The Bottom Line
Enjoyable but incomplete-feeling bio-doc both celebrates the Milius myth and tries to undo the damage it did to his reputation.
South by Southwest, Documentary Spotlight
Zak Knutson, Joey Figueroa
AUSTIN — Aiming both to catalog the lore surrounding one of cinema’s most colorful off-camera characters and to rescue him from the often damaging mythology he himself constructed, brings out the lions of New Hollywood (alongside Bryan Singer and another youngster or two) to sing John Milius’ praises and speculate about what makes him tick. Directors Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa, veteran makers of behind-the-scenes featurettes, don’t wholly escape the small-screen vibe in their feature-doc debut, but the subject’s reputation and the quality of the interviewee roster should attract some attention at fests and beyond.
Much of the screenwriter’s self-dramatizing machismo can probably be traced to his conviction, during the Vietnam war, that he’d become a Marine, have a valiant career and probably die in combat. Instead he washed out, rejected because of asthma, and that thwarted lust for glory haunted him beyond the point at which most young men find more pedestrian ambitions.
He cultivated contrarianism at school, taking stances more because they were unfashionable than out of conviction. (An anecdote about tweaking a popular hippie slogan offers the origin story for .) But he was successful enough at USC’s film school to be one of the first students to get actual work in the industry: a rip-off for AIP was his entree; within a few years he had contributed to , sold for a staggering sum and been given his first job as director, on .
Old interviews with Milius, who entertains even when you’re rolling your eyes at him, are paired with reminiscences by classmates (Lucas, Spielberg), insightful contemporaries (Scorsese, Schrader), and actors who worked for him (including Arnold Schwarzenegger, who on asked the director to simply tell him exactly how to act — which worked so well co-star James Earl Jones made the same request).
To a man they praise his writing, and viewers hear "he’s a great writer" so many times we wish the film found more opportunities to let us hear some of that famous dialogue. (When we do see film clips, their video quality is distractingly inferior to that of the interviews.) The most interesting detail we hear about the actual writing is Spielberg’s account of how Milius composed a magnificent 10-page monologue for Quint in , and how Robert Shaw cut it in half with an expert editor’s eye.
Everyone has a story to tell — about the guns Milius demanded as a condition for a script rewrite, the motorcycles and girls, the time George Lucas saw him punch a professor. As Lucas puts it late in the film, though, Milius’ larger-than-life rep was "a persona," and one that made it easier to ostracize him when ‘s politics "made him a pariah" and his follow-ups as director, and , underperformed.
Commercial failure was followed by financial losses (his best friend and accountant ripped him off); at one point, he shocked David Milch by asking to join the writing staff on . (Milch couldn’t abide such a degradation, but he helped in other ways.) And then, just as a possible comeback loomed with a Genghis Khan project, Milius had a stroke that made him unable to talk or write.
The filmmakers show evidence of recovery since that stroke — naturally, a day of shooting skeet is the turning point — and leave us with the promise that we’ve yet to hear John Milius’ last macho soliloquy. A closing-credits reel offering some of his more outrageous contributions to pop culture (like the John Goodman character he inspired in ) make the prospect of his vanishing entirely a hard one to face.