JOHN MILIUS
by Tag Gallagher


“The Seventies are years that haven’t yet emerged from their purgatory. I tell myself that this story goes on, and that growing older is probably only a matter of becoming aware that, when the word ‘generation’ is used, what it means is ‘too late’ and that this ‘too late’ is altogether normal.”

-- Serge Daney

What’s most striking in John Milius’s first feature, Dillinger (1973), and in his subsequent work, is his delight at making a movie. Each shot has force, wit, invention, pizzazz. Even the chase and gunfight scenes have a freshness that belies Milius’s debt to Roger Corman, Arthur Penn (Bonnie and Clyde, 1967) and Mervyn LeRoy (The FBI Story, 1959).

From Penn especially, I suspect, comes Milius’s “disjunctive” editing, whereby scenes become collages more than stories; from Penn, too, a clarity of line in the sets, architecture, landscapes, music, rites, rituals and character typings that feels American -- not to mention the Penn-like references to newsreels, newspaper stories and Dorothea Lange photographs, and the use of “Red River Valley” as the hymn of the American Folk. In Big Wednesday an Army draft physical recalls a similar sequence in Penn’s Alice’s Restaurant (1969). And both moviemakers like stories about friends growing up, going crazy, coming home. Milius’s acting has something of Penn’s theatrical and tense manner, but only on the outside. Penn’s people writhe to express their inmost souls; Milius’s maintain stolid simplicity and have nothing to reveal.

Milius’s characters seem icons more than flesh; his actors probe their masks rather than their emotions. Who they are is what they do now, a bit like figures in a video game, particularly in Conan the Barbarian and Flight of the Intruder, but with a 70s flavor. Living in the “now” was a moral principle in those years. You could give offense by asking someone where they came from. Accordingly, movie personalities in the 70s sometimes took two hours to achieve the sort of defined complexity that, in less existential eras, Ford, Wilder, Capra and Chaplin routinely conveyed in thirty seconds. Milius’s characters, somewhat unfashionably, start out distinct and defined, and repeat rather than evolve. From Hawks, perhaps, comes a fondness for big rituals with little props, like Ben Johnson’s lighting a cigar and putting on gloves before strolling into a gunfight as though his prime scent is for buggery. This idea -- that the good guys are inspired less by the ideals of their office than by the same sadism which defines the bad guys -- was familiar in the 70s, as also during the Depression and immediate postwar, but had been out of favor in the 50s and 60s.

Milius’s heroes are brutes. Dillinger kills casually and turns people into possessions by humiliating and beating and raping them. His victims worship him. Sultan Raisuli in The Wind and the Lion creates slaves through humiliation, slapping women, using men as chairs, cutting off fingers and tongues and heads. He is worshipped even by the American family he kidnaps. Teddy Roosevelt growls like a grizzly, murders Spaniards, and gets elected president. This is pretty sick, and the sicker it gets, the more people behave as though it were normal, indeed enviable. The pain the hero inflicts does not tarnish his glory -- a paradox Milius’s movies ponder.

*

Typical, too, of Milius’s films is his frequent shift in point of view, as in a novel when some chapters are narrated by characters, others by the author. Milius almost always has a voice-off narrator who is not the film’s hero, but who has a tangential history of his own to tell. Normally such a voice-off narrator bestows a definite distance and attitude toward the central character, and toward the world they both inhabit. But in Milius this mindset never gets established, so shifting and casual is the point of view. For example, Farewell to the King is narrated a Englishman who starts after the credits; but the film begins with a long pre-credit sequence about the King which is not from the voice-off’s point-of-view, nor will half the movie be. Similarly, Rough Riders frames itself as one long memory narrated decades later by an outlaw. But no sooner does the outlaw’s voice-off begin his story, than he is interrupted, and ninety percent of what follows mirrors the subjectivity of various other characters in scenes the outlaw himself has no knowledge of.

Some moviemakers have exploited contradicting narratives in order to enrich a subjective memory (like Ophuls in Letter from an Unknown Woman or Ford in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance). In Milius the effect of disjointed narratives is a discontinuity that “alienates” us a bit from easy emotional involvement with the drama, as indeed do his disjunctive editing, the graphic look of his images, and his iconic characters.

Milius himself described his Red Dawn as a “comic-book adventure.” His worlds are movie fantasy. The native culture in Farewell to the King is not detailed beyond costumes and scenery. Cuba has almost no Cubans. In The Wind and the Lion, Raisuli, the Lord of the Rif (in northern Morocco), is translated from his lush green hills and dales to the stony desert (in the deep South); his Berbers are costumed for Thief of Bagdad; and the man he kidnapped is changed into a mother with two small children.

