Filmmakers Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson chart writer-director John Milius’ career in Hollywood from the heady heights of Oscar-nominated Apocalypse Now to the lows of Red Dawn…
Milius is a documentary about the legendary and notorious screenwriter/director John Milius, who is widely recognised for the screenplays for Apocalypse Now and the first two Dirty Harry films, before going on to direct Conan the Barbarian, The Wind and the Lion, and most notably, Red Dawn, which was regarded, in the documentary, as the film that sunk his career.
Throughout the documentary, we get various contributions from George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and so on, and they casually talk about the fact that Milius was not like your typical screenwriter. Saying that he was “one of the first guys that said, ‘Look, this is how people talk’”, referring to his edgier material like Apocalypse Now and Dirty Harry. At one point, actor Sam Elliot states, “He doesn’t write for pussies, and he doesn’t write for women. He writes for men.” And that is Milius all over. His films are tough, brutal and specifically written for men. Milius refers to himself as “a Zen anarchist” and he’s referred to by many as “the teddy bear with the AK47”, and it is true that he was this larger than life character who wasn’t afraid to pull up a gun on anybody, whether it’s an actor or an executive, which of course, provided the Coen brothers with the inspiration for John Goodman’s hectoring gun nut Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski.
Having known nothing about who John Milius is and what he did, this documentary provided a compelling introduction as to why he became so infamous with his sharp writing and his commando-style attitude, and it has to be said, the less you know about the subject, the better it is. Even if you don’t know who John Milius is, the documentary gives you great insight. This film comes to praise John Milius the artist, rather than bury the politics and posturing of a man who Oliver Stone describes in the film as a “crazed right-wing nutcase”. But the documentary’s true success is that it has this energetically hands-off approach that allows the viewer to slowly grasp how completely these two sides of this “Zen anarchist”, the pen and the personality, feed off from one another to produce some of the most accomplished and applauded screenwriting of the ’70s.
The stellar contributions from people like Steven Spielberg and Oliver Stone all provide sterling commentary on Milius’ life, detailing the stories of his scriptwriting, which couldn’t be more colourful and the less-told tale of his ostracisation from Hollywood following the much-maligned, not least by me, Red Dawn, is compelling and poignant. Milius himself appears mainly in archive footage, for reasons that become all too sadly apparent as near the end of the film, we discover he recently suffered a stroke that made him lose the ability to speak properly. But yet, despite this tragic event, he still bounced back to becoming the outrageous, gun-toting filmmaker he always was. Even though he is often labelled in the media as this fascist brute, he inspires this disarming warmth and fierce loyalty. Producer Lawrence Gordon jovially cites Milius as a “big bombastic guy with little darting eyes and a lot of fire and bullshit”, which seems to sum him up perfectly.
Milius is a film that serves the legend as well as the truth, and is all the better for it.