the sheer volume of big name original interviews, sharp editing by Zak Knutson and well chosen film clips, coupled with Figueroa and Knutson’s obvious enthusiasm for their subject, elevates Milius, the documentary, from the usual Hollywood profiles. However, Milius, the man, remains, somewhat of an enigma. This would, of course, probably please him no end.
Milius out on DVD 18th November 2013
All words by Ian Johnston. You can read more from Ian on Louder Than War at his author’s archive.