Belatedly caught up with MILIUS, an entertaining (snappily cut) and affectionate (as far as would be possible without straying into straight hagiography) portrait of the auteur of CONAN THE BARBARIAN, RED DAWN, THE WIND AND THE LION and the exceptional DILLINGER, which is the one I would point to as demonstration that Milius has genuine talent and isn’t just a loudmouthed cartoon character — sort of a monstrous crossbreed of Yosemite Sam and Foghorn Leghorn. In fact, the fondness with his contemporaries speak of him, and the sympathetic way they try to parse his failings and outright insanities, speaks very well for him. And you can quite see, give Milius’s health troubles and the bravery he’s shown dealing with them, why you wouldn’t in any way want to make the movie a hatchet job.

Leave that to me.

The bad things I know about John Milius —

The published screenplay of APOCALYPSE NOW is a terrible piece of work. Windy, incoherent, preposterous and pretentious. All those qualities can be found in the finished film, for sure, but it’s delivered with such gusto by Coppola and his team — a film made by a bipolar personality in the extreme end of his manic cycle — and the additions to the script made by Brando, Hopper, and particularly Michael Herr, partially rescue it from its excesses. Milius did write some good stuff, including a striking opening in which a jungle slowly comes alive with hidden Viet Cong. I don’t know if that was ever filmed. But try reading the thing. Your brain will get indigestion.

“I still can’t get a room at the Ritz in Madrid because of what John Milius did,” complained the venerable filmmaker to me. Basically According to this account, Milius got drunk and shot up his expensive hotel room with his expensive gun collection, I guess during THE WIND AND THE LION or maybe more likely CONAN. The room was decorated with original painting and Milius put a bullet through each of them. Let’s think about that, as an action by a creative artist.

(But see below for comments from someone who strongly doubts the veracity of the above.)

“A bully,” was the verdict of the venerable film editor, of legendary standing, who walked off a Milius film in mid-post-production, something she had never done before.

Milius-on-the-set-of-Conan-with-Schwarzenegger (1)

Milius has claimed credit for DIRTY HARRY and Robert Shaw’s big speech in JAWS. Don Siegel describes basically pasting together a bunch of different writers’ drafts on the former film, so I don’t know how much Milius really contributed — not enough to get a credit. He did more on MAGNUM FORCE, and look how that turned out. Carl Gottlieb, one of the writers on JAWS, gives more credit for the sinking of the Indianapolis speech to Robert Shaw himself. Various writers had tackled it, and Milius was one, literally phoning in his version, but Shaw — the best writer involved in that film, including the original novelist, turned up as Spielberg was finishing dinner one evening and delivered a sunset recitation that floored Spielberg and ended up in the film word for word. As Gottlieb has said, “Who are you going to believe, the guy who wasn’t there who says he did it, or the guy who was there who says he didn’t do it?” (In the movie, Spielberg sensitively gets around this by crediting Milius with the key writing and Shaw with the edit which took the monologue down from ten minutes to just a few.)

RED DAWN is a really, really bad movie.

Milius is not only what we’d now call a libertarian (Oliver Stone calls him out on that, critically but not unkindly), he has flirted with Nazism not just in the imagery of CONAN but in his promotion of it “This is a film that would have done very well in the Third Reich.”

I can forgive Milius, I guess, for dishing all the dirt on his friends to Peter Biskind for Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, because (1) it’s very entertaining dirt and I love gossip, as the above makes clear and (2) Milius loves telling stories and so how could he possibly help himself, when he knows all this hilarious/disgusting/embarrassing stuff?

And at the end of the doc, and looking back on the best bits of Milius’s work, I still have to like him a little. Even bullies can be often entertaining when they’re not in attack mode. Milius’ friends clearly like him and can see past the bluster, the cigars, the firearms and the contrarian-libertarian “politics” — in recounting the terrible circumstances that have robbed his friend of the power of speech, Spielberg is moved almost to tears — something we have never seen. We realize how glib Spielberg usually is, how he often can’t even be bothered to make sense. Here. he’s incredibly sharp and articulate. So is Lucas, for God’s sake. Anyone who can inspire those guys to choose their words more carefully deserves some respect.

After missing Vietnam due to his asthma (don’t smoke, kids), Milius finally has a campaign of his own to wage as he struggles to reacquire language. I want him to succeed. He was always a good storyteller when he got out of the way of the story, and now he’s going to have new and interesting things to say.

And then there’s this ~

Hats off to the big bastard, in a way.

26 Responses to “Ragnarok”

  1. About Spielberg being ‘glib’. Doesn’t he have a mild form of Asperger’s? I’m sure I read that somewhere. He’s very funny and articulate in this doc. “It was my first introduction to A John Milius.”

  2. Ah, no Fiona. Spielberg is entirely in control of his senses — which is why his move to become Stanley Kramer 2.0 (Lincoln being the locus classicus of same) is so depressing. He’s got a “wild side” — best expressed in his best film 1941, which was co-scripted by . . . .John Milius.

    I knew Milius in his prime, which is to say back when he was making his most self-definitive film, Big Wednesday — which you alas fail to mention, David. Milius as we all know was a surfer, and this male weepie casts a Ford-like glow over a batch of surfing buddies and their world. It’s climactic m find them marching towards the sea much like Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch towards annihilation. Of course instead of death they’re going to “catch a wave” (cue Brian Wilson who SHOULD have done the score but of course didn’t because he doesn’t write “heroic” music.)

    Incidentally the chief surfer was played by the once incredibly lovely Jan-Michael Vincent — who today is total physical wreck thanks to “hard living”, and the sort of behavior that were he black would have rendered him a police kill years ago. He now has one leg and no career. In many ways he’s worse off than Milius. And nobody’s going to making a film about him.

    Milius may be a bully at worst but at best he is (was) a charming blowhard, full of delightfully raucous “ideas” — much like a Mack Sennett “wild man.” His “ideas” are best tempered by wise souls. Spielberg’s professionalism and Coppola’s grasp of the zeitgeist kept their Milius projects from falling over into abyss right-wing blather.

    And leave us not forget he knows his limits too. In the real story that Arab chieftain captured an American MAN. Canny John turned the chieftain into Sean Connery and the man into Candace Bergen. Hence The Lion Breaks Wind

    Maybe Todd Haynes will remake it, going for the REAL story.

  3. To this day, I haven’t seen The Big Wednesday.

    Follow the Spielberg link in the above post to see examples of Spielberg interviews where he’s NOT engaged. What the filmmakers got out of him for Milius is fantastic by contrast.

  4. I first met Spielberg in Milius’ office. I was interviewing him for a piece that alas never ran. Spielberg came bouncing in full of enthusiasm about something-or-other to tell John. I immediately saw why he became such a force in filmmaking. In the times I’ve met him since (about four over the years) he’s been similarly bubbly. Can’t understand those other interviews. Maybe they caught him on a bad day.

  5. Robby K. Says:

    It was interesting to see this documentary and realize, “John Goodman in the BIG LEBOWSKI was based on John Milius.”

    So that point in his favor as well.

  6. He used to bump into the Coens and invite them to go shooting, so they began to see him as a good potential comedy character. I mean, who invites the Coen Bros to a gun range?

    There are some 70s interviews where Spielberg is awesomely articulate, impassioned and much more willing to be risky and opinionated. He’s not selling the man-child image so hard. I think becoming more image-conscious as he became mega-successful has made it harder for him to say meaningful things in interviews.

    Spielberg & Lucas talk a little about how Milius constructed a madman persona for himself and it took over. And both of them have constructed their own images too.

  7. I want Spielberg to give into his “inner madman” and make a musical! We know you can do it Steven.

  8. I think he found that sequence really tough… I know he wants to do a musical and a western, and the difficulty is finding good ones. But there must be shows in the canon that still haven’t had a definitive screen version.

    Worryingly, he did talk to Andrew Lloyd-Webber about doing an original musical. AL-W asked him how much he’d made from his last film. Spielberg reckoned he probably made 100 million.
    “A hundred million dollars?” mused Sir A. “Hardly seems worth it, really.”

