Starring: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas
Director: Joey Figueroa, Zak Knutson
Review: Julian White
In his heyday, John Milius revelled in being one of Hollywood’s mavericks. Regularly posing in photos with a gun and/or a king-sized cigar, he assiduously cultivated a macho image, and he outraged liberals with his outspoken far right views (he first coined the phrase “Apocalypse Now” in response to a widespread hippie mantra of the ’60s, “Nirvana Now”). At the same time, he was much more than just a flamboyant prankster. He was a fine director, and a brilliant screenwriter who left an indelible mark on some of the most famous films of the ’70s. This enthralling documentary charts the rise and fall of a man who is the living embodiment of Gloria Swanson’s remark in Sunset Boulevard: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
The story starts with Milius washing out of the military due to chronic asthma and winding up at the University of Southern California Film School, where he swanned around in a sombrero and struck up close friendships with the likes of George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola. In short order, he was snapped up to write for exploitation flick studio AIP, progressing quickly to mainstream movies.
This was at a time when Tinsel Town was on the ropes commercially and studio execs were desperately looking for young talent able to offer a fresh voice. Milius gave them just what they needed, doing uncredited work on Dirty Harry that elevated a grizzled San Francisco cop into a towering cinematic icon with an instantly recognizable catchphrase. But he also gave them plenty of attitude, raising hell and on at least one occasion bringing a loaded gun to a meeting.
Nonetheless, his ascent was meteoric, and he rapidly became one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood, selling his script for The Life of Judge Roy Bean for a then-record $300,000. He had his own very successful directorial efforts, such as Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion, but it was through films helmed by friends and colleagues that he was to have his most lasting impact on cinematic history: Quint’s famous monologue in Jaws, for instance, was dictated by Milius to Spielberg over the phone. This pattern reached its apogee towards the end of the decade with his screenplay for Apocalypse Now. “He poured his soul into that movie,” according to Oliver Stone. Unbelievably, he lost out on Oscar night to the pleasant but forgettable Kramer Vs Kramer.
The documentary evokes this fondly remembered era in a vibrant, lively manner, with big guns such as Spielberg, Lucas, Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann all pitching in with sparkling anecdotes and observations. But, to its credit, it also spends just as much time wondering where it all went wrong. Although there are no easy answers.
Culturally, Milius’ most significant contribution to the ’80s was probably the dubious one of introducing Arnold Schwarzenegger to mainstream movie audiences (“if we didn’t have Arnold, we’d have had to build him,” he’s said to have quipped), but commercially he was in good shape, notching up back-to-back hits with Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. And yet these were his last directorial credits of note. Milius himself vehemently and repeatedly claimed that he was blacklisted by liberal Hollywood for his right-wing views, but that’s an argument that is dismissed out of hand by other interviewees, most notably Clint Eastwood, who remarks, “They wouldn’t care if you were Lenin himself,” so long as you pull in the big bucks.
More likely, the game had changed, and a Hollywood that was increasingly corporate and that had learned all it needed to from Milius about penning hard-boiled button lines no longer felt inclined to tolerate his over-the-top antics and planet-sized ego.
The latter stages of Milius’ career were to see not just professional disappointments but also crushing personal losses, and it’s in handling these that the documentary really surprises and wins you over on an emotional level. Suddenly, Milius the showman of the right, the cigar-chomping buffoon, is gone and you’re face to face with Milius the man – a felled titan wreathed in tragedy. It’s an unexpectedly moving conclusion to a stellar documentary that, as well as providing an insight into Hollywood in the ’70s and ’80s, manages to humanize one of its most polarizing characters.