Sunday, October 25, 2009

Mile High Adventure: Red Dawn—Propaganda, Meta-Movie, Both or More?


This entry into the
United Provinces of Ivanlandia
is part of the
“Class of 1984” blog-a-thon being conducted over at the awesome site
This Distracted Globe
Check ’em all out!
That's an order!


RED
DAWN

(1984)
Directed by John Milius
Produced by Buzz Feitshans and Barry Beckerman
Screenplay by Kevin Reynolds and John Milius
Story by Kevin Reynolds
Director of photography Ric Waite
Edited by Thom Noble
Music by Basil Poledouris
Released by MGM/UA Entertainment Company
Running time: 114 minutes.
Cast: Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Charlie Sheen, Darren Dalton, Jennifer Grey, Harry Dean Stanton, William Smith, Ron O’Neal, Ben Johnson, Powers Boothe, Frank McRae
Released: Friday, August 10, 1984


[This is written in the full expectation that the reader has already seen Red Dawn, so no synopsis per se, and SPOILERS galore!
Yeeeeeee-Ha!]




Now regarded as high camp, no doubt aided by star Patrick Swayze’s (RIP) subsequent turns in flicks like Dirty Dancing, Point Break and Road House (and lots more),
Red Dawn has achieved that ultimate status:
At a time when theaters are dying and screen time is at a premium, it has been made a Midnight Movie!
(And check out what it’s being billed with!)

And why not? It certainly crosses borders and ideologies:
The flick is ranked #15 on “The Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years” list at the National Review,
while
gossip wizard Enty, at his highly readable site Crazy Days and Crazy Nights, says,
Red Dawn… cannot be boiled down to a best scene or moment. It must be watched in its entirety.”

More proof of the flick’s cross cultural hootenanny?
Check out these T-shirts
they can be worn by both marshmallows and young republicans—
[although one of those groups has a much stronger philosophy…]





As a propaganda movie for The War That Didn’t Happen,
Red Dawn is great stuff---as long as you regard it as pure, undiluted propaganda.

Just change some of the props (bazookas for RPGs; propeller planes for helicopters; etc.), and you could have the same cast playing this movie set in 1945,
when Russia invaded…
Germany.

And yeah, yeah, blah-blah, you can turn it around and claim that it’s a foreshadowing/whatever of the US’s current conflicts overseas….

Which raises the question if Red Dawn is some kind of meta-movie, a Project Mayhem-style prank akin to Starship Troopers—a propaganda movie that freely admits it’s a propaganda movie?

At Film Freak Central, Walter Chaw calls Red Dawn,
“the stupidest/smartest movie of 1984”—
an assessment that I’m willing to agree with,

because I rather like John Milius’ work and persona:
a gun-nut surfer who more than likely has taken some LSD at some point, is very well-read, who tells CNN, “Get me going about corporate greed and I turn into a Maoist.”

The birth of a movie can be a strange thing:
Supposedly Alexander Haig had a hand in Red Dawn’s creation,
so who the fuck knows?

According to DVD Savant,
“history-buff writer John Milius wanted Red Dawn to be much more of a strange fantasy, and cites MGM interference for turning the show into a throwback killer-Commie movie.”

Meanwhile,
Wiki sez:
[Kevin Reynolds’] original screenplay, called Ten Soldiers, was more akin to Lord of the Flies… than to the action film it eventually became.
Some of the changes made to
Ten Soldiers included a shift in focus from the conflict within the group of teens
to the conflict between the teens and their oppressors,
and the acceleration of the ages of some of the characters from early teens to high school age and beyond.
John Milius was inspired to a degree by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, basing the tactics of the Wolverines on those of the mujahideen in fighting the occupying Soviet and Cuban armies.


Jeez, imagine if the Wolverines’ school had a suck-ass animal as their mascot? Like Sagehens?

Red Dawn has never stopped disappointing me, but I have grown to accept it for what it is… but I can’t let go of what it could have been….

The movie claimed to be about WWIII, but it looked more like ’roid-rage teen jocks vs. local sheriff, a la First Blood. (Not that we knew what “’roid-rage” was back in 1984, but you know what I’m talking about.)

Which is why I prefer those scenes in the film that feel genuinely combat-related (paratroopers, military briefings, tank battle) as opposed to moments that could come out of any cop flick or western (ambushes, stalkings in the forest, booby traps).

Also preferable:
those scenes with a measure of gravitas—meaning, scenes with adults:
the presence of Ben Johnson, Harry Dean Stanton, and especially Powers Boothe save this flick’s ass, really.

