Everybody in Hollywood, or at least everybody of a certain vintage, has a story to tell about John Milius. Denied the possibility of a glorious death in Vietnam because of his asthma, he seems to have turned to filmmaking as another way to play with big toys and live large. Graduating from the same school that gave us Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Coppola, he found distinction first as a much-in-demand screenwriter, responsible for many of the key lines of 1970s’ dialogue, from Dirty Harry’s ‘Do you feel lucky?’ bit, through Quint’s Indianapolis speech in Jaws, to the ‘smell of napalm in the morning’ in Apocalypse Now, but also proved his worth as a director with Dillinger, The Wind and the Lion and Big Wednesday.
All of this is quite a legacy, but his main project all the while seems to have been the cultivation of a legend. A big bear of a man, and a born contrarian, he seems to have never left the house without a gun or two, and was prone to produce them during negotiations, or, on one occasion, to get the desired vocal performance out of Martin Sheen. He seems to have had no fear in speaking truth to power, no matter what the consequences, all the while dressed like a combination biker, gunslinger and Mexican revolutionary.
But the 1970s turned into the 1980s and something changed, despite sizable hits with Conan the Barbarian and the ludicrous Reaganite fantasy Red Dawn. The directorial credits tailed off, and Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa’s highly entertaining documentary spends a good portion of its running time investigating why. Being a libertarian right winger (he describes himself as a ‘zen anarchist’) in Hollywood’s Democrat country can’t have helped, nor his propensity for saying things like ’my fantasy is to fly across rooftops and drop fire on children’. But the most dramatically ironic possibility raised by the film, for a man artistically obsessed with hubris, is that that wildman legend that preceded him began to close doors in the increasingly safe corporate world that Hollywood became.
Milius has a twisty, frequently hilarious, and ultimately moving tale to tell, and it rounds up an impressive roster of talking heads to tell it with. Harrison Ford is there, as are all the ‘move brats,’ telling story after story: ‘He created cage fighting!’ ’He’s Walter from the Big Lebowski!’ So many that they spill out over the closing credits, every one adding to the legend.
Watch the trailer: