Red Yawn: Milius Reviewed

Hear the lamentation of Tony Mckiver as he squares up against a new documentary on Hollywood's most notorious hawk

Hollywood is routinely disparaged by conservatives as a cesspool or source (depending on whether the accuser is a member of the Tea Party or just a vanilla Republican) of liberal bias, and certainly the proclaimed politics of many of its brightest lights superficially supports that identification. Much is made of the fact that, with a single fundraising dinner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and George Clooney were able to raise $12 million for Obama’s presidential campaign in 2012. The liberal bias, however, could hardly be said to encompass the films that Hollywood produces, and the case of John Milius bears this truth out strongly.

During the 1980s, Milius was one of the most prominent and bombastic right-wingers, having made his reputation as the writer of Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now. He was hawkish to the point of being camp. The thing is, even his most wack-doodle right-wing fantasy — Red Dawn or Conan the Barbarian — was only marginally more wack-doodle and right-wing than the average Hollywood action film of that period. Then, as now, Hollywood’s fantasies had a cruising altitude in the stratum of the paranoid, violent and simplistic. The only real difference between Conan and, for example, Die Hard or Lethal Weapon was that Milius’s film had the nerve to speak aloud the otherwise unspoken might-is-right theme at work in those stories. Before the credits of Conan the Barbarian, we get Nietzsche’s “That which does not kill us makes us stronger”: a motto that could, with equal applicability, preface The Hunger Games or Gravity. It is doubtful, however, that any of those films would have the neck to incorporate this memorable exchange from Conan.

Mongol General: Conan! What is best in life?

Conan: To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.

Mongol General: That is good! That is good.

Of course it is good! At the very least, it’s been the unspoken good of most Hollywood films since Birth of a Nation.

Whatever their maker’s true politics, both Conan and Red Dawn wear their right-wing rhetoric so brightly that you can’t help suspect that Milius must at least have been partly clowning round. There are some grounds to believe that much of his bluster was, as George Lucas suggests, a persona affected deliberately to put him in opposition to the status quo. It just so happened that the dominant background against which Milius found himself rebelling was the ‘Peace Now’ of California’s anti-war movement. His right-wing persona was possibly just a pose struck by a contrarian that stuck: a self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” who once loved to surf and originally wrote Apocalypse Now as a Dr Strangelove-esque anti-war satire to be filmed in a low budget, handheld style by Lucas.

A graduate of the University of Southern California at the same time as Lucas, Walter Murch, Caleb Deschanel and Randall Kleiser, John Milius was immediately the most successful of what would prove to be a golden class of overachievers. Within a few years, he was the uncredited writer behind Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky” and the unforgettable U.S.S. Indianapolis speech delivered by Robert Shaw in Jaws. Milius would create more lines to be repeated around the world —wherever impressionable adolescent boys assembled — with “Charlie don’t surf” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning” when Apocalypse Now eventually appeared, directed by Francis Ford Coppola and stripped of its original anti-war intentions. Milius may have made less of an impression as a director than as a writer, but, if his contribution to cinema was just Dillinger, Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, his career would still deserve some kind of scrutiny.

All of this material means that directors Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa have latched onto a potentially rich subject for their first documentary. Milius is entertaining, and boasts an impressive list of contributors, but more than anything it feels like a lost opportunity. Entertaining is the very least we should expect for a documentary on the writer of Apocalypse Now and Dirty Harry and the director of Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

The format of this kind of film — combining talking heads, film footage and animated photomontage with voiceover — is now a template that is stamped across the field of documentary filmmaking, encompassing subjects that range from music to politics and history. It is familiar to the point of tedium, milling the distinctive grit of the subject’s life into an undifferentiated dust. We begin with a splash of sound bites from notable contributors before reeling back to begin at the beginning and then trundling forward steadily to the end. The arc feels like it conforms to some industrial standard: humble origins, struggle, success, acclaim, reverses and a final moment of uplift. There is even the currently fashionable display of a selection of quirkier material during the final credits. So forceful and familiar is the format that you could cut in a few contributions from Easy Riders, Raging Bulls or even Muscle Shoals without significantly impacting upon the intelligibility. The life in question is reduced to a series of equally weighted experiences. The film eschews any depth to offer a superficial account of the man: Milius the asthmatic 4-F hawk who wanted to go to Vietnam but washed out; Milius the Republican/NRA loyalist; Milius the friend of the so-called movie brats of the 1970s. Anyone who would be inclined to watch a documentary about Milius in the first place will learn little more than they already knew.

