Milius opens with a killer quote. And not just any killer quote. A killer quote delivered by Sam Elliot. He of big moustache, Road House, and The Big Lebowski‘s too-cool-for-school narrator. And then it goes bigger. Oliver Stone balks at the thought of someone being so outspoken. Wagner’s Ride Of The Valkyries music comes thundering in. And we’re treated to that scene from Apocalypse Now of brazen destruction and excess.
It’s a fitting introduction. Because John Milius, the subject of Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s debut documentary, is a larger than life figure. A storyteller revered by some of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers. A military nut who never actually served in the military. A character every bit as fascinating as those he created on screen. And, if you believe IMDb, “spiritual advisor” on the Chuck Norris film Lone Wolf McQuade.
Milius, as you may have gathered by now, makes for a fascinating subject. The challenge facing Milius the documentary is how to cram it all in. And who to tell this story to. Is it for those fans of John Milius who have been denied a film by his hands since 1997’s TV movie Rough Riders? Or is it for those who’ve never heard of Milius the filmmaker, but really should?
Like their subject, directors Figueroa and Knutson aren’t happy to settle on the easy option. They aim big. And so Milius does it all – history lesson for newbies, reverent celebration for aficionados, snapshot of terrific Milius myths, telling portrait of the man behind these, and, right out of nowhere, something much more touching.
It’s rare to worry about revealing spoilers in a biography documentary. Rarer still when that documentary centres on a filmmaker central to some of the greatest films to have emerged from one of Hollywood’s most celebrated decades – Dirty Harry, Jaws, Apocalypse Now – and so revered by some of that period’s most successful filmmakers.
Scorsese, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Schrader. They’re all here, and so many more. Milius the documentary boasts what must surely be the greatest laundry list of talking heads ever assembled. All are equally effusive of how great a storyteller Milius is, how much they look up to him, and how much they like genuinely like him. The tragedy running through the documentary is how far removed Milius now is from modern cinema, and how much of a surprise his current plight is even to those who may know his work.
In trying to do so much, Milius can’t help but suffer. Those fascinating glimpses of the impact Milius made to 70s cinema remain just that at times. Fleeting moments given barely enough time to register before we’re on to the next. How did Milius come to write Clint Eastwood’s most iconic scene in a movie he’s not credited as a writer on? I can’t tell you.
The difficulty of trying to tell a story as big as Milius’ is that a 100 minute film can’t hold nearly enough of it. He’s too good a subject, those stories and anecdotes too plenty, the complexities of his character too rich. And if the film is missing a driving force guiding us through it all, that’s not to Figueroa and Knutson’s fault. Watch Milius and it all becomes clear.
As such it lacks the energy, polish and sparkle of a film like The Kid Stays In The Picture (still the greatest film about the joy and heartbreak of filmmaking, if you ask me). But what we do get here is pretty terrific – stories of how George Lucas came alarmingly close to making Apocalypse Now before Coppola took that trip down the river, the incredible backlash to Red Dawn, and the revelation that Milius set up an organisation called the International Writer’s Army.
It’s so busy trying to fit all this in that Milius’ role as inspiration for John Goodman’s hilarious Walter Sobchak in The Big Lebowski is relegated to the closing credits. They’re great closing credits though. Like the film before them, they’re a fitting reminder of how great a personality Milius was, and how poorer Hollywood is for not having him within its circle any more. Even if he is partial to pulling a gun out during a business meeting.
Milius is out on DVD and Blu-ray now.
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