Movies

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:

The bastard grandchild of BONNIE & CLYDE.

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.

NEXT: Don't Read Too Much Into Supreme Court Refusal to Block Oregon Gay Marriages

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Jesus. Milius gives us great movies like Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian, and this post highlights the godawful red Dawn?

    1. Or even Red Dawn. Really, it doesn’t deserve capitalization.

      1. Fuck off and die in a fire.

        Red Dawn is an awesome movie.

        Cretin.

            1. No, right. This isn’t open to debate. It was terrible.

              1. It seems to have been so.bad as to reduce.you.to an inability to cite specifically why it was bad.

              2. Well, double dumb ass on you.

                1. Not me, right? I liked Red.Dawn.

                  1. No db, not you. That was for the cretin with no taste in entertainment.

      2. I am speechless. Red Dawn was, as a quoted review above said, a celebration of the.individual as a revolutionary force against collectivism. Maybe.it isn’t great art, but how can you not respect its premise of resistance against oppression?

        1. Because it sucked? It’s a bad movie. Lacking goodness.

          1. Swayze. Killing. Communists.

            Also, Cuban Paratroopers. Attacking Colorado.

            C’mon. That latter one you have to applaud for sheer *ridiculousness*

            If you can’t love Red Dawn, you live in an impoverished universe that I can only pity.

            1. I prefer my universe to yours if you like that silly, silly film.

              1. You should have your penis-permit revoked.

            2. Plus, Lea Thompson.

                1. No, the hottie from Space Camp.

                  1. Yes, that’s her. She slept with a duck.

                    1. I so wanted to be that duck.

                      She was cute back then.

    2. And by the way, I am told Tim Tebow supports the use of Arabic numbers for Super Bowls.

      1. Indian numerals and he should be crucified, too. So he can die for the NFL’s sins.

        1. This is the second time in as.many days that.someone.here has mentioned crucifixion and numerals.in the same post. What gives?

          1. Numbers have power.

          2. Roman numerals. Because crucifixion was the preferred form of execution of the Romans.

            1. Contemplate this math problem on the tree of woe.

              1. Doing long division with Roman numerals.

      2. Tim who? What does this have to do with Johnny Football?

        1. The length of their careers will be the same?

        2. There could be no Manziel without Tebow. They are opposing forces of nature.

    3. Red Dawn is Awesome and you need to beg for forgiveness from Swayze’s ghost… i mean, legacy…. right now!

      but I agree, failure to mentioned Conan, Apocalypse Now, OR *Dirty Harry* is wrong in 11 dimensions.

      1. Red Dawn rules! An orgy of Commie hate and killing. What could be better?

      2. It’s crap. I could not stand that movie, even as a kid.

        Yes, Dirty Harry, too. Milius good generate some of the choicest dialogue.

        1. Could generate. With goodness.

        2. Milius is responsible for so many “classic” movie lines that it’s crazy. The guy has (had?) a gift.

        3. I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “did Red Dawn deserve 3 stars, or 4?” Now to tell you the truth I forgot myself in all this excitement.

    4. I didn’t know he wrote Apocalypse Now. I thought it was just Coppolla.

      1. Both. With some influence by some Polish guy.

        1. Roman Polanski? Man, that guy was all over the 70’s.

          1. Polanski was all over the ‘teens, too.

      2. “Apocalypse Now” was a retelling of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. So, lots of writing credits to go around.

        1. You mean J?zef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski? Some Polish guy? Huh.

  2. : 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.

    And utter hacks Andrew Sorkin prattle on. The world belongs to the devil.

  3. The Golden Age of American cinema, the first half of the 1970s

    Ugh.

    1. Ahem. The 70s were a golden age for film. A whole slew of awesome movies came out of that decade. Not that there wasn’t crap, but there’s always crap.

      1. Back in the days when I would have watched at least 4 of the nominees for Best Picture in the theater before the awards came out (and enjoyed them).

  4. 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

    That was like a gut punch at the end of the documentary (which is quite good), seeing Milius like that. Unable to write the lines that made him who he is.

    Don’t forget that Milius wrote the Indianapolis speech from Jaws. Never forget that. In the documentary, Spielberg says it was pages long and they just took what they wanted from it, and got…perfection.