JESUS H. PALIMINO!
How I hate the kids in Red Dawn!!!

When I first saw Red Dawn, I was disappointed—because I had been so excited:
I’d heard that John Motherfuckin’ Milius was writing and directing a contemporary Soviet-Invasion USA flick, and I was PSYCHED.

I was expecting something akin to The War of the Worlds, some massive total destruction,
I was expecting some REAL MAN ACTION

and I got a bunch of white kids/
Red Dawn was populated with some VERY interchangeable VERY WHITE suburban/country kids.
I really couldn’t relate.
“You’ll never be 15 and living in suburbia,” said The Wife the other night (so maybe I won’t ever get it).

I was also expecting some more intense action—
something more on the lines of what Milius had previously done on
Dillinger (most notably the remarkable “Little Bohemia” shoot-out)

or various moments in
The Wind and the Lion:
Like the expert battle scenes, especially that superb Marine invasion/takeover segment—

And later, much after Red Dawn, Milius whipped up some good combat segments with Rough Riders (review, further comments below), his rousing recreation of the Battle of San Juan Hill, and Theodore Roosevelt’s exploits there.


For Red Dawn,
I was expecting scenes of:

—US Marine (one of our heroes?) vs. Soviet Paratrooper in vicious hand-to-hand combat (a knife fight to top the one in Walter Hill’s The Long Riders?)

—Russian tanks rolling through Los Angeles to Holst’s “Mars etc.” (or Basil Poledouris equivalent); with the Hollywood sign getting napalmed as the crescendo

—Nicaraguan PT boats blasting surfers to pieces with .50-calibre machine guns

—Las Vegas showgirls raped by drooling, neanderthalic Cubans while Nellis AFB is getting nuked in the background



—Streetfighting in the Bronx or Chicago’s South Side, with homeboys setting booby-traps, collecting scalps and running a thriving combination black market enterprise and partisan effort—
until the MIGs drop some napalm, and the artillery levels the town.

And so on….
[Creators of the Red Dawn remake currently being filmed in Detroit, take note!
I’m expecting these scenes (or equal) in your version!
The Gauntlet has been thrown!
Otherwise, I will not withhold judgment!]

Instead we get Rooskies, Chaw writes, “so clueless… about modern-day conventional warfare that they're repeatedly ambushed by this untrained makeshift militia; they're the Washington Generals to our Harlem Globetrotters.”

I wanted (and didn’t get) a heroic-realistic vision with dirt under its fingernails and grime on its face and all it’s been eating for the last two days is rats.

I wanted Come & See set in… Seattle.
I wanted the last 40 minutes of Full Metal Jacket set in… Baltimore.
Kanal in Kansas City.
The first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan (a flick Milius did some uncredited script work on) taking place in Pittsburgh.
Grave of the Fireflies in Houston.
I wanted The Beast (an underrated Soviets-Invade-Afghanistan flick directed by Red Dawn co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds) set in… San Diego.

I’m asking for too much, I know….

But I’m a city kid, Bklyn born & raised, so I’m being rather urban-centric regarding my preferred vision of the thank-goodness-it-never-happened-WWIII/Soviet Invasion.

(Although at an early age, aided by a TV viewing of Sidney Lumet’s underrated Fail-Safe (1964), I already knew that NYC was a total nuke overkill zone, especially with all those chemical plants in NJ, and the General Dynamic Electric Boat Yards, where they built nuclear submarines, up in Connecticut.)



Milius, on the other hand, spent his teen years in mountainous Colorado.

On the DVD supplements,
The director sez:
“We were promised that the Russians would come and therefore, all of society would break down, and we would have to fight the Russians with our… rifles and live in the mountains.”

"We were promised, when I was growing up, this war with Russia," Milius told CNN, explaining the film's legacy. "We were promised World War III."

BTW, John Milius’ cameo comes at about 4:16 minutes into Red Dawn—he’s the drawing of Genghis Kahn on luckless history teacher Frank McRae’s classroom wall.


Additional factoid:
Frank McRae, who used to played for the Chicago Bears in 1967,
has been in nearly all of Milius’ films—
In the photo to the right,
there’s the hapless McRae, dead on the ground in Milius’ directorial debut, 1973’s Dillinger
with Warren (DIETY) Oates stepping over McRae’s lifeless body.

The big actor has even been in the films Milius has only been peripherally involved with, like 1941 or Used Cars (Milius was executive producer on both and co-story-writer on 1941; when he was involved it was called “The Night the Japs Invaded,” I believe.)
—if McRae doesn’t have a major part, then a cameo.
And when McRae was unavailable for Flight of the Intruder, Ving Rhames’ supporting character was named “Frank McRae.”


