John Milius, Film Critic

December 20, 2019
Who is the most quotable filmmaker of them all? Quentin Tarantino would be the modern-day favourite; Kevin Smith, Nora Ephron and Billy Wilder have their fans. But a strong argument could also be made for John Milius, the legendary writer-producer-director whose credits include Apocalypse Now, Jeremiah Johnson, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Wind and the Lion, Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn – as well as uncredited work on the scripts for Dirty Harry, Jaws and The Hunt for Red October, among others.

John Milius was one of the clique-y film school movie brat generation of the ‘70s that included George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader and Bob Zemeckis; Milius would not have been the best director among that group, but he was probably the most skilled writer… and the most quotable.

For many years, Milius was among the most outspoken filmmakers in Hollywood, always reliable for some colourful copy, whether on the state of Hollywood, America, himself, his friends’ films, or anything, really… He’s been quieter since a stroke in 2010 that nearly killed him.

FilmInk’s Stephen Vagg has missed Milius’ presence; this prompted him to curate a series of quotes by the filmmaker over the years about his colleagues and their movies.

Meet John Milius, film critic:

Battleground (1949, d: William Wellman)

“The best war movie of all time… it’s just unparalleled in its authenticity, in its artistry, the vision of the human spirit. It’s just superb. What’s really great about it is everything is played down. It’s about all the aspects of war. They’re muted the way they really would be in war.

“Everything is in that movie. You’ll see every character, every point of view. There are people who want to be there, people who don’t, people who are complaining. You actually see something that probably was never in an American movie before: you see a guy turn coward, and he’s the hero of the movie.”

Biker films

“They have a rich tradition of social irresponsibility… Of course, they have little to do with real bikers. Real bikers are like real Mongols – nomadic, simple hunters whose only crime is that they are the descendants of Genghis Khan. But the bikers in the movies and the ones on the road share one thing in common which has made them appealing, fascinating, and dreaded. They are free.”

Black Hawk Down (2001, d: Ridley Scott)

“Garbage. The book was superb. In the movie, you don’t know who anyone is, you can’t tell who anyone is. It’s all so cool because it’s Ridley Scott, who has to be so much cooler than the rest of us, who’s so detached and he has to show his vision is more important than telling you where they are, where the machine gun is.”

Braveheart (1995, d: Mel Gibson)

“Very good. He [Mel Gibson] did a really good job. He did good with the telling of the story and everything. Anytime you have the Scottish killing the English, it’s pretty good – getting even, you know.”

 

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957, d: David Lean)

“I’d like to be Jack Hawkins in Bridge on the River Kwai. I call myself romantic. I believe in a lot of 19th century ideals: chivalry, honour, loyalty, romantic love.”

Casablanca (1943, d: Michael Curtiz)

“I just don’t think it’s very good. There isn’t much for me.”

Cinderella Liberty (1973, d: Mark Rydell)

“Another movie I really liked…  I don’t like any of Mark Rydell’s other movies, but I think that’s a great movie. I love the sense of character and people, the heart and the loneliness.”

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977, d: Steven Spielberg)

“Innocent with wide eyed wonderful amazement. Instead of blaming the government for hiding flying saucers or saying the CIA have evil intentions, people meet the aliens. What people want in flying saucers is to go out and see them and meet the aliens; they want to see another world; it’s got to be the most wondrous thing.”

The Deer Hunter (1978, d: Michael Cimino)

“I’m not a great fan… It’s interesting but it has very little to do with Vietnam.”

Easy Rider (1969, d: Dennis Hopper)

“Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper aren’t bikers at all, just ordinary citizens who close out their retail narcotics business in order to take a peaceful vacation ride across country. Their mistake is that they look like bikers to the prudish land apes that have seen the rest of these movies and are mistaken as the advance scouts of the Golden Horde. The community rights are upheld, and they pay for the sins of [regular biker movie actor] William Smith.”

Francis Ford Coppola

“He sees himself as a great humanitarian, an enlightened soul who will tell you such wonderful things as he does at the end of Godfather 2 – that crime doesn’t pay… Talent-wise, he’s no John Ford; character-wise, he’s no Steve Spielberg. Francis can’t stand to have any other creative influence around… Francis Coppola has this compelling desire to save humanity when the man is a raving fascist, the Bay Area Mussolini.” [In fairness, he’s said a lot of nice things about Coppola, too.]

George Lucas

“I felt that the Star Wars series became very pretentious as time went on. Just heavy and leaden… George is a great visual stylist, and a great businessman, and not a very good writer.”