    1. I saw somewhere that Robert Shaw was such a drunk he totally botched that speech the first time he tried it. It was so bad that they were worried they would have to find a new actor. He somehow under threat of being fired sobered up for one day and nailed it.

      1. Not accurate.

        Shaw went to Spielberg the day before and asked him if he could try it after a few drinks (method acting) thinking it would be more authentic and Spielberg gave him the go-ahead. Apparently he had more than a few and it didn’t go so well. He nailed it the next day.

        To his credit, they used footage from BOTH takes in the movie.

        1. Thanks for the info. I knew he screwed it up once because he was drunk.

          1. There was a two-hour documentary floating around a few years ago about the making of the movie. They interviewed everybody still alive and they talked about the filming of that scene. They were up till 3 AM with a drunk Shaw stumbling through lines.

              1. Here is where they talk about the drinking

  5. the occupiers use registration records to locate gun owners, among them the great Harry Dean Stanton, and throw them into re-education camps

    Just bought Harry Dean’s first album. What a guy.

    Does anyone remember the name of the movie that Milius wrote for guns?

      1. Well I’ve heard different stories: one was that it was for a rewrite of Dirty Harry, another for some crappy 80s movie (but which one?). I prefer to think it was Dirty Harry, of course

    1. Harry Dean Stanton used to be in every other film. Very prolific. And he was in Repo Man.

      1. Look at those assholes, ordinary fucking people. I hate ’em

        1. The life of a repo man is always intense.

        2. Life of a repo man is always intense.

          1. Goddamn gypsy dildo Pro Libertate brothers…

            1. Fuck you, Archie. Just for that you’re not in the gang anymore.

              1. Yeah! Let’s go get sushi, and not pay

            2. There’s fuckin’ room to move as a fry cook. I could be manager in two years. King. God.

              1. You say our names, we’re going to have to kill all these people, Archie.

            3. Managin’ a pop group? Ain’t no job for.a.man.

      2. Harry Dean Stanton is the indicator that a movie will be good. Also Steve Buscemi, and Luis Guzman.

    2. Milius, an avid gun collector, insisted that part of his payment for writing Jeremiah Johnson (1972) be in antique weapons.

      He wrote Jeremiah Johnson, too? I didn’t realize I was such a fan of his. Also, after seeing his picture, John Goodman was a perfect cast.

  6. Red Dawn, eh? Well, it’s not quite the cinematic masterpiece that Rocky IV is, but yeah, it’s pretty good.

  7. 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.

    Speaking of hip liberal filmmakers of the 1960s counterculture, I stumbled across Easy Rider a while back. It was awful. It was painful to watch. It was embarrassing. As lame as Red Dawn might be (and it is), it doesn’t SUUUUUUUUCK! the way Easy Rider sucks.

    1. I just rewatched The Limey. Fonda was good in that and in Ulee’s Gold during his brief renaissance.

    2. At least it had a happy ending.

    3. It is a terrible movie. And outside of two songs (The Weight and Born to be Wild) it doesn’t even have a very good sound track.

      1. You serious?

        The Pusher?

        If 6 was 9?

        It’s alright Ma?

        And of course Don’t Bogart Me?

        There are several good songs on there.

        1. Okay. Those are good.

          1. I don’t know where that comment of yours came from. Google up “best movie soundtracks of all time” and you’ll find Easy Rider on every list.

    4. Zeitgeist films like “Easy Rider” don’t age well.

  8. Also, in honor of Harry Dean Stanton:

    “Hey, Kid. Wanna make ten bucks?”

  9. Be warned, the remake was a steaming pile.

    1. It was worse than a steaming pile. It has tanks that drift like Tokyo street racers. It’s absurd. Even having Adrianne Palicki didn’t help. At all.

      1. The Fast and the Furious: Pyongyang Drift

    2. The remake is watchable, but barely, only because of nostalgia for the original and, of course, hunky Chris Hemsworth.

      Having said that, it is in our best interests to ignore the shortcomings of the film and give a nod to anything which glamorizes resistance to tyranny.

  10. “You’re think you’re a ‘Maverick’, Milius, don’t you! But you’re not! You’re a LOOSE CANNON! You’re a danger to this city and this department and I want your gun and badge on my desk by tomorrow!”