The supplemental materials disc comes with the Red Dawn DVD 2-pack—
There’s no reason any of this stuff needed to be on a second disc, not especially with a main feature disc so bare bones.
I mean, how difficult (or expensive) is it to record a commentary track when the studio’s DVD department is already spending dough on supplementals?
They filmed Lea Thompson on a horse ranch, for crying out loud!
(Or, did Milius not want to record a commentary? Hmmm….),

Meanwhile, the DVD includes Red Dawn’s trailer, which noticeably features moments from two scenes cut from the film’s final print:

A love scene between Lea Thompson and Powers Boothe; we can tell there’s some attraction between them from what remains in the film, and in the trailer, her character tells Boothe’s pilot that she wants to love somebody before she dies.

Another major scene cut, which sounds like the scene I really wanted to see, was the “tank driving up to McDonald’s” scene—cut because dumbasses were worried about connections with the then-recent McDonald’s shooting in San Ysidro, California, and “public relations.”

Since MGM was re-releasing their DVD of Red Dawn, I don’t see why the cut scenes could have been re-edited into the film—unless the footage had been lost.

According to the Guardian,
“The original Red Dawn was rated the most violent film ever made by the 2007 Guinness Book of World Records, despite its PG-13 rating in the US – it featured a startling 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.”

But to me, the flick doesn’t really feel that violent: there’s no throat-cuttings, or gore.
The action sequences are lively, but repetitive,
While thankfully, all the scenes with adults are grand:
a fantastic collection of character actors all in high-macho mode—
but man-oh-man, even for someone with neo-militaristic leanings, Red Dawn’s grasp on reality is almost insultingly simplistic.

I’m not saying you can’t have a Soviet invasion flick, but that
the logistics would be CRAZY, nearly impossible.

If a little more thought had been put into the genuine strategies and down and dirty political realities (from both the US and USSR) of this sort of conflict, Red Dawn would have been more powerful and resonant.
Look at The Battle of Algiers: it’s exciting, emotionally engaging and thoughtful, but never stops being propaganda. (Sure, sure, BoA is based on a true story—but it’s still a movie.)

I would’ve loved to see what a more cynical hand, like Walter Hill, could have done with Red Dawn’s material. (See review of the Hill-directed, Milius-scripted Extreme Prejudice below)

Another problem is that unlike John Milius’ better films as a director (The Wind and the Lion; Dillinger; Big Wednesday, Farewell to the King),
Red Dawn is NOT about somebody specific.
Usually Milius tells the story of one character
(or two, if they are different sides of the same coin),
but in Red Dawn, he’s trying to tell the story of a group, and the details get diluted—
with several of the characters being indistinguishable from the others (a problem the director didn’t have with Rough Riders, with its very large ensemble cast—
the difference between a cast of veteran actors and cute neophytes, I guess).

Swayze is game and does a fine job trying to become the focal point (why not have a movie about the development of a new myth: The Post-Soviet Invasion Davy Crockett?), but the script is weak.

Should the film have concentrated on the Latino military commander? I dunno, he seems to be kind of lame.

Ron O’Neal lets the boys go “because he’s Latin,” says Milius in the supplementals, not Slavic, thus hard and cruel like Smith’s character, Colonel Strelnikov.
Which is still lame.

Swayze and Sheen were goners anyway—we, as the audience, demanded they get greased!
The movie should have been about William Smith as Colonel Strelnikov, and maybe some of the men in his unit. (We’ll speak more about Colonel Strelnikov in a moment.)

Milius: “I knew Hollywood would condemn me for it.”

Its shallowness keeps it a kid’s fantasy—
But Red Dawn’s shallowness is also its success: viewers can impose their own philosophies—after the US entered Afghanistan (like the Russians and the British and the…), some looked at Red Dawn as if it was about the Taliban—thus in some leftie minds, giving them the right to equate the US with the USSR, as well as equating the kids of the heartland to religious extremists and anti-rationalists.

Chaw: “Taken as a turgid daydream (the only way to take a film this willfully preposterous), Red Dawn's combination of frustrated sex, patriotic murder, young male bonding, and ditching school makes perfect sense.”

