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John Milius: A Real Wolverine

“I’ve been blacklisted as much as anyone in the ’50s,” says John Milius in the absorbing new documentary “Milius,” an aptly blusterous teddy bear of a movie directed by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson.

Milius, a self-described “Zen anarchist,” scripted some of the best films of the 1970s: “Jeremiah Johnson” (adapted from a novel by the cranky Idaho Old Rightist Vardis Fisher), “Apocalypse Now” (its title taken, explains Milius, from a button he had minted in the 1960s to mock the hippies’ “Nirvana Now” slogan), and “Dillinger” (starring the “constitutional anarchist” Warren Oates). His uncredited work includes “Dirty Harry”’s “Do you feel lucky?” street interrogation and Robert Shaw’s selachian monologue on the fate of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in “Jaws.”

Milius was at once a central figure and an outlier in the early 1970s Hollywood youth moment. Though personally close to the Midasian trio of Spielberg, Lucas, and Coppola, his firearm-based antics (such as bringing a loaded .45 to a meeting with a studio executive), as much as the masculine rite-of-passage motifs in his films, seemed to place him in that unpledged fraternity of directors with decidedly non-liberal politics: Michael Cimino, Walter Hill, Ron Maxwell, Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Oliver Stone.

He completed the transition from colorful character to pariah, the documentary suggests, with “Red Dawn” (1984), which Milius cowrote and directed. “Red Dawn” is a Boys’ Life fantasy in which a gang of outdoorsy Colorado kids (nicknamed the Wolverines, after their high school mascot) resists the Soviet/Cuban occupation of their town. They run off to the mountains, sleep under the stars, play football, eat Rice Krispies for dinner, and draw up sorties in the dirt as if they were Hail Mary passes. It all sounds like a blast.

Despite the ludicrous premise, the film is filled with entertaining extended middle fingers (the occupiers use registration records to locate gun owners, among them the great Harry Dean Stanton, and throw them into re-education camps) that left conventional reviewers sputtering.

One of “Red Dawn’s” only thoughtful notices came from The Nation’s Andrew Kopkind, who saw it as a paean to insurgency, “a celebration of people’s war.” Milius, in this interpretation, is no jingo; he’s on the side of indigenous people fighting an occupying army. Kopkind’s essay is so good I can’t help quoting at length:

Milius has produced the most convincing story about popular resistance to imperial oppression since the inimitable “Battle of Algiers.” He has only admiration for his guerrilla kids, and he understands their motivations (and excuses their naivete) far better than the hip liberal filmmakers of the 1960s counterculture. I’d take the Wolverines from Colorado over a small circle of friends from Harvard Square in any revolutionary situation I can imagine. thisarticle [1]

As the Wolverines are about to execute a prisoner of war, one teenage guerilla asks, “What’s the difference between us and them?” To which the leader of the pack responds, “We live here.” The line might just as well have been spoken by a boy in Vietnam or Afghanistan or Iraq or wherever else imperialist superpowers alight.

My favorite Milius movie is his magnum opus manqué, “Big Wednesday” (1978), in which three surfers (the trifecta of Jan-Michael Vincent, Gary Busey, and William Katt) confront Vietnam, adulthood, and monster swells. Elegiac, evocative, excessive, “Big Wednesday” was a box-office wipeout, but since when is that a demerit?

The Golden Age of American cinema, the first half of the 1970s, had room for—nay, welcomed—this asthmatic, bombastic, gun-crazy Jewish surfer from St. Louis who said, “The world I admire was dead before I was born.” But today—Mistah Kurtz, he passé.

I despise Milius’s hero, Teddy Roosevelt, and I’ll bet we’ve never once cast a ballot for the same presidential candidate, but in our age of cringing yes-men and gutless herd-followers, who cannot admire a man who once explained himself to his fellow screenwriters: “I’ve suffered loss in my career for not being obedient. Believe me, the loss was little compared to the fear all you elite stomach every day. When the sun sets, I can sing ‘My Way’ with Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Richard Nixon. What is your anthem?”

