Sunday, May 11, 2014

Milius: Portrait of a Zen Anarchist

The ‘film school” generation of the 60s & 70s gave us such writer-directors as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola & John Milius. Who's John Milius, you ask? You may not know his name, but you’re certainly familiar with some of the films he’s worked on as a writer, director or both: Apocalypse Now (1979), Conan The Barbarian (1982), Red Dawn (1984) & later, the HBO series, Rome (2005). Now a new documentary entitled Milius (2013) covers the life & career of this talented, sometimes controversial filmmaker. Milius came to prominence as a screenwriter in the early to mid 1970s. He worked on films like 1971’s Dirty Harry (he did an uncredited rewrite of the script, and came up with the famous “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech) and writing the screenplays for the 1972 Robert Redford film, Jeremiah Johnson, (for which he received a record payday at the time) and the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force (1973).

Milius quickly became one of the most in demand writers in Hollywood. Interestingly enough, at a time when the movie business & the country as a whole was in the midst of a more liberal stance politically, he was very conservative, but was still able to be a success. He wrote & directed the old-fashioned adventure film, The Wind & The Lion (1975) starring Sean Connery, Candice Bergen & Brian Keith as Teddy Roosevelt, one of Milius' personal heroes. He also wrote the famous monologue about the USS Indianapolis that Robert Shaw performs in Jaws (1975), as a favor to his friend Spielberg. Then he co-wrote the screenplay for Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, a project that he, Lucas & Coppola had talked about since film school. The documentary covers the genesis and production of the celebrated Vietnam war epic (and Milius' contributions to it) in great detail.

During the 80s, Milius worked on bringing Robert E. Howard’s Conan character to the screen in Conan The Barbarian, and wrote & directed the original Red Dawn, about a Russian military takeover of the US, and a group of teenagers who rebel against the invaders. The film covers a lot of ground talking about these two movies, and the political controversy that was sparked by Red Dawn during its original release. During this period, Milius (and the entertainment business in general) were being heavily criticized for the overly violent content of films. And while Milius had famous friends & colleagues like Lucas, Coppola & Spielberg, his over the top personality often rubbed studio executives the wrong way, causing some of his projects to be derailed or cancelled. The self-proclaimed "zen anarchist" could sometimes be his own worst enemy.

The documentary is a well-rounded portrait of Milius, and features great interviews with Lucas, Spielberg & Coppola. There are also comments from Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone & Milius’ children, as well as current filmmakers like Bryan (X-Men) Singer & Kurt (Sons of Anarchy) Sutter, who've been inspired by him. The Lucas & Spielberg sequences are some of the most engrossing parts of the film. While they often give interviews about their current projects, it’s fascinating to see them really open up about their friendship & collaborations with Milius, and tell stories about their early days working together in the 70s. Milius really is the kind of larger than life persona that you don’t see in today’s Hollywood, and even the studio executives he knocked heads & battled with admit they admire his talent.

The latter part of the film goes into some health struggles Milius has suffered after having a stroke a couple of years ago, which is why he’s largely seen in archival footage. He’s working to get better, and is hoping to get a long in development project about Genghis Khan produced. This is an absorbing portrait of a man who’s given us a lot of iconic movie moments. It’s a must see for fans of 70s & 80s cinema. Milius, which was directed by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson, is being shown on the EPIX cable channel and is available for digital viewing on Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IrjuO5LLNEQ.

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