“Doesn’t Write For Pussies…”

I’m so far behind the curve on Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa‘s Milius (EPIX, premiering tonight) that I’m almost having trouble writing about it. The big debut happened ten months ago at South by Southwest, but I’m not doing that festival any more. The doc has been viewable on a private Vimeo link for a while now. Did I watch it? Of course not. But two nights ago I finally caught up with this workmanlike, good-enough portrait of legendary director-screenwriter John Milius at a special invitational screening at USC’s Eileen Norris theatre complex.

The doc’s recounting of Milius’s life and career is clean, straightforward and comprehensive. We all know that Milius’s fame is related more to famous dialogue than anything else — “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” “Well, do ya feel lucky, punk?,” the title “Apocalypse Now,” etc. And the doc dutifully recounts this. That’s my only problem with Milius — it feels dutifully outside rather than inside. It doesn’t really swim in the raging rapids (as well as the serenity) of Milius’s adventures and philosophy. It just sets up the camera and comfortably points to Milius and his pals and says “See those guys? They’re talking about the rapids.” It’s a doc that says “this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened,” etc.

If you ask me Milius’s best film by virtue of being the most directly expressive of his personal philosophy was and is The Wind and The Lion, a Moroccan adventure yarn with Sean Connery, Candace Bergen, Brian Keith (delivering a near-great performance as Theodore Roosevelt) and John Huston.

By any measure Milius is one of the most learned and distinctive Hollywood screenwriters to ever work in this town, and a rightwing “barbarian” who has always lived and written by his own code of bushido. And yet Milius’s rep as a voice of swaggering conservative machismo gradually become more and more irksome to the industry’s liberal elite, especially in the wake of Red Dawn (’84), a pulpy paranoid action fantasy about a Jack Webb-styled invasion of the U.S. by Russian troops.

Milius has kept on with producing, directing and writing over the last 28 or 29 years (Farewell to the King, Rough Riders, HBO’s Rome, a video game called Homefront, a planned Genghis Khan epic) but without the heat and the clout he enjoyed in the late ’60s, ’70s and early ’80s.

I quoted Milius in my 1994 Los Angeles magazine piece about Hollywood conservatives, called “Right Face”, as follows: “I’ve been blacklisted as certainly as people were in the old days. There are studios I can’t work at, material I can’t do. But it has never stopped me. I like to think it’s because I’m good enough at what I do. There’s an old Texas Ranger philosophy that applies to the politically incorrect: The little man will beat the big man every time — if the little man is right and keeps on coming.”

And then the poor guy was ripped off by an old friend who served as his financial advisor. The doc says that Milius asked Deadwood producer David Milch about join the writing staff in order to pay for his son’s college tuition. And then Milius suffered a stroke in ’11 (I think) that left him unable to talk or write, but he’s begun to recover from that. He looked and sounded hale and hearty at Thursday’s USC screening. He was talking more clearly than Kirk Douglas, for what that’s worth.

I love this observation about Milius from Nat Segaloff:

“Milius favors history books over comic books, character over special effects, and heroes with roots in reality, time, place and customs. Milius’ stories reflect his own deeply held ethic, which embraces the values of tradition, adventure, spiritualism, honor and an intense loyalty to friends. Although he privately chafes at his public image as a gun-toting, liberal-baiting provocateur, he allows himself to be painted as such, at times even holding the brush. He plays the Hollywood game like a pro, yet sticks to his own rules; he is a romantic filmmaker who avoids love scenes; his movies contain violence, yet no death in them is without meaning.”

When I think of right-wing guys I’ve known and personally admired, Milius has always been at the top of the list. I used to call Milius from time to time during my Entertainment Weekly and L.A. Times reporting days in the ’90s. I think he regarded me as a kind of loyalist or…you know, one of his liberal homies.