I like the point of view of a post-Wacoist: that Red Dawn is what happens when the Federal Government cracks down on “radical” groups, the National Guard replaced by Rooskie militia/

As Murray Rothbard writes, Red Dawn
“is not so much pro-war as it is anti-State. The warfare it celebrates is not interstate strife, but guerrilla conflict that the great radical libertarian military analyst, General Charles Lee, labeled ‘people’s war’ two centuries before Mao and Che.”

Later, Rothbard writes (and I agree with):
There’s NO WAY a bunch of kids would’ve lasted that long, not without a steady replenishment of new recruits:
"One big problem with the picture is that there is no sense that successful guerrilla war feeds on itself; in real life the ranks of the guerrillas would start to swell, and this would defeat the search-and-destroy concept. In Red Dawn, on the other hand, there are only the same half-dozen teenagers, and the inevitable attrition makes the struggle seem hopeless when it need not be.

"Another problem is that there is no character development through action, so that, except for the leader, all the high school kids seem indistinguishable. As a result, there is no impulse to mourn as each one falls by the wayside."




Dissenting Opinion:
FDChief comments at The Self-Styled Siren, an interesting viewpoint, almost a rebuttal:
This flick is a perennial favorite in the barracks, where I saw it in the post theatre down in Howard AFB, Panama, the year after it came out.
It is a perfect soldier-boy flick: loud, immense, simpleminded, corny, awash with heroic sentiment and glurgy Tin Pan Alley patriotism. It lets you forget the nuance of cadging with the Russians over trade and haggling with the North Koreans over nukes and just enjoy killin' a Commie for Mommy.
The other GIs and I hooted and hollered and enjoyed the hell out of it.

But to treat it as more than M&Ms for your brain? Pshaw.
….
BUT - the political appeal of this thing stands aside from the artistic or cinematic merit.
This film is the celluloid embodiment of the Reagan Moment, when true conservative patriots stood alone, with treacherous liberals at their backs and swarming hordes of brown Reds pouring up from the Tropic of Cancer.
It's the ultimate Goldwaterite "toldya'so" to the latte-drinkers who wanted to imprison the Iran-Contra criminals and the dirty fuckin' hippies who scolded Charlie Wilson that sending guns and money to Islamic nuts to fight the Commies in Central Asia was a Bad Idea.

On that basis it will be evergreen to a certain 28% of the viewing public, regardless of the qualities of performance, writing, editing or street signs...



The film has been used to title a military operation, and even inspired some to join up.


My favorite scenes from Red Dawn are the initial paratrooper scenes—
but the credits before then are cool, too, sort of….

The film starts; moving through the clouds—
The impression that we’re in the cockpit of Soviet troop transports, is a cool one—
Although:
Lord, I’ve always hated that very 1980s “script” font for the title card—
I saw that, and I knew this flick was going to fall short.
Clint Eastwood movies and war flicks don’t use such lame-o graphics!

Only movies for the Tiger Beat/Brat Pack Fan Club used fonts like that,
movies like Flashdance and Footloose.
So this came up and I went, “Uh oh.”


The POV during the titles through the clouds is a tribute to some movie, either to a Nazi or Russian propaganda flick, something by either Riefenstahl or Eisenstein—I remember several reviewers making note of that when the flick was initially released back in 1984—I did some R&D, but came up with bupkiss.
If any readers know which movie is being referenced, please leave a comment! Thanks!

Soviet paratroopers had a reputation for being tough SOBs, with notorious hazing rituals involving getting their paratrooper badges hammered or kicked into their chests when they are finally awarded them after jump school,
and it was very neat watching them glide down into our sleeping nation and take over, spraying psychedelic gas grenades, blasting the school, and the engines of any cars, too—
Shoot their capitalistic autos!

An iconic image that’s deeply disturbing—partially because of the serene way the paratroopers are dropping out of a clear sky.
Where are the planes? The audience is given almost no information, and it’s exciting!

Also disturbing because:
There’s the initial thrill of liberation from convention: NO RULES!
Holy shit, the Russians just shot the principal, we can do anything!
(As long as you can avoid those hunter-killer patrols.)


And then, my other favorite scene is actually a tribute to a similar scene in the highly recommended The Battle of Algiers, a film I would think writer-director Milius should like—
While I searched and couldn’t find any info regarding whether Milius has seen the film,
in Steve Erickson’s wonderful novel Zeroville (a must-read for any movie fans! A perfect companion piece to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls), there’s a character based on Milius, called Viking Man.
And in Erickson’s novel, Viking Man’s seen The Battle of Algiers quite a few times. So…

If we might provide a brief aside….
In an interview, novelist Erickson says:
“Milius: Maybe he’ll have second thoughts after reading the novel, though I have a lot of affection for him as a character.