Getting Straight (1970, d: Richard Rush)

“I hate zooms and rack focuses. There was a movie called Getting Straight to which I wish I had the dramamine concession. All the rack focusing made you nauseous.”

Good Will Hunting (1997, d: Gus Van Sant)

“It was lacking what [Teddy] Roosevelt calls “the great enthusiasms… 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).”

A High Wind in Jamaica (1965, d: Alexander Mackendrick)

“I’d love to make a film in that style. I thought it was Anthony Quinn’s best film. I love the relationship of him with the little girl.”

The Hurt Locker (2008, d: Kathryn Bigelow)

“This movie is not anti-American, it’s just what it is. It doesn’t take the presumption that we all want to see something to run down our country. We’re at war. I feel my own way about it. I feel that people have the right to criticise the war. But to assume that we should all feel that way is an arrogant assumption. This movie doesn’t shove into people’s faces the idea of how terrible the war is, how horrible we’re for being there, how we’re raping children every day, how we’re doing all this kind of stuff.”

Inglourious Basterds (2009, d: Quentin Tarantino)

“It’s truly a comic book. [Tarantino] does shoot it in his own way. It has its own rules. And it works, in a strange way. It’s like Sergio Leone.”

John Ford movies

“His films were wonderful. They had a certain crude style that I really liked, crude energy. I mean, my ultimate hero was John Ford. He was it. And he did what he wanted to. He made all kinds of films, but they were all John Ford’s films.”

John Huston

“He liked torturing people. He loved torturing writers. He has a whole history of torturing writers… he was jealous of writers, and if you survived this torture, then you became in his special place. You became kind of like the way that he should treat his son. He didn’t treat his own sons very well, because they probably didn’t survive the torture, or didn’t do well with it.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962, d: David Lean, w: Robert Bolt)

“Another great one; Robert Bolt is a great screenwriter…  The screenplay of Lawrence of Arabia is even greater than the movie – though I love David Lean – but what a piece of material to work with. To make a movie like that justifies a whole lifetime’s work. Bolt is the greatest of all screenwriters.”

Lonesome Dove (1989, d: Simon Wincer)

“It’s the finest thing I’ve seen in 15 years. I would have loved to have directed it. They don’t think of me for these things. They think of me as someone who likes guns and bombs. I don’t mind guns and bombs, but there’s a little more in life than that.”

The Losers (1970, d: Jake Starrett)

“A superb piece from the end of the genre’s halcyon days…  Superb action, interesting political insight.”

A Man for All Seasons (1966, d: Fred Zinnemann, w: Robert Bolt)

“A great piece of writing; writing at its best.”

Medium Cool (1969, d: Haskell Wexler)

“Another of these really hip movies. I mean, it was a big deal. It was considered a work of genius and everything… It was just, “This is going to change film history.” And it did. It changed a lot of things.”

My Darling Clementine (1946, d: John Ford)

“The cutting, the lighting, the direction of that film make Spielberg and me and Marty [Scorsese] and Francis Coppola and George Lucas look like TV amateurs. It’s a humbling experience to see it. You don’t get that good until you’ve directed twenty films – and be a qualified genius besides.”

Patton (1970, d: Franklin J. Schaffner, w: Francis Ford Coppola)

“I admire Patton because he was so eloquent, and yet he went crazy and slapped that shellshocked soldier. I thought that was an interesting aspect of his character…. a terrific original screenplay. It’s everything. The outrageousness of it, the odyssey of it. There’s a wonderful tastefulness and literacy to the screenplay. “

Paul Schrader

“I really admire Paul Schrader. He’s just terrible when he’s trying to be commercial. I don’t think The Yakuza’s very good. There’s a whole flock of his scripts that’re just awful. But no one writes like Paul when he’s letting Paul loose, no one writes like Taxi Driver, Rolling Thunder or Hard Core. Wonderful style and depth to his material. It’s really strong stuff. Visceral. It stinks of him. It’s just terrific.”

The Phantom Menace (1999, d: George Lucas)

“Bad writing.”

Platoon (1986, d: Oliver Stone, w: Oliver Stone)

“A very good movie. But it’s not my favourite…  very harrowing experience – but it’s not something you want to see again and again. It’s Oliver’s war. It has incredible credibility because of that. But it’s not everybody’s war. It’s something particular to him.”

