The outrageous exploits and antics of Hollywood filmmaker John Milius has been the stuff of Hollywood legend for years now, creating an almost mythical-like impression of the Apocalypse Now scribe and Big Wednesday director (The Big Lebowski’s mentally-unstable Vietnam vet Walter Sobchak was said to be loosely based on him.) An in-depth portrait of the self-proclaimed “Zen anarchist” now arrives in the form of Milius (2013), Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s hugely entertaining and fittingly reverential documentary of this larger-than-life, somewhat contradictory figure – “a teddy bear with an AK47”.
Preparing to dedicate his life to the military, to his utter frustration, Milius was deemed ineligible for Vietnam due to being an asthma sufferer. Instead he embarked on an education within USC’s film department (George Lucas was a classmate and early supporter), gaining prominence as a sought-after screenwriter (uncredited for his work, he was the driving force behind the script for Dirty Harry) before turning his attention towards directing. Figueroa and Knutson have a cinematic embarrassment of riches when it comes to on-camera contributors, as pretty much all of Milius’ “movie brat” contemporaries (Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg to name a few) are on hand to offer anecdotes and share their experiences of working with the man himself.
To the directing duo’s credit, they don’t get in the way of the material, letting their subject matter and illustrious collection of talking heads conjure up the requisite magic. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the film loses a little momentum when it moves from Milius’ creative golden era to his fall from grace following the unfavourable reception to his jingoistic war fantasy Red Dawn (1984). This section feels a little overcooked as it tries to theorise why his clash with the Hollywood libertarians of time had such a devastating impact on his career. Milius was the product of another time (“He doesn’t write for pussies or for women, he writes for men”, Sam Elliott recalls), but for all his hubris and bluster, the film paints him as a sensitive artist of sorts.
This extremely compelling documentary ends on a poignant note of sorts when it’s revealed that he suffered a debilitating stroke a couple of years back, which initially robbed him of that jovial, raconteur-like demeanour. A must-see for all true cinéastes, Figueroa and Knutson’s offering provides an engrossing and thoughtful character study of a true movie maverick. It’s only a matter of time before the career of yet another cinematic figure from his era receives a similar treatment, but the wonderful Milius should undoubtedly be the yardstick by which any future biographies are judged.