Milius’s graphic style seems to want to express concepts more than characters, in line with the Futurist flavor of political cartoons in 70s America and 60s France (e.g., Godard’s Pierrot le fou). Also undercutting our emotional involvement with the characters, and also from 60s France, are Milius’s self-conscious insertions of hommages to his favorite auteurs -- Penn, Hawks, Lean, Ford, Welles and others. Moviemakers have always borrowed (or stolen), since movies began. Ford from Murnau, French 30s films from Hollywood early 30s films, Rossellini and De Sica from Vidor, Vidor and everybody from Chaplin. The history of cinema is almost nothing but borrowings, everyone pursuing reality and producing myth. The peculiarity of Milius and the French is the self-conscious citation. When reality is “now” and the myth is “Disillusion,” citations evoke our trusting youth, when dreams were real, before it got “too late.”

The courage of Milius is to speak strongly in a doubting age. His heroes are obnoxious murderers, his communities are dupes, his visions of history are cynical and fascinating for their paradoxes and inevitable tragedy. His “comic-book” style often alienates me from his melodramas into philosophy, away from human realities that are too disgusting to confront except as cartoons, in order to incite my outrage, and change the world. The dilemma of the 70s (which the 70s did not acknowledge) was its inability to see beyond the sorrow of the times, the way a Rossellini or Ford could, except as a distant, blighted memory.

*

In The Wind and the Lion Sean Connery adds human resonance to Raisuli the way Alec Guiness does to Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). But Raisuli is more concept than man, and wants to be. He describes himself as a mere instrument of God’s will, a force of nature, “the lion,” and thus kin to Theodore Roosevelt, also a force of nature with God for a partner, “the wind.” Indeed, in Big Wednesday, it’s the waves that are the central character; we pass fifteen years with the humans, the surfers, without knowing anything about their families, women, children, jobs, war, or drunkenness. We know them only as players on the pantheistic waves (like the eskimos on the pantheistic ice in Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents, 1960): “Who knows where the wind comes from. Is it the breath of God? Who knows what really makes the clouds? Where do the great swells come from? And for what? And now it was time. We had waited so long.”

All this adolescent obsession with biological forces is utterly Hawksian. And like Hawks, it is always time to be tested -- a throw of the dice that leaves us heroes or dead. Courage won’t win the game, but without it we cannot play, and Milius heroes argue they have no choice. All through Farewell to the King, people moan they do things they have to. The King, like Raisuli and Conan the Barbarian, must choose between death and murder, and all three gain kingship by killing. Conan’s childhood is nothing but brutality. Only when he is made a gladiator, is forced to kill people, and is applauded by the masses, does he find, as the voice-off puts it, “a sense of self worth.” (What is the worth of such worth?) The King is as alienated by violence as Conan, and as stone-faced. Such is the path to greatness, Rossevelt tells us. “I lived in the forest like an animal,” the King recalls. “For the first time in my life, I was truly free.” Facing death, he provokes a challenge fight, kills his opponent, and the people make him their king, just as they did Raisuli, just as they will make Roosevelt their president after he kills Spaniards. The King wants “freedom. [And] guns -- so they can’t take the freedom away.”

Milius is the Jonathan Swift of the movies. There is always a scent of satire working against his heroes, who are forever charging ahead like Futurist machines. The King’s troops glide heroically through the jungle and down the waterways, beautiful and glorious. Force takes over, massacres ensue, until the unrelentling click, click, click of the King’s empty gun. Guns take away freedom. Earlier, the Englishman had remarked, “We’re bringing modern warfare to these savages. It’s a heavy responsibility.” And one of his men had replied, “Sir, what’s the deal on the woman?”

Are lofty phrases merely excuses?

*

Some men have no choice; the war comes to them. Yet Roosevelt and his Rough Riders go to the war -- they even create the war to go to -- arguing that “never knowing honor, never knowing courage” is not an alternative. Big Wednesday’s beach set even has a rite of passage, a temple portal Matt must pass through unassisted. To surf life’s big swell cannot be shirked.

On the other hand, maybe it’s the heroes who are the big swells and their lofty ideals only hot air. There were, for example, lofty Cuban reasons (such as a hundred-thousand murdered Cubans) for the U.S. to rescue the island from Spain. But in Rough Riders Milius never mentions Cuba’s reasons. He hardly shows a Cuban face. Instead he shows an American reason, revenge for blowing up the Maine, one of the most infamous canards in American History, known as such to every school child, up there with LBJ inventing a Gulf of Tonkin “incident” to engage the U.S. against Vietnam (which Milius shows in Flight of the Intruder), or Truman announcing our new atom bomb has been “dropped on Hiroshima, a military base” (in Farewell to the King). Milius depicts all three canards without refutation. We and the characters know they are merely excuses for swells. (Or, rather, we know it if we bother first to question the canard, second to wonder if Milius himself is being naive or foxy. Watching a Milius movie requires a bit of arguing.)