The filmmakers don’t seek out any other sources that reveal a thoughtfulness behind the swagger. In an interview for The Guardian in November 2001, for example, Milius was insightful about the kinds of iconography on which the emerging War on Terror would draw:

"The Second World War has replaced the western as a morality play, as a venue where these things exist. The western is no longer the western; we’ve changed our attitude towards the Indians, the frontier, the open spaces. So the Second World War is a much better place to say, ‘Here’s what you should measure up to be.’"

Milius could have been describing HBO’s Band of Brothers, a show produced by the politically liberal Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, which idealised the ‘Greatest Generation’ at the very moment when another generation was being persuaded to go to war on the flimsiest bases. Its characters were uncomplicated heroes, decent everyday folk brought together to fight in a just and noble war. Throughout the series, there would be no sign of the leaders who issued the call to arms or the politics at play in the United States. Somewhat less successful commercially, Milius’s own HBO series, Rome, showed war as the outcome of calculation and political ambition, with soldiers every bit as morally compromised as their warmongering leaders. At the same time that the liberal Hanks and Spielberg had, certainly unintentionally, created a series that ennobled soldiering and re-energised many of the icons President Bush would exploit in justifying his conduct of the War on Terror, the hawkish conservative Milius had created a show that highlighted self-serving politics and critiqued the very notion of nobility.

This documentary isn’t alive to any of that detail or those contradictions. With its familiar cut-and-paste approach, it offers only glimpses of a richer picture: Lucas waving away the stentorian image of the blustering right-wing gun nut to persuasively commend the generosity, decency and loyalty of his friend. But the filmmakers don’t probe any further to ask how that generosity or loyalty manifested. When Oliver Stone accuses Milius of being crazy and over-the-top, the film doesn’t find any way to show us just what crazier and more over the top than Oliver Stone might actually look like.

You know it spells trouble when, in the midst of contributions from Scorsese, Spielberg and Lucas, someone suddenly takes the time to mention out of the blue the fact that Milius’s best friend was also his accountant. Of course, the accountant embezzled Milius’s money. Wouldn’t you want to hear a little more about that? The documentary, however, spares no time to consider how much money Milius lost, what were the precise circumstances and what befell the crooked accountant. Immediately we are onto another uninspected anecdote in which Milius — desperate to fund his son’s stint at law school — approached David Milch for a lowly position in the writers’ room of Deadwood. Milch turned him down, but paid for the son’s school fees anyway, only to have Milius unexpectedly repay him when HBO screened Milius’s Rome. Like many of the anecdotes about Milius, it’s a good yarn, but it’s hard to credit its veracity entirely and this film isn’t interested in examining it at all. Certainly, Milch’s generosity (as part of a wildly fluctuating spontaneity) has been documented elsewhere, but the timeline casts some doubt on this claim: Deadwood only came into existence when HBO turned down Milch’s initial pitch about two Roman “cops” because they’d already given Milius’s similarly premised show the greenlight. Rome was in development, and presumably paying Milius, before Deadwood arrived. This documentary contains no contributions from Milch to provide any further insight.

Some of the absences in the film can be understandably attributed to the fact that Milius himself is still recovering from a stroke that has seriously affected his speech. Certainly, that misfortune has cut off the subject’s ability to provide any more detail than he has already supplied elsewhere. In truth, however, the film doesn’t seem particularly interested in going any deeper. The format is like an insistent tour guide rushing us away from any site of interest to the next spot on the itinerary. While the documentary superficially mourns the loss of Milius’s own ability to tell a story, it doesn’t make any effort to persuade us that it cares too deeply for stories at all.

While it’s nice to hear the contributors speak well of the subject and see clips of his work and, to paraphrase some of Milius’s lines, “hearing his words on tape really puts the hook in you,” this feature-length flat-pack documentary “never gets out of the fucking boat.”

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