Milius (15) | Film Review

milius

Dir. Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, US, 2013, 103 mins 

Cast: John Milius, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger

Review by Adam Hollingworth

Re-evaluation is the name of the current game with regard to the period from 1967-80 in American cinema, when the studio system collapsed and an influx of dynamic obsessive cineastes from independent film produced an almost unprecedented string of bravura and trail-blazing masterpieces.

Recent re-releases and restorations have targeted the forgotten and maligned works from the period, such as Jerry Schatzberg’s Scarecrow, Bob Rafelson’s The King of Marvin Gardens, and Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. This documentary is no exception, taking as its subject John Milius: the bombastic right-wing writer-director who emerged from the same USC cocoon as its most famous alumni George Lucas, came to be a screenwriter of immense respect and prominence in Hollywood, but ultimately fell afoul of his own counter-cultural conservatism whilst his profile as a director was barely off the ground.

Milius has at its heart a man so mythical he could have been a character from his own work, but this documentary neither propagates nor deconstructs the legend of this influential giant of one of American cinema’s most crucial and revolutionary periods: it is instead satisfied merely to tell his story, with the aid of an extremely starry guest-list.

John Milius came to study filmmaking at the University of Southern California, after his asthma prohibited him from becoming the Vietnam war hero he always wanted to be. Channeling into his work an affinity with the legendary conflicted heroes of world literature (from Homer to Melville), his own quasi-serious identification with conservative machismo, and a natural gift for poetic double-edged dialogue, Milius became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after writers, producing exceptional screenplays in his own right (The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean) and ghosting and re-writing iconic scenes and moments from seminal films such as Dirty Harry and Jaws.  

Attaining huge status and an Academy Award nomination for writing Apocalypse Now with Francis Ford Coppola, Milius, the self-proclaimed Zen anarchist began his directing career with surfer movie Big Wednesday and launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career with the iconic fantasy actioner Conan the Barbarian, before he fell into relative exile from Hollywood for Red Dawn, a fictionalization of a war with Communist Russia on American soil which saw the director’s conservative leanings finally see him ostracized from the largely liberal American film industry.

Following rumblings of a comeback after the success of his HBO series, Rome, Milius suffered a stroke, and to this day one of the great opinionated writers and raconteurs of American film, who reportedly inspired John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski, is still engaged in a battle to regain the power of coherent and fluent speech.

John Milius’ story is a refreshing one in that it highlights the importance and influence of screenwriters in an era of filmmaking all too often reduced to auteur and director based discussions. The best written scene in Jaws was the work of Milius, the famous line from Dirty Harry came from his pen, and Apocalypse Now owes so much of its depth, resonance and grandstanding bravura from Milius’ input into the script.

As rich and fascinating as Milius’ life story is, however, this documentary has something fundamentally lacking in the telling of it. The relative absence of Milius himself from the film is explained to outsiders only at the end of the film when his contemporary state is revealed, and even though the contributors and interviewees in the film serve as both an impressively starry bank of knowledge who all evidently regard Milius with immense personal affection (Spielberg, Lucas and Coppola chief amongst them), they actually add very little to the documentary beyond biographical information.

Extraordinary anecdotes about a clearly extraordinary character seem remarkably thin on the ground considering the general air of misdemeanor that we know from Peter Biskind’s books to have surrounded this group of people in Hollywood. Few people seem to have known Milius intimately, or comfortably, enough to shed any light on what was really going on in the mind and heart of this complex “Zen Anarchist.”

Milius’ politics are also left largely un-discussed, and a dissection of what he really thought beneath his gasbag provocations would have both illuminated the philosophy behind his work and explained why it was that someone so crucial to Hollywood was effectively cast on the bonfire because he ran so contrary to its widespread left-wing liberalism. Oliver Stone talks at one point about liking Milius for believing what he thought, but disagreeing with him for not always thinking. Is there a fundamental disconnect between the ironic machismo people have read into Milius’ writing, and Milius’ rather un-ironic, at times unthinking approach to post-Vietnam political thinking? What exactly is it in Theodore Roosevelt that spoke so strongly to Milius, to the extent of manifesting itself so centrally in The Wind and the Lion? The documentary ultimately poses questions, almost in spite of itself, rather than setting out to answer them: and it’s especially saddening to say that the film’s final movement, dealing with Milius’ stroke and its after effects, feels like the ultimate clunky attempt to humanize a man who spent his life fighting the attempt to do just that.

Milius is unfortunately a footnote to the legacy of a man who is still a footnote to one of the most fertile periods in American cinematic creativity. All too often, we are blindsided by directorial power in cinema; Milius the man stands as a testament to film being at its best when it emerges not from a single vision, but from collaboration. Milius the documentary, however, succeeds at little else than making this story, and this individual, lightly more widely known.

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