"He may be a blowhard but his heart’s in the right place. I’ve never met Milius so it’s more precise to say that Viking Man is my version of Milius, drawing on some select facts of Milius’ life that anyone who knows anything about movies would know.

"I admit that at first Viking Man seemed almost too broad a characterization, so much an archetype, but he was a perfect counterpart to the impenetrable Vikar, and both are out of their time, as though Vikar is from the future
and Viking Man is from the past."



In The Battle of Algiers, after the Algerian nationalists have been carrying out some bombings, the infamous French Paratroopers are called in.

When they march through town, it’s chilling—not because it’s been shot in any “epic” manner, but because it has been shot in a documentary manner, and these men are marching like real battle-hardened paratroopers right through a city!

It’s a “no bullshit” moment: the gloves are off, these guys mean business.


And Milius wisely doesn’t mimic Algiers’ director Gillo Pontecorvo’s quasi-documentary style;
the Red Dawn director is more of an acolyte of John Ford, David Lean and/or Kurosawa,
and in this case, he shoots the battle-hardened Russian paratroopers marching through town like Ford might shoot the army’s arrival in his great Cavalry Trilogy: not necessarily heroic or victorious, but certainly serious.


Of course, casting William Smith as Colonel Strelnikov is a stroke of genius.
I would’ve seen a whole movie about him. Smith could speak Russian fluently, and Milius says Smith “loved doing the scene in” that language.

Charlie Sheen about William Smith: “He was terrifying!”
And to the audience, he is as well.
When Smith literally marches in and takes over this movie, he gives it a jolt of adrenaline, a kick in the butt.
Because finally, we are introduced to a Soviet who actually looks like he could take over the USA; a guy so tough, he’s got muscles in his shit; a man so ruthless, he’s already used his mother as bait in some operation.

A man chosen by history to be a hero of the Soviet state, a man who would even impress Uncle Joe.


Check out that flag!
I wished the movie had spent more time on details like this;
I felt too much stuff was relegated to the background.
I couldn’t care less about the kids in the woods,
I wanted to see details!
Who has that flag now?
Grrrrr….



Then there’s the debriefing, all in Russian, where we get to know Smith’s character.
Unbelievably, the scene in a conference room is one of the livelier and exciting sequences in the film. And it’s a monolog!



Later, Smith pays the price of being a Soviet hero, gunned down by local insurrectionists.

A posthumous Order of Lenin is being prepared.







We kept praying for the movie to end differently, but it never happened!

I saw Red Dawn about 20 times when it first came out.
The summer of 1984, I worked as an usher at the Oceana movie theater in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, about 30 minutes walk from my mom’s place in Sheepshead Bay.

Lemme tell ya, seeing Red Dawn (for the tenth time) and then leaving the theater and entering into the predominantly, nightmarishly Russian-populated Brighton Beach—Little Odessa, y’know?—
was an intriguing image, and it point out a flaw in the film:
Just how were they going to keep about one million Cuban, Russian and Nicaraguan troops (where were the East Germans and Poles? Guarding Europe?) from getting influenced by all the sinful materials left around?
In Red Dawn, where were the scenes of Russian infantrymen SCOOPING up the porno?



At that time,
The Oceana proudly called itself Brooklyn’s first sixplex—and it was!
What they had done was taken ye olde movie palace, chopped it into four pieces—
which included a rat’s maze so nobody could sneak in;
yeah, management was that uptight,
and all the ushers used to try and rip ’em off (I ate popcorn and hot dogs all summer—thankfully, the Oceana popped its own fresh popcorn, so I didn’t have to eat the stale, shipped-in stuff so many places now serve; I also scored some cool movie posters—which if I had properly saved, I could now auction on eBay for $5).

Then later, the management (the
Golden chain of theaters, I believe) took the backstage area of the theater, and converted that into two more theaters. That’s when I arrived.



