John Milius is the biggest name among that revolutionary generation of American filmmakers from the late 1960s and 1970s that you’ve never heard of. Now the documentary Milius is set to put that right.
Maybe you had heard of him, but personally John Milius was new to me before watching this film. This must be due to a spectacular lack of awareness on my part. I’ve read Peter Biskind’s classic ‘Easy Riders, Raging Bulls‘ and relished his gossipy stories of how the New Hollywood generation reinvigorated the movie business and lived life on the edge.
But somehow John Milius was not a name that lodged itself in my brain after this. Perhaps this was because the book contains no pictures of the man. There should have been, as he looks like a character in one of his more ‘out there’ films. Bulky, bearded and camo-clad, Milius is rarely seen without a cigar in one hand and usually with a gun in the other. Returning to my copy of ‘Easy Riders…’ after watching the film, it turns out that the index has a decent sized entry for Milius. Somehow he must have got lost in the slew of unfamiliar names.
Thankfully, it turns out it’s not just me. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson made the film because they felt not enough people knew about this extraordinary character. The reasons John Milius may be less well known than the rest of his generation are spelled out during the course of the film.
His contemporaries included some titans of the film world. Milius studied at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts and graduated in the same year as George Lucas. In 1968 his name was included alongside Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Lucas in a Time magazine feature called The Student Movie Makers which looked at the brightest and best of that year’s crop of graduates. Not only was he in the right place at the right time, but he had genuine talent.
The prodigious abilities of John Milius are made unequivocally clear by this documentary. The guy could write – standing up, on the phone, he could probably leave his arms to hammer out some quotable, history-making dialogue, while we went to fire off some rounds (with his teeth). Amongst others, he wrote the famous “Make my day” speech in Dirty Harry, Robert Shaw’s ‘Indianapolis’ speech in Jaws, and the ‘napalm’ speech in Apocalypse Now.
Milius will fascinate anyone who is interested in the New Hollywood, or movies in general. The film makers managed to wangle interviews with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Harrison Ford, and just about everyone else who was there. And these household names leave us in no doubt as to their respect for the man. The movies he directed might not all be so well known, but sound like films we should be seeking out. Above all, we learn, Milius was a story teller par excellence.
Part of the enjoyment in reading ‘Easy Riders…’ was not just the insight into movie making, but also the gossip about the lurid goings on away from the camera. Milius fits in very well here too. The guy is big in every way: he has a big talent, a big physical form, and a gigantic personality. The film is full of wild tales of excess, although unlike many of the rest of his gang, drugs do not seem to have loomed so large for Milius.
Dope may not have impaired John Milius’s talent, but it’s probably fair to say he has not been as successful as he could have been. In many ways the film is an examination of why such a clever man never quite fulfilled his promise. Figueroa and Knutson reveal a number of possible reasons including his right wing politics, an occasionally abrasive personality, and a tendency to wave guns around. In the end we are left to decide for ourselves.
Certainly John Milius resides in many people’s imaginations as a wild man. The film makes it clear that this is partly due to his own myth making. This examination of the difference between the outrageous persona and the rather more human person of the man himself helps raise the film from a simple chronicle of (admittedly fascinating) events to something more intriguing. When a significant life event changes everything for John Milius, the film becomes a moving testament.
To give some idea of the mix of myth and reality that is John Milius, he was used by the Coen brothers as the inspiration for John Goodman’s shouty character Walter in The Big Lebowski. Whatever the truth, this film does justice to the man and his legend.
Milius is out in UK cinemas on Friday 1st November, 2013.
See the trailer here: