SXSW 2013: MILIUS Review

     March 13, 2013

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Writer-director John Milius is too colorful of a filmmaker not to have his own documentary.  Ironically, the man who wrote Apocalypse Now and Dirty Harry as well as writing and directing Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn has now faded into semi-obscurity behind contemporaries and colleagues such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.  While Spielberg and Lucas rode to fame on cutting-edge special effects paired with an appreciation of the sci-fi and adventure genres, Milius came from a completely different place that earned him the admiration of his peers, but also turned him into an outsider and eventually a pariah in Hollywood.  In Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson‘s documentary Milius, his friends and family come to speak about the greatness about the controversial filmmaker, and how his personality brought him to success, but also may have been part of his professional downfall.

After a brief montage of various directors, writers, and actors singing Milius’ praises such as Sam Ellliott eloquently remarking, “He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women.  He writes for men, because he’s a man” (pussies and women could not be reached for comment), Figueroa and Knutson get to one of the most important points about their subject: Milius wanted to be in the military and was rejected because of his asthma.  So he chose what he felt was the next best thing: directing.  Milius then follows his rise to stardom, first as a screenwriter and then as a director.  Throughout, Milius’ peers, friends, and family talk about the personality that could craft the overtly masculine pictures with right-wing subtext.  But this wasn’t the neo-con “I want war but have avoided service at every turn,” (and Oliver Stone notes at one point how Milius feels out of touch with today’s right-wing), so Milius isn’t a chickenhawk.  Even if you’re liberal, you can’t accuse him of hypocrisy.

Film nerds will jump right into Milius because we’re already familiar with the controversial director.  Immediately after watching the movie, I wanted to sit down and rewatch Apocalypse Now, and then I wanted to seek out his lesser-known movies.  Rather than just celebrate the hits, Figueroa and Knutson also look at flops like Big Wednesday and The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean.  Anyone can receive acclaim for their successes, but an honest tribute looks at the failures as a way to better illustrate the character behind those failures.  Milius always stayed true to his creative voice even if that was a voice not everyone wanted to hear.

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What’s charming about the “controversy” is that it doesn’t come from anything John Milius did particularly wrong.  It’s that his values aren’t in sync with values of Hollywood’s liberal majority.  That’s acceptable when the movie does big box office like Dirty Harry, but it can be more problematic when it comes with the political firestorm created by Red Dawn.  Either way, Milius’ political opinions may be off-putting, but they’re not disgusting.  Milius is politically conservative, not socially conservative.  Clint Eastwood and Arnold Schwarzenegger argue that Hollywood isn’t inherently biased against Republicans, and all the town truly values is profit.  However, this statement is coming from two movie stars.  The rotund fat guy behind the camera can make a legitimate claim that he was “blacklisted”.

Whether you believe Milius was blacklisted because of his beliefs or because of box office, his behind-the-scenes antics are hilarious, it’s still fun watching folks like Spielberg, Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and many more fondly recall Milius and critically assess his work.  This is a man who has earned—and more importantly, kept—the love of the people in his life, and Milius makes a convincing argument about why he also deserves the respect of audiences who may have forgotten him or never knew about the guy who wrote the line, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”

Rating: B+

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