Milius’s conservatism has always been tolerable and even somewhat respectable to me because, like Segaloff explained, he’s an old-fashioned traditionalist. Milius has said that the Tea Party guys are more or less appalling — of course! — and believes that the Wall Street crowd should have been punished in the wake of the 2008 meltdown.

“I was watching Rush Limbaugh the other night, and I was horrified,” he told CNN’s Thom Patterson. “I would have Rush Limbaugh drawn and quartered. He was sticking up for these Wall Street pigs. [I think] there should be public show trials, mass denunciations and executions.”

I wrote the following in January 2009 in a piece called “Stocks and Pillories“: “Without a sense of justice in this process, average middle-class citizens — especially the seniors — will be beside themselves with rage. Obama needs to go after the greedy bad guys and make them suffer for their misdeeds in ways that are vivid and theatrical and dramatically satisfying. Send the worst of the Wall Street scalawags to jail. Make the greedheads who don’t go to Sing Sing or Danbury or Leavenworth pick up trash in public parks while dressed in orange jumpsuits, and not just for 30 days — make them do it for two or three years, day in, day out.

“And take their money — take it right out of their bank accounts the way Charlton Heston led the Hebrew slaves to the grain silos of the high priests in The Ten Commandments — and distribute it to struggling small banks, deficit-plagued municipalities, crippled companies and the desperate poor.”

So while I’ll always a rabid leftie in most senses of that term, Milius and I obviously think alike in some ways.

If you want to really know Milius in a nutshell, listen to this riff about David Lean‘s The Bridge On The Rivew Kwai. It’s from a video extra on the Bridge Bluray.

  • brenkilco

    The best bit of writing he’s associated with is the Indianapolis monologue from Jaws. But according to a Speilberg interview on the web the initial speech was written by Howard Sackler. Milius rewrote it into something much too long and then Robert Shaw, himself a writer of note, revised it back down. So who knows.

    Milus may be a legendary character and raconteur, but with only a half dozen theatrical films to his credit think its a bit of a stretch to call him a legendary director. Especially since his first two are by far his best. The gunfights in Dillinger are still pretty ferocious and Wind and the Lion may just be the last great adventure movie. Its so ludicrously jingoistic that it seems tongue in cheek. However, I don’t think its satirical. Milius was just a little bit crazy. But the cinematography, the Goldsmith score, a self mocking Connery at his peak, the best movie performance Brian Keith ever gave, tremendous action. What’s not to love? And viva Vladek Sheybal.

    • Michael Gebert

      I would say he’s legendary, and a director.

  • Davidmth

    I can’t wait to see this…been waiting awhile for it show up. George Hamilton told me a great story about working with Milius on Evel Knievel. Too long to go into, but when Hamilton asked him how much money he wanted, Milius barked at him, “Writers aren’t paid with money unless they’re whores. And I’m not a whore. You can pay me, George. But I want Gold, Guns, and Girls.” Classic.

    • joeybot

      When he helped to design the big SUV attack in Clear and Present Danger, what he wanted for payment was an SUV just like the ones they were using, stocked with cuban cigars. And he got it!

  • kevinmarshall

    Just curious, how much stock do you put in his claim that he was blackballed for his political leanings?

    I ask because I think it’s undeniable that there was some snark and misapprehension towards him for the jingoistic overtones of stuff like “Red Dawn.” But looking at his career path, is it all THAT different from other screenwriters? Sure, he’s higher caliber than most, but he was at the apex of his craft for the better part of twenty years. That’s far more than most, even some others we’d consider great.

    I wouldn’t say he was making an excuse, but is it possible he’s reading too much into it?

    • brenkilco

      Hits trump ideology. He just didn’t have em. His epic labor of love Big Wednesday wasn’t just a bomb. It was actively derided. And I don’t think even Conan made much of a profit. He could have been a Hitler apologist if he’d made Star Wars.

  • actionman

    Time for The Beard to make his buddy’s Genghis epic…
    An extremely enjoyable documentary about a guy I didn’t know enough about.