  9. He should do “Merrily We Roll Along” Right Frank?

  10. Matilda? I haven’t seen it. But you hear things.

  11. renlauoutil Says:

    I’m really enjoying your blog. So much, that I put a link to it from mine and didn’t know of any other way of mentioning this other than leaving this comment.

  12. Looks good. OK, I’ll add you to the blogroll.

  13. First off – lets get some facts straight in this article. 1) John doesn’t drink… Never has. So, getting ripped and shooting up a hotel room never happened. Plus, if you hear shotgun blasts start going off in a fancy hotel – cops are getting called. This whole thing smells of bullshit. 2) John wasn’t smoking at age 5. That didn’t cause his asthma. That’s just lazy writing. 3) Speilberg, ON CAMERA, gives John credit for the Jaws scene. Carl has 3 real credits, and every script he’s done was heavily rewritten. John has a huge body of work as a storyteller. It’s a safe bet for the good writing to go to the good writer that was given credit on camera by the film’s legendary director.

  14. But you’re misunderstanding Gottlieb’s point — he thinks the main credit should go to Robert Shaw, who has considerable credits as a writer. He’s certainly NOT grabbing the credit for himself, and he admits Milius worked on the scene.

    Spielberg very carefully gives Milius and Shaw shared credit.

    Shooting up a hotel would indeed bring in the police, but if we’re talking Franco’s Spain here, a suitable cash payment would likely clear the matter up before going to trial.

    I withdraw any suggestion that smoking caused Milius’s asthma — but smoking is an ill-advised activity, and particularly so if you have breathing difficulties. On the other hand, according to my pharmacist friend, cocaine abuse might actual relieve asthma symptoms a bit… so Scorsese wasn’t so foolish as might appear.

  15. The LEGEND of Milius is bigger than John. Shooting up a hotel room is a story that Milius would love to hear, but John would admit isn’t true because it’s rude and dangerous. There are plenty of crazy stories that are true that can be told and are waaaaay more entertaining. Over the years Carl has tried, numerous times, to throw John under the bus for his writing. When you Compare the credits, and read the scripts it becomes very clear who is humble about their talent and who screams from the mountain to be recognized over others – that was my point. Carl also declined to be interviewed for the doc because it would conflict with the narrative he’s been pushing for 40 years. The comment you made about smoking excuses the lazy writing? Really?

  16. Last things first: I had asthma as a little boy, but it went away by the time I was a teenager (unfortunately it came back in my late twenties). If I were fond of cigars, I might not have had that period of relief. If Milius hadn’t smoked, his asthma might have cleared up. It’s not that lazy. And the advice is sound.

    My informant on the Madrid Ritz affair is serious, sober and reliable, a filmmaker who has worked often in Spain. Of course, he may have been misinformed by the hotel staff who refused to accept feature film directors because of what happened — but I am accurately reporting what he told me.

    You continue to argue that Gottlieb is trying to steal credit from Milius, but he has never claimed he wrote that scene. He’s arguing that Shaw’s rewrite of Milius’s scene is what’s in the picture. Spielberg says the original was around ten minutes long and needed to be cut and shaped, and Shaw did that. The idea behind the speech is excallent. But the specific phrasing matters a hell of a lot too.

  17. Advice on not smoking is sound. Up to this point I’m sure everyone of us thought smoking was good for you. John only smoked cigars – never cigarettes, which are entirely different things (if done the right way, and he hasn’t had an attack since his late 40’s. Well into his cigar phase) but with all that said – the comment has nothing to do with John, other than being an after school special message. It has no context in the article. It doesn’t even have anything to do with Milius in any shape or fashion. That is the lazy part. Then you are “accurately reporting” a rumor? You just accurately told a story to everyone, that was told to you. That doesn’t make it a fact. It makes it rumor. You have no factual info on this story at all – lazy again. I’ll give you the Carl point.

  18. And your info on the Ritz is false. I was there 3 years ago on a movie. Half the crew stayed there. Sounds like your buddy’s story isn’t “accurate”.

