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, 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.”
“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 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.