“To be a rebel is to court extinction,” said the booze-addled and self-dramatizing silent-screen siren Louise Brooks. John Milius is an authentic rebel, a true son of liberty, and in his 70th year his work is as alive as ever. And hell, I haven’t even mentioned “Geronimo,” “The Wind and the Lion,” or “Conan the Barbarian.”

Bill Kauffman is the author of ten books, among them Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette [2] and Ain’t My America [3].

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "John Milius: A Real Wolverine"

#1 Comment By EliteCommInc. On June 5, 2014 @ 12:53 am

I have watched that documentary a few times now.

And one cannot help but admire and be jealous of his personal fortitude.

And he is also a wonderful film maker . . .

Here’s to getting well . . . come on Ghengis Khan.

And better yet more films against the “liberal blue state swingle” types.

This is not meant as an insult, but as I watched the documentary, I couldn’t stop thinking of Sam Peckinpah.

Bravo. Mr. John Millius and bully for you.

#2 Comment By grey enlightenment On June 5, 2014 @ 7:26 am

the phrase son of liberty is thrown around so much its become a worn soundbite detached from the heroism it originally signified. Soon the guy that return the library book a day before its due will be deemed a son of liberty

#3 Comment By Colin Vollebergh On June 5, 2014 @ 9:50 am

I watched this last week on Netflix and was entertained for sure. It certainly didn’t dwell on Big Wednesday as much as it should have, given how important it was to Milius himself.

It also could have presented Kopkind’s take on Red Dawn as well, at least to counter the prevailing sentiment.

The man certainly can write good, convincing dialogue!

#4 Comment By ADM64 On June 5, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

Oliver Stone amongst a list of directors with decidedly non-liberal politics? Did I miss something?

#5 Comment By Manfred Arcane On June 5, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

Milius is a really admirable character and a legend in his own time. Who can forget the great, hilarious “Walter Sobchak” character in “The Big Lebowski” which is affectionally and clearly patterned on Milius!

And while Bill may despise Teddy Roosevelt, that old warmonger, there is a lot to admire (and a lot of Milius) in the El Raisuli character played by Sean Connery in “The Wind and the Lion.”

#6 Comment By jamie On June 5, 2014 @ 2:25 pm

Elegiac, evocative, excessive, “Big Wednesday” was a box-office wipeout, but since when is that a demerit?

When you’re a starting director and spending Warner Bros.’s money it’s problematic. Also, when you’re an argumentative artiste who insists on riding the line between (1) principled iconoclastic idealist and (2) conniving huckster merely cultivating a bad boy image for his personal vainglory, it can make it difficult to close deals. He can say he went “his way,” but we also must confront the fact that, on a fundamental level, he didn’t have the goods to play with the big boys after Star Wars, and he had a strange penchant for playing with loaded firearms around prospective backers.

Milius’s combination of gun-fondling, emptyheaded reaction, and corpulence got the mocking it deserved in the form of Walter Sobchak from the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski.

#7 Comment By W.E.B. Dupree On June 5, 2014 @ 3:11 pm

Speaking of Conan the Barbarian, the DVD version has a very enjoyable commentary track on which Milius and Arnold S. reminisce about making the film. Typical Milius comment regarding dialogue: “That’s straight from Nietzsche.” Typical Arnold comment regarding an actress: “I remember her. She looked so good back then.” They make a wacky pair. I’m not sure if there is a blue-ray version with the same commentary.

“Red Dawn” is an 80s classic, in part because it takes itself extremely seriously. Calling it a Boys’ Life fantasy is a little misleading as to the film’s tone; the characters’ plight becomes increasingly grim and desperate over the course of the movie. (I won’t spoil the plot for those who haven’t seen it).

#8 Comment By the unworthy craftsman On June 5, 2014 @ 4:39 pm

I’ve seen the documentary. One thing that stuck me about it, was that Milius was as bohemian hippie artiste as they come. He was just working a contrarian shock-jock thing.

#9 Comment By David Strom On June 5, 2014 @ 5:02 pm

I thought Jeremiah Johnson (1972) was based on Crow Killer (1969 hardcover)? Vardis Fisher’s book seemed to me to be a (very) romanticized version. I read & enjoyed both and also the movie, could be mistaken about which influenced what.

#10 Comment By Andrew E. On June 5, 2014 @ 6:00 pm

Possibly the reason “conventional reviewers” were left sputtering is because Red Dawn is not a particularly well made movie.

It illustrates something I’ve been arguing for years: conservatives, in a general sense, value art that reinforces their beliefs over any other type. The quality of the art is secondary.

It’s why most movies targeted explicitly at conservative audiences- God is not Dead, Son of God, Heaven is for Real, An American Carol- are made not to challenge the audience or expose them to other points of view (except to dismiss those POV’s) but to mirror and support their own worldview.

Of course explicitly liberal movies exist and do the same thing but again, in a general sense, liberals tend to seek out and value a wider assortment of cinematic experiences. They also take a much more critical view of films in terms of how they perceive its artistic merit, certainly much more than conservatives.

#11 Comment By Bill Jones On June 5, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

He has a wonderfully lived-in face.

#12 Comment By Curle On June 6, 2014 @ 3:11 am

Non-liberal politics=Oliver Stone?

#13 Comment By cka2nd On June 6, 2014 @ 5:44 pm

I remember reading an article from around 30 years ago or so – illustrated with a photo of the director holding a sword, I think, perhaps a Japanese one – where Milius described himself as a Zen Fascist, which is a lot less charming and whimsical than “Zen Anarchist.”

I love surfing movies but have never seen “Big Wednesday.” Has it ever been on Turner Classic Movies?

I agree with Kopkind’s respect for the Wolverines in “Red Dawn” – and would also mention the film’s sympathetic portrayal of a Cuban officer by Ron O’Neal, best known as cinema’s “Superfly” – but having re-watched it recently, I also agree with Andrew E. that it’s really not that good a movie. I’d probably only give it two-and-a-half stars. The 2010 Australian film, “Tomorrow, When the War Began,” is an interesting take on the same premise; I think the Chinese may have even infiltrated the country using one of the same methods the Soviets used in “Red Dawn.”

Now, “The Wind and the Lion,” that’s a thoroughly enjoyable movie, even with Candice Bergen’s uneven performance and atrocious accent. It also features one of the best supporting performances I’ve ever seen in Brian Keith’s Teddy Roosevelt. Keith did a lovely job balancing the “big” and “heroic” qualities of Roosevelt with his more human and intimate ones. I haven’t taken a look at the Oscar nominees for that year in a while, but I hope that Keith was at least considered for a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

#14 Comment By ELiteCommInc. On June 7, 2014 @ 11:54 am

“That’s straight from Nietzsche.” Typical Arnold comment regarding an actress: “I remember her. She looked so good back then.”

That’s hilarious…

#15 Comment By Sam On June 8, 2014 @ 11:24 am

Great documentary on an important and talented film maker. Unfortunately, I stopped reading the article as soon as I saw the author equate Oliver Stone as an “ant-liberal”. That kind of factual error calls into question anything else written here and suggests the author really knows little about these directors. Or maybe it was just a typo.

#16 Comment By Fran Macadam On June 10, 2014 @ 1:57 am

Teddy R. was an awful imperialist, but when he applied the same sense of self-righteousness to his attacks on monopoly, the private vice of his domineering character really did some public good. Too bad the present White House denizenry would only “like to do something, but it would piss off too many powerful people.” Folks like Milius serve as a bracing tonic, the authentic spirit of independence.

#17 Comment By Filip On June 10, 2014 @ 2:55 pm

Kauffman is right, Oliver Stone is not a liberal, but a straight out communist.

leftist =/= liberal

People, learn this, for God’s sake.

#18 Comment By Filip On June 10, 2014 @ 3:02 pm

Also,”conservatives, in a general sense, value art that reinforces their beliefs over any other type.”?

I don’t think so. Every leftist I know views art as their ideological weapon. And all of them are supposed great ”appreciators” of art. Yet critize every artist as a ”reactionary” (as if that is something bad) for not pushing their ideology. On other hand, I as a hardcore conservative, respect a lot of non-conservative artists such as Tolstoy, Steinbeck etc.