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The Essentials: The Films Of John Milius

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist April 12, 2012 at 10:04AM

All those who complain about the liberal domination of Hollywood have never come across John Milius. A film school pal of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Milius had tried to join the Marine Corp, but was turned away due to his asthma. Instead, he channeled his frustrations into both a life-long obsession with firearms (he was paid for "Jeremiah Johnson" in antique weaponry, and has served on the NRA Board of Directors,) and making some of the most masculine, testosterone-filled movies of all time, both as an acclaimed writer and as a director. The basis for both Paul Le Mat's character in "American Graffiti" and Walter in "The Big Lebowski" -- the Coens are friends of Milius, and offered him the part of Jack Lipnick in "Barton Fink" -- he's one of film history's most singular, colorful characters.
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John Milius

All those who complain about the liberal domination of Hollywood have never come across John Milius. A film school pal of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, Milius had tried to join the Marine Corp, but was turned away due to his asthma. Instead, he channeled his frustrations into both a life-long obsession with firearms (he was paid for "Jeremiah Johnson" in antique weaponry, and has served on the NRA Board of Directors) and making some of the most masculine, testosterone-filled movies of all time, both as an acclaimed writer and as a director. The basis for both Paul Le Mat's character in "American Graffiti" and Walter in "The Big Lebowski" -- the Coens are friends of Milius, and offered him the part of Jack Lipnick in "Barton Fink" -- he's one of film history's most singular, colorful characters.

He might not have had the overwhelming success of Lucas or Spielberg, but Milius has been behind more than a few seminal pictures of the 1970s and 1980s, and with the man celebrating his 68th birthday this week, we wanted to highlight his place in film history with a few essential movies of the Milius canon.

Dillinger

"Dillinger" (1973)
The honky-tonk beat of “We’re In The Money” lingers over John Milius’ directorial debut. An old-timey standard that wouldn’t be out of place in a Hollywood film of the '60s, it’s here deployed to register a melancholy hankering for the old times, a bit of a sarcastic fourth-wall-breaking touch by a man to be forever labeled a moviemaking renegade. It would be the beginning of Milius announcing to the world that he was an old soul with decidedly Old Testament viewpoints. “Dillinger” is brutal, muscular filmmaking, centered on the Dillinger gang as if they were an endangered species, forever looking over their shoulders. Every kinetic shootout and action sequence is drenched in sweat and desperation, suggesting these were the last days not only for this overconfident criminal, but also for this station-to-station way of life. The pressure to settle down and live a life without dodging bullets weighs heavily on Dillinger’s dog-faced posse, but not in the eyes of Warren Oates. Here, as the director’s avatar, he’s determined to go down in a blaze of glory with a wad of cash, confident and cocksure but also aware of Melvin Purvis breathing down his back. While there are many not-very-confident choices made in putting the movie together, which is customary considering it was his first time behind a feature film, “Dillinger” is still loaded with surprisingly visceral action and an overwhelmingly bleak tone that suggests that you don’t need to know how the story ends to guess things don’t go well for our title character.

Big Wednesday

"Big Wednesday" (1978)
For the most part, surfing has never quite worked in the movies: "Point Break" aside (and let's face it, that's an action movie first-and-foremost), it's proven to be a difficult sport to capture cinematically. Whether Curtis Hanson can make it work later this year with "Of Men And Mavericks" remains to be seen, but if he can come anywhere near "Big Wednesday," the current high-watermark of the genre, he'll have done a good job. Milius was a keen Malibu surfer himself, and his script about a trio of surfing enthusiasts -- rebellious Matt (Jan-Michael Vincent), responsible Jack (William Katt) and the Gary Busey-like Leroy "The Masochist" (Gary Busey: who else?) -- who try to skip Vietnam and become adults, is arguably Milius' most personal effort, his own version of "American Graffiti." The film was poorly received at the time, and a commercial flop (which must have come as a sting to Milius' pals George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, who were so sure it'd be a smash that they'd exchanged percentage points on "Star Wars" and "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" for one each on "Big Wednesday"), and there's no denying that the film has many, many flaws: principally a patchy cast (in which Katt comes off best) and a soapy script full of dull Zen proclamations. But it has gained in power over time, with an elegaic pain for lost youth that is deeply felt: it's sincere and honest, gaining a kind of poetry in retrospect. And the surfing sequences are undoubtedly stunning; one-time Clint Eastwood favorite Bruce Surtees lenses them thrillingly, and there's no hint of CGI & effects. What you're seeing is what happened. An enjoyable drama for most, a bible for anyone with an interest in surfing.

