Written by guest contributor Brian Roe
“He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women. He writes for men. ‘Cause he’s a man.”
~ Sam Elliott
John Milius is one of those frustrating creators whose personality often obscures and poisons his great works. As part of the “New Hollywood” movement Milius began his career surrounded by the likes of George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and Francis Ford Coppola. He was an affable asshole, a self-described “zen anarchist” who seemed to relish being the loudest, most brash , and most abrasive bastard in the room. He was also immensely talented and intelligent with an over-sized persona that seemed to draw people to him even as he shoved others away.
The documentary Milius does its subject a great service by giving him plenty of time to use his outstanding storytelling techniques to fill in his own history beginning with his somewhat troubled childhood and his missed chance to go to Vietnam. The sadness that he shows while pining for “my war” gives some clues into what would become frequent obsessions in his filmmaking. It also shows an almost childlike love of war that many people who have actually experienced war might have a hard time grasping. Like Apocalypse Now’s Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, Milus seems to view war as a a grand adventure and one that he is personally immune to.
Along with an obsession for firearms and grand bravado Milius soon developed into a creative entity that has created or influenced a huge amount of American pop culture. In the films Dirty Harry, Apocalypse Now, and Conan the Barbarian, Milius created tough-guy stories that hit hard and created an ideal of masculinity that was often summed up in omni-quotable lines like “Go ahead, make my day!”, “Crush your enemies!”, and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” But he also set these lines within a story that was full of well-developed characters and masterfully told.
Milius made his first impact as a writer on films such as The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Jeremiah Johnson, and Dillinger which all seem to have been forgotten by all but the most cultish film buffs. But they also gave Milius a good amount of Hollywood power and led to him becoming a director in addition to writing. Becoming the guy who got to call of the shots on set seemed to inflate Milius’s ego to even more extreme proportions.
“Charlie don’t surf!” but Milius did and as a young man took an almost spiritual satisfaction in the culture and sport of the southern California beaches. This led to him writing and directing Big Wednesday, a surf movie that directly opposed the Frankie and Annette beach movie vibe and instead used surfing as a symbol for life in general. Like many very personal projects Big Wednesday was not well received but seemed custom made to become a lasting cult film. It would not be the last time that Milius created a film that was badly received by critics. And the next time the fallout would be damned near fatal to his career.
I’m going to stop talking about John Milius the man and focus a bit more on Milius the documentary. Overall it’s a competent example of a formulaic style that really doesn’t veer too far from set parameters. We get lightly animated stills of Milius as a young man, talking heads of various famous people talking about him as well as a basic timeline of his career. Luckily we also get a good amount of previous interview material from Milius throughout his career. The filmmakers are no Errol Morris so there really isn’t any sense of there being an attempt to dig deeper beneath the surface to really pull new ideas out of the subject. Instead we get a by the numbers documentary that takes no chances and pulls quite a few punches. This format is made even clearer in contrast to the film’s subject. A powerhouse like John Milius deserves better than the standard format of anything.
That being said Milius is worth a watch if only to listen to Milius himself and to get an idea of his charisma and talent. After being thrown a couple of really shitty curveballs Milius is still fighting and hopefully his warrior’s soul will be enough to come back on more time.
Directors: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson Studio: Epix