The Oceana showed a… diverse… selection of films, enough A- and B-movies, but also a lot of Z-movies.
A partial list of flicks screened at the Oceana when I was a customer can include:

Airplane
Videodrome
The Beast Within

Galaxy of Terror (and WHEN is that coming to DVD?)
Scarface
Conan the Barbarian
The Pope of Greenwich Village
(or did I see this as an employee?)
Psycho II
Forbidden World (and WHEN is that coming to DVD?)
The Deer Hunter
E.T.
(everyone was crying—except me! Hahaha!)
1941
Halloween
The Fog
The Boogens
Poltergeist
Dune
(and I even got one of the promotional T-shirts that Universal was giving away at the time, in a desperate attempt at drumming up publicity.
I had that shirt until roughly 1988 when--long story short--I gave it to Jim Waters, music producer, before he was a music producer and still just a messenger. I used to know people!)
The Octagon
Splash
(or was that when I was an employee?)
Creepshow
Tightrope

And dozens—scores!—others, I’m sure…


Movies seen at Oceana as an employee:
The Natural (about 30 times! GREAT CTHULHU, how I HATE that movie!)
The Karate Kid (the only movie the Oceana was showing that summer that my mom wanted to see—
“Klassier” flicks like Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Ghostbusters were shown at Brooklyn’s more upscale chains, like whoever was running King’s Plaza or the Ocean Parkway at the time.)

Gremlins (about 40 times—we had to keep an eye on the little kids who’d get jicked up on sugar and bounce around the place imitating gremlins—there were also a lot of stoners who’d watch this one)

Other flick screened piecemeal, during working hours included:
Top Secret!
The Last Starfighter
Streets of Fire
Purple Rain
Best Defense
(awful, just awful)
Electric Dreams (does anybody remember this flick? Bud Cort as a computer's voice....)
The Philadelphia Experiment (I’m sure I saw this “on the job”)
Conan the Destroyer
And others I’ve surely forgotten…

One thing I learned/figured out as an usher:
Zap someone in the face with your flashlight and they’ll want to kill you.
Better to point it at the floor, then slowly bring it up.
Then say, “I’m sorry, sir, but you’ve got to put that out.”

It was nice knowing that on the weekends, the theater had a couple of beefy off-duty cops as added security.
Do theaters still hire off-duty cops? Or do theaters use rent-a-cops, if that? (And are cops still allowed to work off-duty?)



Big Bad John
Milius, the model for John Goodman’s character of Walter Sobchak in the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski,
was probably one of the most famous screenwriters of the early-1970s; eminently quotable, and very much the Quentin Tarantino of his day, with his feather-ruffling and outré opinions.

His first major notices were from
The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Dirty Harry (uncredited),
Magnum Force, Jaws (uncredited), Jeremiah Johnson, and of course
Apocalypse Now
Milius said about his script The Psychedelic Soldier, the precursor to Apocalypse Now:
“I felt it was futile to make an anti-war movie; it’s like making an anti-rain movie.”

Like all those other snot-nose punk screenwriters who don’t know their place, Milius turned to directing.
We’ve already mentioned
Dillinger
and
The Wind and the Lion (which opened at Radio City Music Hall in NYC! Had it been made in 1955 with, say, even Tyrone Power and Inger Stevens, it would be even better remembered today, I think.)


The National Film Board of Ivanlandia has been catching up on our Milius to prep for Red Dawn.
Some of the big man’s other projects include:


Conan the Barbarian (1981)
Directed by John Milius
Written by John Milius and Oliver Stone
Based on the character created by Robert E. Howard


The Conan the Barbarian DVD gets 3 out of 5 stars because of the awesome commentary recorded by Milius and star Schwarzenegger.

The two of them are a hoot, and while Milius provides most of the hard info, it’s awesome to hear Arnie get all dreamy and complementary to various long-ago costars.

Otherwise, the flick—which I did enjoy as a kid—is now kind of boring to me.
Milius & Co. are working triple overtime to deliver a heavy David Lean does Sword & Sorcery vibe, which I didn’t necessarily like—but is exactly what Milius & Co. wanted!
And the flick is now considered either a cult or camp classic, so who am I to complain?

I compared Milius to Tarantino earlier, and they do share some common factors: a love of great dialog, storytelling (both themselves and their characters) and references.

We’ve already mentioned Milius’ recontextualizing of a scene from The Battle of Algiers, and in Conan, he references Kwaidan (when Arnie has ancient characters painted all over his body in preparation for resurrection).
In Big Wednesday, when the surfers march to the Army recruiting station, it’s a tribute to The Wild Bunch’s final march.
Milius, meanwhile, has said his Dirty Harry rewrite was a tribute to hard-boiled Japanese detective flicks from the mid-1960s.
I’m sure there may be others, I’m probably not familiar with all of Milius’ faves. But they also may be integrated in a much better way than QT's refs.

But where they really differ is philosophically: you know what Milius politics are (or can try to guess), QT ain’t interested.
QT might create deeper films—sure, I’ll admit
Vainglorious Jiggling Piglets (which included Milius in its end credits “thank you” list)
is probably a “better” film than, heck, a lot of Milius’ flicks, but it all boils down to this as far as Ivanlandia is concerned: What do you believe in?