Conan The Barbarian

"Conan The Barbarian" (1982)
“What is best in life?” is asked of Arnold Schwarzenegger at the half-hour mark of “Conan The Barbarian.” He has not yet spoken in the film, instead murdering infidels, leaving bloody stumps where there used to be scoundrels, and conquering with a heavy hand. He glares into the camera, sneers, and delivers a credo that this film heartily believes in: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women!” Schwarzenegger had arrived, and while since then the action star had been in a number of memorable genre projects, 'Conan' remains one of the few that fully take advantage of the muscleman’s outsized presence and overwhelming power. Had John Milius not recognized how this lumbering Austrian so commanded the screen, cinema history would surely have changed, but it’s notable that 'Conan' isn’t merely a star vehicle for the former bodybuilder. Indeed, Milius infused 'Conan' with a sense of scope and the spirit of pulp that creates a world where morality is secondary to conquering, to drinking the blood of those under one's fist. Proportionally, “Conan The Barbarian” was probably a less-costly endeavor than the modern-day remake, and yet everything about this film is huge, from its sets to its epic breadth, to Arnold and the character’s notable hunger for victory. In Milius’ hands, Conan is a hero to respect, to admire, to worship, and to fear. Krom wept.

Red Dawn

Red Dawn” (1984)
There's just something about teenagers taking up arms in the face of a fascist empire ("The Hunger Games" anyone?) that makes for the stuff of great cinema. John Milius was definitely both ahead of and completely of his time with his 1984 film "Red Dawn," which he wrote and directed. Instead of a dystopian future, "Red Dawn" takes place in a small, timeless Colorado town where a Communist air invasion occurs on the front lawn of the high school in the middle of class. Half the football team (including Charlie Sheen) and big bro Patrick Swayze take off for the hills in a pickup truck. After a few weeks, they venture back into town, find their father in an internment camp, and their nation divided into "Occupied America" (hmm, prescient? Or were those OWS organizers just versed in '80s camp classics?) and "Free America." A friendly couple provides them with information and supplies and asks them to take their granddaughters, played by Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey (you could not get more classic '80s if you tried). The band of teens decides to stage all out guerrilla warfare (with the help of a downed Air Force pilot) on those Commies, and the result is part "The Warriors," part "Inglourious Basterds," and all awesome. Of course, you can't ignore the extreme politics of the film -- it's a Ted Nugent wet dream-- but it was the very height of that Red Scare/end-of-the-Cold-War-moment in the mid '80s, when every bad guy was Russian, and blindly upholding the values of the red, white, and blue was easy enough to embrace. Also, "Red Dawn" was the very first film released with the PG-13 rating, so "The Hunger Games" owes more than just delight in teen murder to this little-remembered gem. It's worth sticking this on your queue if only to remember when Charlie Sheen was the coolest dude in Hollywood.

Apocalypse Now
"Apocalypse Now" & Other Screenwriting Work
Milius hasn't, to date, directed all that many movies, and some of them ("The Wind And The Lion," "Farewell To The King") we'd have a tough time recommending. But any look at his career would be remiss without examining what he's arguably best at: screenwriting. After penning the exploitation-y "Dirty Dozen" knock-off "The Devil's 8" and an Evel Knievel biopic that starred George Hamilton, Milius turned heads by writing (without credit) some of Clint Eastwood's tough-guy monologues ("Did he fire six shots or only five?") in "Dirty Harry." The following year, Milius was partly responsible for two rather underrated Westerns: John Huston's "The Life And Times Of Judge Roy Bean" and Sydney Pollack's "Jeremiah Johnson," each of which showcase excellent performances from one-time Butch and Sundance Paul Newman and Robert Redford, respectively. Directing work took precedence for most of the next few years, although Milius did return to Harry Callahan, penning the sequel "Magnum Force" (with Michael Cimino), but inarguably his finest hour came with his script for Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now." Milius was hired for a Vietnam-based version of Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" (originally called "The Psychedelic Soldier" -- thank god they changed it) for Francis Ford Coppola's American Zoetrope way back in 1969, and over the next decade would rack up at least ten major drafts, at first with George Lucas attached to direct  (intending to shoot it as early as 1971). It was only after Lucas was distracted with "American Graffiti" and "Star Wars" that Coppola decided to direct, revising the script himself in 1975. But while he shares credit, the script feels Milius through-and-through. Coppola had told him to "write every scene you want to go into that movie" and the epic, episodic script is full of enough great, rich scenes and moments to fill half-a-dozen movies. Milius would write other scripts -- including story work on "1941," the USS Indianapolis speech on "Jaws," "Clear And Present Danger," the unproduced "Sgt. Rock" and "Conan: Crown Of Iron" (the latter of which was nearly directed by the Wachowskis) and most recently, the HBO series "Rome" (one of his finest achievements) -- but it's "Apocalypse Now" that stands as his masterpiece.

-- RP, Gabe Toro, Katie Walsh & Oliver Lyttelton

This article is related to: John Milius, The Essentials, Features, On This Day In Movie History


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