  11. I only saw it once, but I remember Ulee’s Gold as a really good movie, and Fonda was excellent in it.

    1. I really enjoyed it, and it introduced me to the wonders of Florida’s own Tupelo honey, which is the shit.

  12. It’s funny to me that one knock people put against Red Dawn is that it’s “a Boys’ Life fantasy” when everybody dies.

    Patrick Swayze dies.

    Charlie Sheen dies.

    Jennifer Grey dies.

    Powers Boothe dies.

    More people die than in Hamlet.

    1. C. Thomas Howell died in Hamlet too

    2. I’m not sure how tragic Hamlet can be, since there is, within the four walls of the play, proof that there is an afterlife. Yes, it can be played so that we don’t know whether Hamlet was hallucinating, but in most versions, the ghost is seen by the audience on stage.

    3. It is a boys life fantasy but one made back when they still made real fantasies that showed the dark parts of life.

      No way would any movie today have a scene like the one in Red Dawn where they shoot the kid who has the radio tracker on him after he was released by the Russians. That is a brutal dark scene.

      1. Thinking back to the early 80s, it’s hard to really recall the weirdness of living under the threat of nuclear war. True surreality for me was reading Alas, Babylon and encountering the passage where Tampa gets wiped out.

        1. I read that book too. I also read On the Beach, which really scared the hell out of me.

          1. Yes, but at least I’m only hypothetically dead in On the Beach. I’m clearly nuked in Alas, Babylon. I recall at the time learning that the Russian strategy for nuking targets like Tampa and MacDill AFB was to drop big nukes all around the area. Which means total incineration for a white suburban punk like me.

          2. On the Beach was a good work.

          3. The Gregory Peck version is pretty much the definitive “contemplative” End of the World movie.

            1. A TV movie that freaked me out was Testament. There is a scene that is shockingly disturbing, even though it’s not gory or anything.

              1. That came out around the same time as “The Day After,” right? I remember.my.parents wouldn’t let me watch it but.most of.my friends were talking about it in 3rd grade.

                1. No. On the Beach = 1959. The Day After a.k.a. Ronald Reagan Wants to Blow Up the World, 1983.

                  1. Not “On the Beach.” I meant “Testament.” I have read On the.Beach and.seen the original film version.

                    1. @ db. Sorry, got thread-confused. I’m going to blame jet lag for at least another day.

                2. Yep, same year. Didn’t see Testament until years later.

              2. That movie is really freaky. Very hard to watch.

          4. You should read In the Wet also by Nevil Shute. Nothing to do with nuclear war, although it is set in a post-WWIII future (albeit one without dangerous fallout).

            As a novel, I think it is far better than On the Beach

            1. I’ll look into it.

        2. it’s hard to really recall the weirdness of living under the threat of nuclear war.

          I went to catholic school for elementary school but when i entered middle school which was public i remember teachers telling us that the hydro-electric dams that all along the Columbia river where i grew were all targeted by the Soviets.

          From my childhood home if i stood on the roof i could look up river and see one of those dams.

      2. That was a rough scene to watch, but it was also the right thing to do in the situation.

        1. *eyes tearing with rage*

          BECAUSE WE LIVE HERE!

  13. As someone who – in high school – played football, hunted constantly, hated commies, and (I’m sure at some point) ate rice krispies for dinner, Red Dawn wasn’t so much a fantasy for me as a training video. Movie was the tits. Quit hating.

    1. As a former Cold Warrior, watching RD would put me into a Commie-killing rage right fucking now. Fuck I hate commies!

      1. put me into a Commie-killing rage right fucking now.

        That Cuban Colonel in the movie was a pretty sympathetic character.

        1. That Commie Colonel was Ron “Superfly” O’Neal

          1. His Spanish is painful.

  14. one knock people put against Red Dawn is that it’s “a Boys’ Life fantasy” when everybody dies.

    The notion of something worth dying for is a quaint fantasy.

    Just like thinking a demonstrably incompetent President should be removed from office.

    1. Competence and honor are just racist concepts invented by angry old white guys Brooks.

      1. The notion of something worth dying for is a quaint fantasy.

        honor

        You just called Kamikazes, Samurai, Crusaders, Vikings raiders, Hashisans/Assasins, and Islamic suicide Jihadists Honorable….all of whom were promised paradise for their deaths.