As of right now, I don’t think QT really believes in anything.

Would QT ever do the following? On Conan the Barbarian’s commentary, Milius says:
After the financial and critical flop of Big Wednesday, he felt he needed a “mission.”

He continued, “I felt that the only possibly honorable thing to do was to join the French Foreign Legion. Needless to say, I didn’t join the Legion and instead [did] Conan.”

BTW, I think Big Wednesday is a good movie, a little more goofy and overly reverent than it should be, but made up for by some exquisitely photographed and edited surfing footage, and an honorable attempt to explain/maintain the Zen-like attitude of the true surfer.

Milius again provides another insightful commentary with Big Wednesday; definitely a renter.



Extreme Prejudice (1987)
Directed by Walter Hill
Screenplay by Deric Washburn and Harry Kleiner
Story by John Milius and Fred Rexer


A bitter rivalry between a Texas Ranger and a drug lord, former childhood friends, draws the attention of a secret military hit squad in this terrific B-movie action flick.

Extreme Prejudice is absolutely a man’s movie but it never borders on self-parody or ridiculousness in the macho department (like, for example, Predator); it’s very straightforward and direct, almost sparse: there’s not a lot of extraneous details or flourishes—just action.

Co-story credit goes to Rexer; who, according to Wikipedia, Milius “based the character of Willard and some of Kurtz on a friend of his, Fred Rexer, who had experienced, first-hand, the scene related by Marlon Brando's character where the arms of villagers are hacked off by the Viet Cong.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if the secret military unit was Milius’ contribution, but it takes a Walter Hill to bring out the cynicism of that idea, and then have the cojones to apply it to a classical good guy vs. bad guy story.

This is another underrated Walter Hill movie that deserves a better DVD release.


Farewell to the King (1989)
Written and directed by John Milius,
Based on the novel ''L'Adieu au Roi'' by Pierre Schoendoerffer


In Milius’ Farewell to the King, a lone white man splits from the scene and becomes king of the Borneo headhunters, eventually fighting the Japanese in WWII.

While not necessarily the director’s best movie (that’s The Wind and the Lion), it is probably the purest distillation of Milius’ philosophies: which means there’s this crazy Apocalypse Now vibe, like it was Kurtz’s romanticized back-story.

Meanwhile, Nolte really gives it his all, often devouring the scenery, but is always great to watch.
The supporting cast is good (Frank McRae pretends to have an English accent! Tee-hee!), especially James Fox’s cynical, yet compassionate Special Ops commander. However, co-star Nigel Havers nearly ruins the show being an absolute stick-in-the-mud prig.
Whatevs, ’cause Nolte chews him up and spits him out toot sweet. It’s Nolte’s show, completely.

Farewell to the King is a flick with a strong Joseph Conrad influence that fans of the jungle movies of Werner Herzog and John Boorman should really dig.

A rich and textured tale, seeing Farewell to the King letterboxed really helps; I’d seen it on VHS before, and the pan-&-scan lost a lot of details:
The remote and exotic jungle locations are as important to the viewing experience as the explosions and acting—this is one of those flicks that looks like it was really tough to make: jungles, rains, remote locations, etc.
But that extra effort adds so much texture.



Flight of the Intruder (1991)
Directed by John Milius
Screenplay by Robert Dillon and David Shaber
Based on the novel by Stephen Coonts


Flight of the Intruder is a great flick for a rainy afternoon and a six-pack. It’s a movie not so much influenced by Top Gun (a picture I can’t stand, BTW) as much as by Milius’ love of John Ford films: The camaraderie and character interaction owes much to Ford war movies like They Were Expendable; and, as when viewing a Ford flick, there’s a great feeling of comfort watching the Young Hot Shot deal with the Gruff Commander and the Crusty Experienced Combat Vet (a great Willem Dafoe), while The New Guy keeps getting into hijinks.

Which sounds like it might be a clich√©-ridden snooze, but all involved, in front and behind the camera, are earnest and play this very straight: the characters’ emotions are front and center, and the camera respects them. So you’ll get as much emotion as a man’s man Navy aviator might express, but it feels real.

Most of the effects are good, although there are some wonky miniatures here and there, and personally, I wish there had been more POV shots from the front of the plane zooming over landscapes, but there’s enough of a display of jets and ships that all hardware-geeks should be satisfied.

Flight of the Intruder is not the most original of films, but it’s a darn fine entry into the aviator sub-genre of war flicks (there is a difference between an aviator and a pilot, yessiree), and genuine jolly good fun.

