In the opening moments of “Milius,” a hellzapoppin’ new documentary about John Milius, a genius tyrant and warrior poet of '70s and '80s mainstream Hollywood who wrote and directed testosterone-soaked epics like “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn,” Sam Elliott, in the same laid back butterscotch drawl he used to narrate the adventures of The Dude, sums up the filmmaker thusly: “He doesn’t write for women and he doesn’t write for pussies. He writes for men. Because he’s a man.” And as “Milius” (the documentary) elaborates on Milius (the man), this was his biggest strength and his greatest weakness – at some point the persona he fashioned for himself, festooned with his fondness for cigars, right wing politics, and guns, would become too much of a liability, ultimately leading to his undoing.
A self-styled renegade who was born in Missouri and grew up in California (his father was a moneyed shoe manufacturer and had John late in life), he spent most of his childhood in trouble, as a self-described “juvenile delinquent.” A major blow happened for Milius when he attempted to enlist in the army to fight in Vietnam. He was rejected due to his chronic asthma, which, in vintage footage of the director, was incredibly depressing and left him “totally demoralized.” Eventually he made his way to the University of Southern California’s film program, at a time when only three major colleges had film programs (the others being UCLA and NYU). It was here that he fell in with his contemporaries and (still) close friends – Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Steven Spielberg.
Milius was obsessed with war following his rejection from Vietnam and openly clashed with the hippies on campus. Instead of the “Peace Now” buttons that most of the student body proudly wore, he made his own, with the peace sign turned into a bomber plane and the word “peace” replaced with the far more aggressive word “Apocalypse.” Milius would utilize this phrase when fashioning the Oscar-nominated screenplay for his “Hearts of Darkness” adaptation, which his buddy Francis Ford Coppola would direct (after Lucas’ version, which he describes in the documentary as, “the ‘Dr. Strangelove’ of Vietnam films,” was rejected).
At USC he was singled out as a talent worth watching, and his animated short, “Marcello, I’m Bored,” which was produced at around the same time as Lucas’ similarly well-received “THX-1138,” was heralded widely as a visionary student piece. Milius became part of Coppola’s American Zoetrope collective and began writing scripts that he would sell commercially, first working for low-budget production and distribution company American International Pictures (which was the precursor to Roger Corman’s school of filmmaking; Corman worked there initially) and then later working on the scripts for the first two Dirty Harry movies before selling his original screenplays like “Jeremiah Johnson” and “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” for then-record amounts.
But Milius thought that the scripts he had sold were watered down in production and wanted to direct more than anything. He was given his chance on AIP’s low-budget crime drama “Dillinger,” which turned out to be an unexpected smash. From there Milius fashioned his own balls-to-the-walls filmography, including historical epic “The Wind and the Lion,” biographical surfing drama “Big Wednesday” (a crushing commercial disappointment that would sting Milius badly) and “Conan the Barbarian,” which introduced some guy named Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world (when producer Dino De Laurentiis scoffed at Milius’ casting choice, Milius said he had only one other choice: Dustin Hoffman; De Laurentiis relented). Milius’ movies were tough and broad, without much nuance. But what they lacked in delicateness they made up for in ambitious and sheer force – these were giant, hulking movies that could easily crush you, made of metal and sand-blasted stone.
And while Milius’ creative accomplishments piled up, he was still hell bent on being seen as an outsider, a “Zen anarchist” (in his words) uncomfortable with the system. Milius was constructing a persona for himself, one that was even more oversized than he was (and he was a big dude), filled with motorcycles, hookers, cigars, and guns (lots and lots and lots of guns). Milius didn’t want to be respected; he wanted to be feared. And while many of the executives he dealt with were happy enough to put up with his eccentricities, there reached a point where he became “too much,” even for them. And that point was “Red Dawn.”
Released during the height of Reagan-era America, with its misguided nostalgia and virulent patriotism, “Red Dawn” imagined a world in which the United States was invaded by Russia and a group of heavily armed teens were the only ones willing to fight back. It was a proverbial lightning rod of controversy, both in America and abroad, and for the more socially responsible liberals of Hollywood, it was enough to get Milius effectively blacklisted, no matter how much money “Red Dawn” made. Even if this wasn’t, exactly, the case, it was a suitable narrative for Milius, who always saw himself as an outcast.
From “Red Dawn” on, Milius only worked intermittently. One great story from “Milius” has a producer recounting how the helmer single-handedly was responsible for Sean Connery signing on to John McTiernan’s masterpiece “The Hunt for Red October,” since the actor loved Milius’ blustery speeches from “The Wind and the Lion.” (A noted script doctor, Milius also wrote the famous USS Indianapolis speech for his friend Spielberg’s classic “Jaws.”) But the damage had been done. The point where Milius the man began, and Milius the gun-toting anarchist ended, had become a blurry muddle.
It’s a testament to directors Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa, that they gave both halves of Milius fair treatment. “Milius” is a celebration of the man who regularly brought handguns into production meetings, but at the same time it’s an exploration of the same man, seemingly invincible, who was swindled by a business partner to the point that he couldn’t pay for his son’s law school tuition. (Later, an even worse fate would befall Milius, but we won’t spoil that; it’s a poignant topper to a life largely defined by explosive outbursts and actual explosions.) The filmmakers are able to creative a three-dimensional portrait of a director who doggedly tried to remain two-dimensional. The movie is zippy and funny (over the closing credits, news footage runs showing that the team that brought down Saddam Hussein used “Red Dawn” references as their call signs) and more emotional than the man himself would ever allow himself to be. It’s a triumph. [A]