The Epix documentary “Milius” poses an interesting question: Why didn’t John Milius – writer extraordinaire, and director of some renown – become a household name like film-school contemporary George Lucas and other famous pals, including Steven Spielberg? The answer, however, proves more wishy-washy, or at least indecisive, than a Milius character would appreciate, with the director asserting he was blacklisted for his reactionary politics, while others cite his prickly and eccentric behavior, such as bringing a pistol to a notes meeting. Either way, Milius is a fascinating character, but beyond highlighting his filmography, the film leaves its central enigma unresolved.
A mass of contradictions prone to larger-than-life flourishes, Milius loved surfing and guns and consciously zigged where the counterculture movement zagged, embracing militarism and a macho mentality that produced a memorable body of work. As a writer, that ranged from “Dirty Harry” (uncredited) to “Apocalypse Now,” from Quint’s speech about the Indianapolis in “Jaws” (which he banged out for Spielberg) to punching up material like “The Hunt for Red October.”
As a director, Milius celebrated U.S. might in an earlier era in “The Wind and the Lion,” set the Cold War back with “Red Dawn” and paved the way for darker, bloodier comicbook adaptations with “Conan the Barbarian,” prompting Bryan Singer to comment that he made “the most defining films of those decades.”
For his own part, Milius speaks in earlier interviews about his own thwarted martial ambitions, describing the job of director as “the next best thing” to a military career.
Yet the assertion that Milius’ brand of jingoism made him a pariah in liberal Hollywood is questioned by even some of his conservative pals, among them noted Republicans Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood, who – like everyone interviewed – speak of Milius fondly, without necessarily endorsing his sense of victimhood.
It is noted that Milius became so sought after to do rewrites that his own work occasionally took a back seat, before a stroke temporarily robbed him of his voice – the ultimate blow, as Spielberg notes, for such a gifted raconteur and wordsmith.
Still, for all the pleasant memories directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson evoke – lines like “I love the smell of Napalm in the morning” and “You have to ask yourself a question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’” – it’s hard to escape a sense they started with a premise the evidence doesn’t entirely support, and gloss over examples (like “Farewell to the King”) that might have explained why studios weren’t throwing money at Milius, despite his glittering resume.
In some respects, “Milius” is less illuminating about the elusive nature of what makes one a success in Hollywood than a warm bath of nostalgia, and a window into the camaraderie shared by the generation of filmmakers who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s and helped reset the bar for the movie business.
Milius, certainly, was part of that renaissance, and deserving of this tribute. By that measure, “Milius” has a lot of heart; if only it did a better job of knifing through the darkness.