Interestingly, Milius is not credited as one of the screenwriters: surprising since the man is essentially better known for his scripts…I’m sure he had a hand in it, but not enough to merit a credit (was it WGA hassles? Or something else?).

Meanwhile, Intruder
co-screenwriter Robert Dillon has also had an interesting career.
He also wrote the films Prime Cut, French Connection II, Frankenheimer’s uber-weird and still-unreleased-on-DVD 99 and 44/100% Dead, Pacino’s mega-flop Revolution, and started out in the film biz working for William Castle and Roger Corman.



Rough Riders (1997)
Directed by John Milius
Written by John Milius and Hugh Wilson


A lively and human take on a turning point in US history that’s also a rousing and exciting movie—I have no idea how historically accurate it is, but Rough Riders has so much detail (despite its rather flat cinematography, typical for a TV movie), that it feels right.

This three-hour miniseries’ length
gives the movie room to breathe and for characters get a chance to develop and grow. It was a brilliant idea to combine the talents of John Milius and Hugh Wilson (the creator of WKRP in Cincinnati) on the screenplay—
there is a lot of wry humor in this flick that makes us appreciate the characters more and lessens what might be their “superhuman” attributes, and the cast is fabulous bringing this to life. Tom Berenger is a revelation, willing to make a fool of himself—but always courageous, showing the often contrasting spirits of Theodore Roosevelt, and Berenger and Ileanna Douglas together as The Roosevelts were really impressive: making them a loving, even lusty, couple.

Meanwhile, the battle sequences also feel very real: that awful marching forward through hellish gunfire, brutal hand-to-hand combat, stupid mistakes, crippling diseases: pure ugly nastiness.

People are correct in calling Milius a militarist, but few seem to realize that many military men have a hugely cynical side, always expecting the worst, and often a genuinely sick sense of humor—while never wavering in their patriotism or duty. And Milius’ flicks reflect this; they may be propaganda, but usually the smart kind.

My only gripe: Why is Rough Riders on two discs? All in all, it’s only about three hours long and could easily have been on one DVD.

I believe that the success of Rough Riders led to Milius being executive producer on Rome, a miniseries I really enjoyed.
Meanwhile,
We hear Mad Man Milius (I’d buy a used car from him!) may be writing the script for the miniseries Aztec!


HELP! If anyone has a Xerox or a transcript or a PDF of John Milius’ guilty pleasures article from the May/June 1982 issue of Film Comment, please let me know! I’ve been looking for it forever! I need a copy!




“Comic-book characters!... That’s the movies now in a scrotum sac—glorified afternoon-serials and cute little robots. Who’s to say it’s right or wrong? Maybe this is the age we need new myths.”
--Viking Man (based on John Milius), during the mid-1980s, in the novel Zeroville (2007), by Steve Erickson




5 comments:

  1. HEY, i object to your calling John Milius a GUN-NUT! just cos a guy or gal likes guns, and recognizes the gun's value as a tool and as a means of good clean fun, doesn't make that person a NUT! I mean, it is true that a liberal amount of brains and guts have splattered all over his movies, but HE'S never killed anyone outside the theater! ...or has he?

    ARM YOURSELF NOW BEFORE WE ALL WAKE UP TO RED DAWN!!!! We may already have!

    You say "spoilers galore" so i will refrain from reading the RED DAWN part of the post until i see the movie, coming right up on Netflix. (sounds like a movie Lisa won't want to see, and she'll give me shit about hogging the netflix, ha ha. although with the recent untimely demise of our dear Swayze, she may go for it.)

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  2. RR:
    Lemme know when you've watched it, then we can drink beers and you can tell me how wrong I am.

    Perhaps you're right, maybe I shouldn't have used the term "gun-nut," but I meant it with love - after all, I like shooting pistols every now and again. Just ask Toestubs!
    -Ivan

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  3. i doubt you're "wrong" about any of it. in this genre, i trust your instincts. i mean, STONE COLD??? awesome. i can't wait for RED DAWN, but Lisa bumped it down a couple on the Netflix list. damn. i can't complain because i pretty much dominate the list, so i have to give in now and then.

    and i do need to revisit MAGNUM FARCE. i think it's as good as DIRTY HARRY and in some ways better.

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  4. I've got Magnum Force; you can borrow it--but I need to get back my Looney Tunes: Back In Action DVD.

    On the other hand, we still need to hang and watch Jack Webb's The D.I.

    Post photos of your Halloween robot!

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  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

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