Today, John Milius is probably most famous for being the inspiration for John Goodman’s character Walter Sobchak in the Coen Brothers’ 1998 cult classic “The Big Lebowski.” But Milius was arguably the first of the so-called “Hollywood Brats” of the 1970s to score big in Hollywood. Milius went to USC film school at the same time George Lucas (“Star Wars”) and Randall Kleiser (“Grease”) did and became one of the most in-demand screenwriters during the 1970s. His larger-than-life, gun-toting, right-leaning persona startled, but also fascinated many aspiring talents of the period, including Steven Spielberg, Paul Schrader, and Martin Scorsese. Milius has been credited for creating the “Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya punk?” line from “Dirty Harry.” But he’s probably most famous for penning the script for Francis Ford Coppla’s legendary 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now.”
Milius also became famous for directing the cult surfing film “Big Wednesday” as well as the box-office hits “Conan the Barbarian” and “Red Dawn.” However, despite the box-office success of “Red Dawn,” the film arguably also led to a reversal of fortune in Hollywood due to “Dawn’s” right-wing political leanings (the film’s political stigma alienated many in Hollywood). Coupled with an accountant friend who looted Milius’s vast earnings, Milius was eventually reduced to asking for a staff writing position on the HBO show “Deadwood” in order to pay for his son’s law school. “Deadwood” producer David Milch gave Milius the money and was shocked when Milius paid the entire amount back. Milius had a comeback of sorts creating the HBO series “Rome,” but then had another setback in 2010 when he suffered a stroke. Milius has fought valiantly back and was able to regain his mind and his writing abilities which he hopes to realize with his long-gestating “Genghis Khan” project.
Regardless of where you stand politically, “Milius” is one hell of a documentary about a true Hollywood character and survivor. The fact that so many famous people agreed to be interviewed for this documentary (including Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Schrader, Oliver Stone, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Charlie Sheen, George Hamilton, and many others) only demonstrates how much love and respect he has generated over the years. The one common denominator everyone praises is Milius’s gift for storytelling, which apparently hasn’t been destroyed by his stroke. Directors Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson do a splendid job of telling one of the most fascinating true Hollywood stories you’ll ever see. It’s now available for viewing on Amazon Prime.
You can also hear an interview with Figueroa on the excellent “Projection Booth” podcast:
John Milius is a larger-than-life Hollywood legend. The character John Goodman played in “The Big Lebowski” was apparently based on Milius, which no one has yet to dispute.
Milius arrived in Hollywood at the same time that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg did and made a big impression early on. He wrote the original script for “Apocalypse Now,” wrote the classic Dirty Harry sequel “Magnum Force,” as well as directing “Conan the Barabarian”and “Uncommon Valor” (the first … and best … of the “let’s plan a mission and rescue American POWs in Vietnam” films).
Since Milius was a passionate surfer, “Big Wednesday” was supposed to be his “Star Wars.” “Big Wednesday” was a rich tale of how a group of friends, who happened to surf, aged from 1962 through 1974 and how the turbulent times impacted their lives. “Big Wednesday” is the finest Hollywood film ever made about surfing and according to people who know surf culture better than I do, insist it’s the most accurate. It’s not a perfect film by any means, but it’s quite good most of the time and I’ve always enjoyed it immensely over the years.
Growing up in a beach community, this movie had a HUGE impact on many of my friends when it turned up frequently on cable TV in the 1980s. It’s especially poignant seeing Jan Michael-Vincent and Gary Busey doing such stellar and athletic acting work, especially given how dark both actors’ lives would become in subsequent years.
Back in the day, many of filmmakers traded points in each others films as a sign of solidarity, meaning Milius got points in “Star Wars” and Lucas got points in “Big Wednesday.” Apparently, when “Big Wednesday” came out and was a box-office disappointment, Lucas demanded his points back that Milius had in “Star Wars.” Ah, well.
Quentin Tarantino, a huge fan of “Big Wednesday,” said: “This movie is too good for surfers.” Tarantino was allegedly bullied by surfers in his youth, but also understands a good movie better than anyone.
Enough already with the hand-wringing and speculation over whether Lucasfilm being sold to Disney is a good or bad thing for the “Star Wars” franchise! In my humble opinion, Lucas’s best film, hands down, is 1973’s “American Graffiti.” One of the best movies about teenagers ever made, it has more heart and soul than the entire “Star Wars” franchise combined (including the yet-to-be-made parts 7, 8, 9, who gives a s–t!). It was the blueprint from which the almost-equally excellent “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and “Dazed and Confused” were forged (all 3 films boasted amazing casts … before most of the actors/actresses became monstrously famous). Tellingly, Lucas only made this film after his then-wife (stellar 1970s film editor Marcia Lucas) challenged him to make a film that would emotionally involve the audience. Sadly, after “Graffiti’s” huge critical and commercial success, Lucas retreated to a world of Wookies, Mace Windu, Jar-Jar Binks, and a whole bunch of other s–t I couldn’t give two f–ks about.