  19. I don’t know, maybe it’s out of date. I wouldn’t call it a rumour, since I got it direct from someone who seemed very sure of his facts. It’s quite clear, above, that he wasn’t actually present at the incident, though, so the reader can make up his own mind.

    That, I’m afraid, is the nature of journalism. Probably I should have thrown in the word “allegedly” — I can’t vouch for the story from personal experience, and am happy to alter the piece to make that clearer.

    Since smoking isn’t very good for stroke risk, I’d say the comment does have something to do with Mr Milius. As for asthma, maybe you’re under the impression that, since cigar smokers sometimes like to claim they don’t inhale, there’s no effect. A cursory online search should clear that up. Being in a room with a burning cigar is bad enough, you don’t even need to be the one smoking it.

    It may be that Milius didn’t start smoking cigars until after failing to get into the army, but that wasn’t clear from the documentary. I guess if that’s so my well-intended advice wasn’t relevant to that phase of Mr Milius’ life. It wasn’t laziness, though.

    I’m generally very happy to correct errors or highlight ambiguities, but I wish you didn’t make me so defensive. I think the piece is actually sympathetic to Milius as a man and a filmmaker — in a circuitous and somewhat critical way. For a straight-up rave, try this one: https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/public-anomie/

  20. Here are the problems that I still have here – You say “He wasn’t actually present…”, that’s called a RUMOR! Look it up in Websters. That is literally the definition of what you wrote. You played a game of Telephone, and passed the information on to the next person (the reader ) as fact. The reader shouldn’t make up his own mind to what facts are. This is why they are called “facts”. If you choose not to do that, call what you write “fiction”. This brings me to my next point. You call this site, or what you do journalism? You aren’t reporting on facts. That’s what journalism is. You have to back up your sources. Which I have already proven a number of times that you don’t do that. You wanna call this journalism still? Don’t do that. You sully the names and careers of real journalists. What you do is blog, you’re a blogger, and there is nothing wrong with that. When you see a duck, call it a duck. Don’t call it an eagle. Just because you can make a website, and buy a domain name, this doesn’t make you a journalist. Please, don’t call yourself a critic either. You put down the work of people like Roger Ebert, Kenny Turan, Pauline Kael and many, many others when you use or have unearned arrogance like that. “Well intended advice” doesn’t excuse laziness on the part of the writer. That’s pretty much the definition of laziness, or maybe a better group of words would be “very poorly written”. I have no problem with you liking or disliking something. Everyone has the right to their own opinion. That’s really what this piece that you wrote is – an Op-Ed. But lets call it what it really is… a blog. You say that you don’t like to be so defensive about your writing. You wouldn’t have to be defensive if you didn’t fill your writing with rumors, half truths, lies, or opinions that have nothing to do with the story you’re writing about. That’s what upsets me about reading things like this. Be better than that. Be a better writer. Be a better blogger.

  21. I am happy to call myself a blogger. If you Google me, however, you will find that I also get paid for criticism which is published. While not wishing to elevate myself into the esteemed company you mention, the fact is that in a very small way I do the same job.

    So here’s my problem with what YOU have written: you have two points you want to disagree with, but you don’t say “I think this point is wrong and this point is not relevant” — or you do, but you bury that in generalized complaints of bad and lazy writing. That’s not going to win me over. If my writing is “filled” with “rumors, half truths lies and opinions” you probably have to provide more than two examples to make your case. In fact, even if I have included one rumour and one irrelevent opinion, that leaves no examples of lies and half truths. But if instead you focussed on the specific issues you have (or even said you dislike the tone, which may be part of this) you could achieve your goals without causing the slightest antagonism.

    Poorly written? You’re entitled to your opinion. So stop reading. Stop being a jerk.

  22. renlauoutil Says:

    Good for you. I don’t know if the guy will stop reading, I do hope he stops writing though…

  23. It’s a shame. He made an excellent documentary and under normal circumstances it might be a pleasure to talk to him.

  24. Ha! Interestingly, it turns out that this guy is not the filmmaker. He has stolen the filmmaker’s email address and impersonated him in order to be a troll. How pathetic.

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