John Milius, Hollywood Maverick

The lost bridge between the New Hollywood of the '70s and the anti-Communist flicks of the Reagan era


Bill Kauffman has written a good column about writer/director John Milius, the lost bridge between the New Hollywood of the '70s and the anti-Communist flicks of the Reagan era. Here's an excerpt:

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."

Read the rest here. One Milius claim to fame that Kauffman doesn't mention: He was the model for John Goodman's character in The Big Lebowski.

The column's news hook is the recent documentary Milius. I've seen this film, and it's pretty good. It's also pretty sad: At the end we learn that Milius, by all accounts a legendary raconteur, suffered a stroke a few years ago that left him unable to speak coherently. His recovery is underway, but the movie leaves the impression that he has a long way to go.

Bonus links: I quoted that Kopkind review in an article about the Rambo films (a greatly expanded version of which appears in my book The United States of Paranoia). Milius also turned up in my obit for Dennis Hopper. And way back in 1985—when giants walked the earth, like Caine in Kung Fu—a profile of Milius appeared here in Reason. He sounds like a libertarian until he doesn't—that is, until he endorses conscription, minimum wage laws, and the idea that "it might not have been bad for this country" if Gen. Douglas MacArthur had "crossed the Mississippi like Caesar crossed the Rubicon and proclaimed himself Emperor Douglas the First." He might have been kidding about that last one.