Filmmakers need to be more than just manly - but I can still see good reasons to appreciate John Milius

Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson's documentary "Milius" wheels out legions of Hollywood grandees to appreciate director and writer John Milius - but is all their praise for him convincing?

John Milius.
The writer an director John Milius. Photograph: Getty Images.

Although I’m not a fan of Milius, the documentary about the self-mythologising writer-director John Milius, I can see the need for it. The more sanitised and secretive public figures have become, and the more stage-managed their escapades, the greater the appetite for bad or even mildly noteworthy behaviour. This is an age when celebrities don’t have to do very much to generate controversy—spending only one hour rather than two glad-handing on the red carpet in Leicester Square should just about cover it—so it’s hardly surprising that a swaggering macho marauder like Milius should appear so exotic to our eyes.

But Milius (the film) didn’t do a sound job of convincing me of the specialness of Milius (the man). I already like much of his work: he did uncredited writing on Dirty Harry and Jaws, and was instrumental in steering Apocalypse Now away from George Lucas’s vision of it as a low-budget Dr Strangelove relocated to Vietnam and toward Francis Ford Coppola’s daredevil splurge. (I say that as someone not enamoured of Apocalypse Now but convinced that its failings would not have been corrected by the presence of Lucas in the director’s chair.) Big Wednesday (which Milius directed as well as wrote) is the one film of his that has heart as well as ostentatious myth-making. I even have a soft spot for Conan the Barbarian, which is so mordantly sincere that it almost—almost—brings an operatic tone to its silliness.

Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson’s documentary can boast a battalion of adoring and starry expert witnesses: Lucas, who has pin-prick eyes and no neck and a voice like a machine humming three rooms away; Coppola and Martin Scorsese, who also appeared in last week’s industry documentary Seduced and Abandoned and are therefore perilously close to becoming the Hollywood equivalents of the rent-a-gobs and stand-up comics who once littered I Love the 1980s-style schedule-fillers; Spielberg, still waiting for an operation that will remove painlessly the baseball cap from his scalp; and a strangely coquettish Harrison Ford, wringing his hands effeminately. It falls to a lesser-known actor, Sam Elliott, to deliver the most inadvertently damning testimony. “He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women,” he says admiringly. “He writes for men. Because he’s a man.” With friends like Sam, eh?

John, John, John: everyone loves John. Though it all seems to be largely on John’s terms. If John declares himself a Zen anarchist, whatever that means, then his friends will all willingly parrot that line. Chiefly they appear to love him because he was never shy of drawing a gun on an executive if the meeting wasn’t going to his liking. Personally, I need a bit more than that in my filmmaking heroes. The makers of Milius don’t seem to have realised that a few dissenting voices would have fortified their portrait. He is by all accounts strengthened by opponents and adversaries. He needs enemies, someone says. But this film is nothing more than a massage.

‘Milius’ is released on DVD on Monday.