HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERon 16 January 2014
Describing himself as "a filmmaker, a historian and a storyteller" and by others as a devoted contrarian and a teddy bear with an AK 47, it's about time John Milius got a documentary to himself after appearing in so many about other directors, and 2013's Milius does a good job of printing the legend while at the same time acknowledging he was his own worst enemy at times. It's a testimony to his impact that the filmmakers have assembled such an impressive roster of friends and collaborators to be interviewed - Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Scorsese, Schrader, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger Clint Eastwood, Richard Dreyfuss, Robert Zemeckis among them.
Although overshadowed by his fellow USC students like Spielberg and Lucas and probably better known for his rewrites on films like Jaws and Dirty Harry where his ear for great dialogue came into its own than his own films like Conan the Barbarian and The Wind and the Lion, he was always expected to be the one who really made it big. He was the first film school graduate to get a studio deal and quickly became one of the most in-demand writers in the business, though it proved harder to parlay that power into being allowed to direct as well. Yet as a director he was never able to find the same level of success, partially because of his tendency to constantly go against whatever the current mood was, partially because he was too uncompromising but perhaps largely because he just enjoyed making people uncomfortable too much.
Always uncomfortable with his reputation among many critics as a fascist and preferring to describe himself as a Zen anarchist (it's encouraging to know that even he thinks the Tea Party and their like are completely insane) he had originally intended to become a pilot in Vietnam and die by the age of 26 but had to rethink his plans when he was rejected as unfit. It was watching a season of Kurosawa films that was to be his epiphany, which was at the time perhaps an even more absurd career plan with the studios hovering on the verge of bankruptcy. The film's hugely enjoyable when charting the early course of his career, whether classmates recalling him turning up for USC screenings in a huge sombrero and punching out instructors, George Hamilton recounting his terms for writing Evel Knievel ("I want girls, gold and guns!") and sending the screenplay to him as a series of telegrams, the origins of Apocalypse Now (after seeing hippies' buttons calling for `Nirvana Now' he produced his own with the peace symbol moved on its side to look like a B52 bomber with the words `Apocalypse Now') or how the head of Warner Bros. summoned him to a meeting to discuss getting rid of a particularly rancid suede jacket. And it's blessed by ample archive footage of Milius talking - sometimes talking himself out of jobs, sometimes arguing with the uncreative producers he despised, but always in a way that commands your attention even when you disagree with him: Milius always knew how to fill a room and make an impression. You also get a sense of the genuinely kind and loyal man beneath the charismatic bluster, though the film misses a chance by not including a clip of Sean Connery in The Wind and the Lion ending one of his grandiose bits of Milius dialogue full of bravado with "Well, maybe I don't believe it either."
Where the film falters is in getting so caught up in Milus' charisma and larger than life character that it tends to overlooks his often fascinating thoughts on how he approaches his craft in favour of the politics and persona and excludes any contrary voices amid the parade of praise, with only Oliver Stone offering much in the way of criticism of his manchildlike world view and arrested development, and even that couched in his obvious affection for the man. On the plus side, the interviewees are aware of Milius' tendency towards self-inflicted wounds and the film does acknowledge that one key part of the Milius myth - the notion that Red Dawn derailed his career and made him a pariah among a petty left wing cabal that ran the studios even though it came out in the Reagan era when right-wing action heroes were all the rage - is something of a print the legend explanation for the decline of his career and reputation. As George Lucas notes, Milius created a larger than life persona based on the people and things he admired that those who didn't really know him would take at face value, and his love of playing up to that persona by putting guns on the table during meetings with studio heads or giving interviews as the head of the International Writers' Army ("the terror wing of the Writer's Guild") about blowing up Jeffrey Katzenberg's car didn't do him any favours. Producer Andre Morgan puts it most succinctly when he says that people would put up with him to get the screenplay, but once they did they didn't need to put up with him as director too. Even in his heyday there was a feeling among many that Milius the director was never as good as Milius the writer, especially when his most personal film, Big Wednesday, was a box-office and critical wipeout.
Most damagingly the film skips almost completely over his post-Red Dawn directorial career, which offers the mundane explanation for why the brightest light of his generation ended up buried under a bushel. Both Farewell to the King and Flight of the Intruder were classic Milius subjects, the first a Conradian jungle adventure, the latter giving the frustrated Navy Pilot wannabe in him the chance to play with a real aircraft carrier and bomb Vietnam, but both were troubled productions that ended in studio interference, re-editing and box-office disaster in an industry that can forgive anything but failure. Even his subsequent writing credits suffered from rewrites and were either left unfilmed or the eventual results failed to find an audience. The Libertarian giant brought down by the liberal vendetta of petty little men makes for a good story, and one Milius loved to tell, but as anything-but-lefties Clint and Arnie say, as long as you bring in the bucks, no-one at the studios really cares that much.
It's with the possibility of a comeback with his long-planned dream project Genghis Khan that the film takes it's cruellest turn, with Milius being struck down by a stroke that left a man who lived for words and who Spielberg described as the greatest raconteur of his generation without the ability to speak. Having known him briefly from his narrating a couple of documentaries I was involved in, it's genuinely shocking to see him struggling for words, though it's heartening to see the progress he makes over the course of several months - in perhaps true to the legend he built fashion it was his old friend and collaborator Basil Poledouris' music from Conan the Barbarian that brought the first signs of recognition from him and his love of target shooting that drove his physical rehabilitation until he was able to quote one of his more famous one-liners for the camera.
It's an engrossing and entertaining tribute, but with just a little bit more objectivity it could have been better still. But perhaps that's a little too much to expect of a film about a man who once began a screenplay with `Maybe this isn't the way it was, but it's the way it should have been.'
No extras on StudioCanal's DVD (no subtitles either), but a good widescreen transfer.