JOY IN THE STRUGGLE: A LOOK AT JOHN MILIUS

At the week-long Cinequest ’99 in San Jose (February 25-March 3), nearly 60 films screened. In addition, there were appearances by such notables as Rod Steiger, Gabriel Byrne, and Jennifer Beals. One of the featured works was “A Turning of the Earth,” Nick Redman’s documentary about John Ford’s “The Searchers.” The film contains footage taken from twenty reels of outtakes discovered in the Warner Bros. vaults. The documentary is now included with the video release of the special widescreen edition of the film.
Redman had heard of screenwriter John Milius’s great affection for the work of John Ford, and contacted him to provide commentary for the piece. Milius’s poetic descriptions and throaty narration add an engaging sense of epic depth to the film.
Among other things, I asked Milius about his involvement in the project and his feelings about Ford, as well as his association with Francis Ford Coppola, his political views, and his fondness for guns. He’s a great, jovial bear of a man, and talking to him, even on the phone, was the conversational equivalent of shooting the breeze with your favorite uncle while smoking cigars and drinking single-malt scotch.
[ Tell me about your involvement in the John Ford documentary, "A Turning of the Earth." ] ^ Well, he (“Turning of the Earth” director Nick Redman) just came to me, and he said, “I know that you’re a fanatic about this film, and kind of showed it to all your friends and everything, and now widely stolen and quoted, and everything.” (laughs) So he wanted me to sort of talk about it. And he had a very interesting technique; he just had me kind ramble on, and I tend to get quite esoteric, or poetic, or pretentious when I’m rambling on, and especially when I don’t realize it’s being recorded. Then what he did was he took pieces of that, and used that against his film, in different contexts and stuff for the narration. He then came back to me and had me re-record it. But what was sort of startling to me was how good some of this stuff sounded, you know, when I read it. ^
[ Looking at "Apocalypse," "Farewell to the King," "Conan," and even recent efforts like "Geronimo," it looks very clear that one of your recurring themes is of the testing of a man's character in the heat of battle, that his true nature emerges in life-and-death circumstances. What is your fascination with the character and culture of the Warrior? ] ^ Well, we’ve always been fascinated with the Warrior. The Warrior has always been one of the most exalted figures in society, because war is so bizarre. And it’s like a mystical thing that man does – ants do it too, I suppose, warriors would be important in an ant colony, too, and probably would be exalted. I mean, we do it in our society whether we like it or not, I mean, why do you think football players brag about their Superbowl ring? You know, this is that same thing exactly. And people who sort of, you know, kind of scoff at me and say, “Well he’s just a militarist,” or something like that, yet they never miss a basketball game, and they have their basketball stars they love who are, you know, fulfilling the same sort of place – not very well. ^
[ Just to paraphrase, you've got quotes like Kilgore in "Apocalypse," who says, "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," and goes on to say, "it smells like victory." And then you have Conan, who says, when asked what is best in life: "To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women." Which is one of my favorite movie lines of all time. ] ^ That’s paraphrasing Gengis Khan. He said something like, “To see enemies in flight before you, to take their women and hear their crying, and to hear their women and their children crying, and to ride their horses.” He put in — I love that, “to ride their horses.” “To watch their cities burn,” you know. It was a wonderful kind of very poetic thing that he just sort of rambled on. I always wondered, when I read that, I always wondered when it was asked. Was he going by and some media guy said, “Great Khan, can you give us a few words about what is best in life?” Of course, he really understood P.R. ^
[ In "A Turning of the Earth," it's also a very similar philosophy that you're espousing when you say: "Ethan doesn't care if he dies here among the Comanche arrows and bullets. Because he's going to kill this guy, and Scar knows that. They have no fear of each other. They're dogs just barely held by the chain." ] ^ Isn’t that what we all want? Don’t we want to be just dogs just barely held by the chain? Don’t we want to have no fear of our enemies? Don’t we all want that freedom of exultation and purpose when you know you have a mission that you’re willing to die on? ^
[ Is that part of the appeal for you, then? ] ^ Yeah, it’s — to anybody. What’s really interesting is that that’s lacking today. I saw “Good Will Hunting.” And I thought what was very interesting in “Good Will Hunting, which has a lot of really great stuff in it, was that that was lacking. What Roosevelt calls “the great enthusiasms.” “To spend yourself in a worthy cause.” What is it? “To spend yourself in a worthy cause, to know the great enthusiasms, to strive, and if you fail, at least fail doing greatly; and if you succeed, to know the triumph of high accomplishment. But never share that nether world of those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.” Generation X is very smart, and everything, but it needs a little, what did he call it? It needs a little “bully.” It needs a little T.R. (Teddy Roosevelt). ^
[ How did you feel about Coppola's reworking of the ending of "Apocalypse Now"? Because the ending seems significantly different between your version and his. ] ^ Oh, I wrote so many endings, that, you know, his ending isn’t any different. I mean, the ending we both liked the most we never got to do. The ending we both liked was kind of an ending that was sort of out of the book, where they take him (Colonel Kurtz) back down the river. The Montagnards follow, singing “Light My Fire,” and then finally attack the enemy and call in an airstrike. And there just wasn’t enough money for that. Or time. But we both realized that that was the best ending. And so, you know there were many different endings. The other ending that was very good, we were going to have an ending where Willard goes back to see Kurtz’s wife. And that was very good. I wrote that, and that was a very good scene. ^
