October 5, 2016

Milius (2013)

John Milius is one of those Hollywood writer/directors who never quite managed to become a household name, yet remains an iconic figure to film geeks and enthusiasts around the world. The films that he either wrote or directed are cult favourites, including Apocalypse Now, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. The man himself is a fairly notorious Hollywood figure, famous for pointing guns at studio executives and other ludicrous manufactured behaviours.

His career is the subject of Milius, a feature-length documentary directed by Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson released back in 2013. It was originally intended as a much more personal and almost autobiographical film, with Milius on board as an active and collaborative participant. A 2010 stroke, however, temporarily robbed him of his ability to speak, and this left the film with a terrible hurdle to overcome in order to be completed. The end result is a fairly traditional sort of 'talking heads' documentary, with Milius an occasional contributor through older interviews and audio recordings. If you are a fan of his work, it's a fascinating and fairly well balanced profile. Sadly his poor health seems to have robbed the film of its chance to be something really special.

While the film has a typical talking heads format, it is definitely worth noting the enormous calibre of talent speaking about Milius' career. He attended the USC film school alongside the likes of George Lucas, and developed his early career alongside such contemporaries as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Paul Schrader. All of those director turn up in the film to discuss his life and career, as well as actors including Charlie Sheen, Harrison Ford, Lea Thompson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone and Sam Elliott, and Hollywood executives such as Lorenzo Di Bonaventura and Mike Medavoy. It's visible from the contributions that Milius is deeply loved by his friends, even though his position in Hollywood grew strained and ultimately fairly hostile by the end of the 1980s.

While it is enormously satisfying to see his contributions to American cinema, including his Apocalypse Now screenplay, his films Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, and even less-known works like Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion, the film has a regrettably tendency to rush over the more contentious parts of Milius' career. He employed a broad, over-the-top persona from college, presenting himself as a Hemingway-esque figure with a love for war, guns and controversy. Milius himself claims his right-wing NRA fantasy Red Dawn led to him being black-listed from Hollywood, however it's obvious the studios' reluctance to hire him might also stem from his tendency to bring loaded firearms to script meetings or the losses incurred by his subsequent unsuccessful films Flight of the Intruder and Farewell to the King. The film does provide a short debate - both Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood maintain being right-wing is no barrier to Hollywood success so long as your films make a profit - but it feels like a lot of the more interesting discussions on Milius' career are left on the table.

As a career summary Milius is a success, and given the unexpected barriers faced during its production I think it's fair to praise it for what it ultimately is rather than what it could have been. It puts a fascinating career in perspective and by lining most of Milius' most famous works up in a row (his screenplay to Clear and Present Danger goes curiously unmentioned) it allows the viewer to recognise what a stunning career he has actually achieved. It left me enthused to go rewatch some of his movies again as soon as possible.

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