        1. No I didn’t. Just because dying for a just cause is honorable, doesn’t mean dying for any cause is honorable.

          1. That’s all a matter of perspective.

          2. Blood Eagle!!

        2. What an odd fallacy to commit there, to think existential quanification implies universal.

          1. to think existential quanification implies universal.

            Sure seems common enough among multiple cultures during multiple time periods….and the characteristics of it sure looks similar to “honor”.

            Walks, quacks and swims like a duck…

  15. He was the model for John Goodman’s character in The Big Lebowski.

    He doesn’t roll on Shabbos?

    1. The dog has fucking papers dude.

  16. He butchered the hell out of Conan and bought into the myth that Howard was a nut case…

    Though Conan The Barbarian was a good movie.

  17. “Jesus. Milius gives us great movies like Apocalypse Now and Conan the Barbarian, and this post highlights the godawful red Dawn?”

    I’ll expose myself to potential pillorying by this most august forum by saying that I’ve always thought Apocalypse Now sucks ass. I’ve often found myself alone in this opinion. Yes, this is a cry for help.

    1. I’m sure an MRI will reveal broken blood vessels in your frontal-cortex, or some other straightforward explanation.

    2. I’ll expose myself to potential pillorying by this most august forum by saying that I’ve always thought Apocalypse Now sucks ass. I’ve often found myself alone in this opinion. Yes, this is a cry for help.

      Is your name Epi?

      No it is not.

      All tastes in pop culture are perfectly fine unless you are Epi.

      If you are Epi then you are always wrong.

    3. I’ve always thought Apocalypse Now sucks ass

      I have no plans to watch it for a second time.

    4. Did you watch the original film or Redux?

    5. . . . I’ve always thought Apocalypse Now sucks ass.

      Eh, it can be disjointed at times and its looooooooooong. But its an interesting series of character studies and short stories linked together by Willard’s mission.

      1. I think it’s a phenomenal film. The original cut, I mean. The pacing is all fucked up in Redux.

      2. “t its an interesting series of character studies and short stories”

        its fucking Heart of Darkness! its not ‘short stories’!!

        if there’s any linkage to all of the set-piece scenes (a la the playboy strippers, the do-long bridge, the confrontation with tiger, etc) its that they are all an allegorical to the ‘descent into the unconscious’ and increasing lack of ‘rational control’ possible in nature/the jungle. Nature is pure will and strength; there is no ‘right or wrong’, etc.

        i think the story he was trying to tell probably requires a length more than 50% of a typical film in order to achieve the kind of immerse, draining effect of the ultimate submission. Otherwise the whole ‘breakdown into primitive self’ where he finally kills Kurtz wouldn’t really work.

        1. It’s really a great way of portraying some of the overarching themes of Heart of Darkness, while only using the spine of the plot and some scenes and characters from the book. Coppola (and Milius) definitely still had it back then.

          Welles’ first film was originally going to be Heart of Darkness. Given the innovations of Citizen Kane, I bet it would’ve been epic.

          1. In the linked interview below (in the beginning part) he says the explicit reason WHY he chose to write a script around Heart of Darkness/Vietnam was because his screenwriting prof @ USC mentioned how it was a story that had ‘destroyed most who tried to capture it’. No one had ever made a decent movie out of it. He considered it a challenge. The fact that the vietnam was was going on and his buddies were coming back provided all the details he needed to put the framework together.

            1. It’s a great setting for the story. You have the jungle, you have the river, you have the unknowns of the local culture, and you have the violence, often senseless, of the war. And you definitely had the European (American) going a little mad in the process.

              1. Since i’m watching that interview now…

                …he commented (paraphrase),

                ‘I decided that it wasn’t going to simply be “Civilization” confronting “Primitive Nature” – it was California… California was everything best about America in the 60s and here it was, trying to tame the ancient jungle with Rock & Roll, drugs, and pussy…’

  18. Why “Apocalypse Now”, John?

    Because Fuck Hippies

    Good story there.

    I like how Coppola is like, “so.. you converted a ‘peace sign’ into a B-52”? and Milius is giggling, “Right!”‘

    The beginning of the interview starts with “People always ask me where I came up with playing Wagner during a helicopter assault, or a Colonel who says, ‘I love the smell of Napalm in the morning’, or times his attacks to coincide with the best surfing conditions… and I have to confess, ‘no no, that’s all John Milius'”..

    1. He’s interviewed quite a bit in Hearts of Darkness.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.