“America is desirous of battle!” Roosevelt sums up. In contrast to John Ford’s soldiers, who trod wearily to war, crippled by separation from their families, anguished at firing their guns, abhoring their duty, despising their politicians, Hawks’ and Milius’s soldiers go to war for bully and whoopee. For “the fighting virtues,” as Roosevelt calls them. How inspiring is the exuberance of William Randolph Heast reading the headline “WAR” -- a war the newspaper mogul has essentially created -- and how gloriously Hearst rides into the sun at movie’s end, lean, bold and true. Led by men like Hearst and Roosevelt, the United States would proceed to annex Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, and flex its might around the globe, slaughtering hundreds of thousands. Milius focuses on a moment in American history when fascists triumphed over democrats. The heroes forever pose to exhibit their manly challenge to death, like Spanish paintings. Captain O’Neil (Sam Elliott), that most inspiring leader, even dies for bully, needlessly defying enemy bullets to hit him. “All the great masterful races have been fighting races,” Roosevelt proclaims.

Like Ford in The Searchers, Milius juxtaposes the heroic icons with the tawdry killing for whoppee. The heroes are all insane. “You must become a man killer,” Captain O’Neil instructs his Conans-to-be.

“It is murder, isn’t it?” a reporter asks.

“You betcha,” O’Neil replies.

“You gonna make these men murderers?”

“I’m gonna try to.”

And soon, the more they murder, the more they rejoice: “We happy few, we band of brothers!” They chant Shakespeare’s Saint Crispin’s Day paean from Henry V while having orgasms machine-gunning Spaniards, because “They’re educated men,” as someone explains, and Milius’s irony is that there is no paradox. Am I to admire a Roosevelt who tortures a German prisoner to show him how to work a machine gun, and then screams, “Kill that German, remember the Maine!” as he sallies forth for a new charge?

“I can see the flags, waving like Freedom,” screams the reporter (Stephen Crane) hysterically, and Milius shows us our flag waving in brilliant freedom over the bodies of dead Spaniards and the continuing massacre of those still living. In The Wind and the Lion, the flag waves with similar grisly glory after a cartoon battle of Marine’s slaughtering the bashaw’s guards. Brecht was in vogue in the 70s, far less so in 1997; have we gone blind today to irony? Why does everyone write that Milius glorifies war?

The more there is death, the more Milius juxtaposes comedy. Heroes shoot Spaniards in the back and make us laugh when one man throws down his rifle, holds up his hands, cries out surrender, and we shoot him anyway, from three feet away. This is manly. On the other hand, this Spanish face is the only one we see. Up till now, it’s been like killing spiders in a video game, except that all the pain and blood has been on our side. Now Milius puts one of his prophets on stage, a soldier who intones, “He who have no stomach for this fight, let him depart.”

I feel outrage, not pride.

Why does everyone follow this Roosevelt? “Teddy,” the “New York cowboy,” the boy who never grows up, hops around like Br’er Rabbitt shouting “Bully” in a childish squeak, so eager to obey and succeed, thoroughly obnoxious. Oblivious. In a world all his own, with his stuffed bear. He knows no fear. “Too late” is not in his vocabulary. Sometimes Milius shows Teddy mythically, particularly on horseback, and Teddy seems aware he is making myth. He is a Horatio Nelson type, but as though playing the role: a boy’s game, a satire of poses. The only event to befuddle him the whole movie long is when the moment comes for his big charge and he can’t find his sword to wave ceremoniously over his head. “This glorious hill!” he proclaims at battle’s end. “There are no cowards here.” Nor any Spanish prisoners.

*

In Rough Riders’ epilogue, the outlaw talks to his partner’s grave that he has became a millionaire and will die soon, and that Roosevelt became president, lost a son licking the Kaiser, and said they “turned a page in History.”

It’s hard not to wonder what the point was.

The Wind and the Lion gives glory a better show, with its sweeping score and storybook imagery out of Delacroix and Lawrence of Arabia, and Raisuli is magnificent slaying a dozen cutthroats. But his kidnapped Americans are indifferent to the deaths of their own friends and servants, not to mention a few beheadings three feet away, and soon the young boy is happily killing people as well, and ultimately Raisuli loses everything, swept away by the wind. It was worth losing everything, he reflects.

But what was the point? In Farewell to the King, the king and his people lose everything, too. In Flight of the Intruder, male bonding becomes the perverted consolation for the manifold absurdities of the war against Vietnam, wife and child are discarded.

Women, indeed, have too few appearances in Milius’s movies. They are not needed and keep to the background (except when being manly in Red Dawn). This is unfortunate. I like Milius’s females more than his males. For me, Rough Riders’ best moments are scenes with women, none more wonderful than the formal reception in Washington.

Otherwise, sadness and purposelessness pervade Milius. His movies are tragedies, except one. Motorcycle Gang, which he did not script (Kent Anderson did), is a comic reversal of his themes. Here, when a baddy rapes a girl, I found myself wishing she would kill him, and I realised this was what the movie wanted me to feel. It is entirely constructed around the good feelings of revenge, power, and righteous violence, and these good feelings are never questioned or satirized the way Milius does in every other film. Nor can I gainsay the father who rescues his daughter, or pity the baddies he has to kill. Here is a hero it is impossible not to admire: his quiet ways, his lack of alienation, his lack of a need to show off. Just the opposite of a real Milius hero.

© Tag Gallagher

(November 2002)

 

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