[ You mention in "Hearts of Darkness" that you went to the Philippines to meet with Coppola for a rewrite, and that he convinced you that everything would work out for the best. Before he turned you around, did you get any sense of edgy foreboding from the cast and crew that things weren't going well? ] ^ Throughout the filming there were disasters, and everything else. But see, one of the things that that film doesn’t convey is the real heroic nature of filmmaking, which is embodied in Francis, which is that you put your foot in front of the other. Whatever happens you’re gonna keep going. That movie created a much greater romanticization of what went on than what really did because it seems like there was this great moment of crisis, and there was this moment of crisis that was overcome. There were crises every day. And it went on and on forever. And it was just who was going to be standing at the end. Well everybody knew that Francis would be standing at the end. But Francis wasn’t gonna quit. He wasn’t gonna compromise, and he wasn’t gonna quit. The only way to make a good movie is to have that attitude. ^
[ I think, though, one thing that it ("Hearts") conveys very well is that the journey of the story of the film is mirrored in the journey of making the film. ] ^ Yeah. You can’t show what I was just talking about because it isn’t exciting. It isn’t dramatic. But it is the truth. And ultimately, ten years afterwards, or something like that, we had this reunion, it was like a veterans’ reunion. And everybody was scarred. You could see that everybody was scarred, because this had taken a lot out of people’s lives. Everybody from Francis to the grips. ^
[ When you started in filmmaking working for American International Pictures, do you feel there was a sense of adventure in those days that filmmaking now lacks? ] ^ Yeah. Absolutely. There was no climate of fear. There wasn’t this sort of “cheap gene” that I talk about, you know, the idea that, “Gee, I’m going to make a lot of money in this business, and I’m going to be famous.” This is a new role to play in our society now, that of filmmaker, that is sort of opened up to everybody. Everybody wants to be a filmmaker, everybody wants to be a screenwriter. You can go to Sundance and be considered a smart-ass artist. And really what’s interesting is none of these people ever talk about, you know, they don’t approach it from the point to view of an artist that they have something really interesting to say. Or that they’re gonna strive and try and make these things for a long time, or anything. It’s all to do with the big score. ^
[ Especially after making "Red Dawn," certain detractors labeled you as a right-wing reactionary. How do you respond to this? ] ^ They misread me. They’re wrong. You know, I’m really an extreme right-wing reactionary. I’m not a reactionary — I’m just a right-wing extremist so far beyond the Christian-identity people like that and stuff, that they can’t even imagine. I’m so far beyond that I’m a Maoist. I’m an anarchist. I’ve always been an anarchist. Any true, real right-winger if he goes far enough hates all form of government, because government should be done to cattle and not human beings. Actually I think I’ve found a political voice in Jesse Ventura. I really like governor Ventura. He’s my man. I’ll follow governor Jesse — I’ll vote for him. ^
[ I see elements of "Red Dawn" that are actually satirical. Like when they're in the prison camp, and the drive-in movie behind them is running propaganda films and Sergei Eisenstein. ] ^ Oh, yeah, and if you can ever hear what they’re saying, it’s just hilarious. It’s just outrageous, wonderful stuff that’s blathering on the screen — you can’t hear it, though. And one of the great scenes they took out, which is the greatest scene, where they go to McDonald’s. All of a sudden this Cuban armored unit comes off the road into McDonald’s, in front of them and everything, APC’s driving up to the window, and the guy’s saying, you know: (Russian accent) “Beeg Mac. Geeve me Beeg Mac.” Pressing the buzzer. “And fries. You forgot the fries. There is special today. Why are you trying to fool us?” ^
[ I think the film definitely spoke to the certain zeitgeist of the Reagan era in a big respect, which is probably why people took it so seriously. ] ^ It is serious? I mean, so many people say to me, “Oh, what do you think of it today; there is no more Soviet Union.” I say, “That movie wasn’t about the Soviet Union. That movie was about the Federal Government.” ^
[ You're noted for you anti-gun control sentiment. Tell me about your relationship with, and views on guns. ] ^ Well, I like guns because I’m a hunter and a sports shooter, and I like to shoot shotguns and stuff. I’m not obsessed with guns the way people think I am. I don’t have piles of pistols or racks of assault rifles. I like fine shotguns and the workmanship in them, and I like going upland game shooting, and shooting sporting clays. But my obsession is that guns give you a certain degree of freedom, and that our forefathers were very concerned about that freedom, you know, freedom from the government. And that right, once it’s eroded, is the only thing you have, really. ^
[ What would you say is your main theme as a writer? ] ^ You never think of that, you never think oféas a matter of fact, if you knew it, it would be terrifying because your work would die, because there’s some main theme that you find interesting in life, and that’s what you end up usually writing about. And if you could really identify it, it would be difficult. So I don’t know, I think there’s a lot of themes and a lot of stuff that’s thematic in similarities in my work, but I don’t know, but I think there’s sort of an enthusiasm for the struggle. I think the only way you can approach it, really. I don’t know, like I say, it’s a mysterious thing. What are we supposed to do, are we supposed to be happy? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to put up a good fight.
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Posted on March 8, 1999 in Interviews by
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