Return to Paradise (1953, d: Mark Robson)

“One of my favourite movies… That film is my ultimate fantasy. Judge Roy Bean is very similar to it: the idea of a man going off to a primitive culture and becoming a legend and a god. As they say in Citizen Kane, “Lording it over the monkeys…. [The film] gnaws at the back of my heart and has coloured all of my work. I’ve written parts and shades of this story into everything I’ve ever really cared about, from Jeremiah Johnson to Conan.”

Saving Private Ryan (1997, d: Steven Spielberg)

“Oliver (Stone) told me – he said that Tom Hanks had told him, “This is the decent thing to do, to stay and hold this bridge.” He (Stone) said, “I wouldn’t have waited until he turned his back and got into the jungle to frag him – I’d have just shot him right there…” He said part of it was he’d have shot him because he was Tom Hanks. I think Oliver just would like to shoot Tom Hanks anyway, just to see which way he’d fall.”

The Seven Samurai (1954, d: Akira Kurosawa)

“My favourite war film of all.”

Star Wars (1977, d: George Lucas)

“I don’t consider Star Wars a movie. It’s a good water slide. It’s great to be a water slide movie. Maybe they should have a different category: amusement park movies or best ride. Not best picture, best ride, most money made.”

Steven Spielberg

“He wanted to be a big movie director – a big, popular movie director. Steven always read all these popular magazines. He’s read Tiger Beat and Time in succession… He was really concerned with what was going to be popular next and all that kind of stuff. He’s the only person I know in the world who’s ever been able to predict it consistently… Everybody thinks that they know what’s commercial… I’d say everybody but Steven Spielberg doesn’t know anything. But he does. He does know what’s commercial.”

Taxi Driver (1976, d: Martin Scorsese w: Paul Schrader)

“You really have sympathy for this totally lost, lonely character; he’s James Dean unreconstructed, transposed to the Seventies, who oddly enough has a sense of values about him in a valueless world. He responds well. I can’t be against a movie that’s pro-loneliness and pro-violence, anti-liberal and anti-feminist. I don’t like the explanation of it that’s been published: typical Vietnamese war veteran who goes crazy…  That’s not at all the story of Travis Bickle: he probably had a great time in the Army, enjoyed himself; he wasn’t lonely. When he’s let loose and kicked around, then he’s lonely, that’s what drives him to violence, a world that has no place or understanding for him. He’s a totally disenfranchised person.”

Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974, d: Tobe Hooper)

“I really like this movie… Made for nothing, extraordinarily inventive, it just reeks of style and other things… Nothing in the film is supernatural. Every object is common; lots of the film takes place in broad daylight. Things happen you just don’t expect, like the girl with the sexy backless halter-top being hung up on a meat hook… What I like best is the irresistible visual humour, so sick you don’t believe it’s really happening.”

The Vikings (1958, d: Richard Fleischer)

“When I saw The Vikings in 1958 it thoroughly thrilled me. I never got over it. No one was ever willing to make a Viking movie. But [producer] Ed Pressman was willing to make Conan.”

Viva Las Vegas (1964, d: George Sidney)

“One of my favourite movies of all time… you know, the King and Ann-Margaret, in Las Vegas – it’s good. It makes you feel good.”

The Wild Bunch (1969, d: Sam Peckinpah)

“For me, the best violence is in Ford and Kurosawa movies. It’s quick, it’s effective, and it’s over. I like the slow motion stuff in The Wild Bunch. Because you’ve seen so much of it done badly; Peckinpah does it so well. I don’t like his macho themes, but there are very few men who can direct action. I think that I can direct action pretty well; Peckinpah directs action very well. There are very few others. My God, look at Rollerball.”

The Wild One (1953, d: László Benedek)

“One of the most important Marlon Brando movies ever made. Forget your James Dean-Fifties-introverted-troubled-youth crap. Forget Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront. We’re dealing with guys that rode into town like Tamerlane – no ambitions, no apologies, and little restraint. Where else can you find such a pure sense of anarchy? Who else in modern culture really lived like Vikings? And what for? “What are you rebelling against, Johnny?” occasioned the best line in the movie: “Whaddya got?” That’s it, pure and simple. It’s never been said better in any movie. This is social irresponsibility.”

Sources: Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, CNN (http://edition.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/03/05/milius.war.movies/index.html), Film Comment, Creative Screenwriting, Written By magazine, Moviemaker (https://www.moviemaker.com/archives/interviews/oliver-stone-john-milius-war-cinema-austin-film-festival-on-story/), IGN Film Force (https://au.ign.com/articles/2003/05/07/an-interview-with-john-milius) Film Threat (https://filmthreat.com/uncategorized/joy-in-the-struggle-a-look-at-john-milius/)

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