Greetings all and sundry.
Being one of those fortunate individuals who has learned through the years to never disregard serendipity when it falls in your lap. And to celebrate those rare occasions which makes life more interesting and intriguing.
Such an oblique twist of fate brushed my path a few weeks ago with a friend having a digitized and cleaned up version of a little known, though very good update on Moonshine running and the Medium Budget AIP backwoods film seen long ago in my youth. With a discernible Made for Television Series pilot vibe. Leaning heavily “The Dirty Dozen” and the flip side of ‘Thunder Road’ in its rustic look and feel. Titled The Devil’s 8. Which began a journey of exploration creating a…
Spotlight On. Writer Director, John Milius. Master Of “The Guy Flick”!
For the film’s just over one hour and forty minutes, It is surprisingly well constructed and executed. With Federal Agent, the criminally under rated Christopher George going undercover in the Prison Road system of some unnamed southern state. Infiltrating a chain gang and busting them out. Only to recruit seven convicts into crime fighting servitude against Moonshine running boss, Ralph Meeker and his well-financed and armed crew.
Having a medium budget and spending it wisely. I could appreciate director Burt Topper using Big Bear Lake, valley and National Forest in substituting for the back woods of Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. Aided by a kind of 1969 Swamp Rock soundtrack supplied by Mike Curb. And a better than average words and actions supplied to the players on both sides of the law supplied by Larry Gordon, Willard Huyck and polished a decent gloss by Mr. Milius’ original screenplay.
Staying within the Writer’s realm, Mr. Milius signed on to back up Alan Caillou’s story and screenplay for the short-lived “Fan Film”, Evel Knievel in 1971. Telling the tale of the famed motorcycle stunt rider and daredevil from his childhood and life in Butte, Montana to jumping parked vehicles and buses during a new era of “Barn Storming” in the 1960s and beyond.
Led my George Hamilton as Evel. And directed on a shoestring by Marvin Chomsky. The film lays out the hero’s ego driven adventures as he stalks the women of his life. Runs afoul of the law and usually ends up on the wrong side of chases through construction sites with multiple stunts built in. And broken bones in their wake.
Followed quickly by some uncredited work for director, Don Siegel on the screenplay for Dirty Harry to close out 1971.
Before jumping headlong into editing and re-write work on Jeremiah Johnson. And turning out the original screenplay for The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Turning up the bravado, legend and myth making for director, John Huston in guiding Paul Newman as the outlaw who became “The Law West of The Pecos” in this intriguing, No Frills dust bowl western.
Then following a personal endeavor in first writing the screenplay for and later directing Dillinger. With the backing of American International Pictures (AIP).
For its time, place, cast and million dollar, 1973 budget. Still one of the best perspectives on the Depression Era desperado played by Warren Oates. Pursued by a dapper Ben Johnson as FBI Agent, Melvin Purvis across most of rural backwater Oklahoma and Arizona. Before arriving in Chicago.
Shot in Color with stock B&W Newsreel footage and clocking in at 107 minutes. Aided by a surprisingly good supporting cast which includes Michelle Phillips as Billie Frechette. Geoffrey Lewis as Harry Pierpont. Harry Dean Stanton as an incredibly hard luck sad sack bank robber and kidnapper, Homer Van Meter. Steve Kanaly as Pretty Boy Floyd. An incredibly arrogant and obnoxious Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson. And Cloris Leachman as “The Lady In Red”. Anna Sage.
The film did well enough financially and through word of mouth to generate a Made for Television “Movie Of The Week” directed by ABC stalwart, Dan Curtis. Melvin Purvis, G-Man, starring Dale Robertson.
From a screenplay by Mr. Milius a year later. After cranking out the screenplay for Clint Eastwood’s Magnum Force.
Staying in the writer’s and director’s chair for the turn of the century desert and diplomacy tale, The Wind And The Lion. With Brian Keith as President Teddy Roosevelt slowly going head to head with Sean Connery as renegade Berber and kidnapper, Raisuli and his bargaining chip and pampered hostage, Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen).
With John Huston as John Hay and many parts of arid Spain filling in for Morocco. Clocking in at a hair under two hours. The film rises to almost Swashbuckling proportions as discussion and diplomacy eventually lead to armed and swift confrontation in a refreshingly detailed and true to form period piece.
Opening the door for a very personal piece of work, Big Wednesday. With Mr. Milius writing and directing a unique rite of passage film centered on three California kids (Jan Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey) sharing their passion for surfing during the early 1960s. Vietnam rearing its ugly head and how it affects the three at home and overseas. And catching the perfect waves during a later reunion.
Featuring some of the best looking waves and seamless accompanying soundtrack this side of The Endless Summer and Point Break. In a nearly forgotten coming of age film that is far more than the sum of its parts.
When not busily applying his ghost writing and script doctoring skills put to the test with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and aiding Steven Spielberg with Quint’s (Robert Shaw) soliloquy about the USS Indianapolis in 1975’s Jaws.
And his slightly less than stellar 1979 “war at home” service comedy, 1941.
Picking up the ball in 1982 to grab the mess first written by Oliver Stone. Change locations, locales and settings to Spain, Mexico and Arizona. Cut the projected budget by half. Recast most of the supporting cast. Add additional storyboard and Set Design work by Famed Edgar Rice Burroughs’ and Robert E. Howard cover artist, Frank Frazetta. And create the minor cult classic, Conan The Barbarian for just under $20,000,000 and a just over two-hour running time.
Then donning the writer’s and director’s hats again for the 1984 “Russia and Cuba Invades the U.S.” classic, Red Dawn, A very “You’ve Got To Start Somewhere” kind of film for most of its leading cast. Including Patrick Swayze, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson, Jennifer Grey and Charley Sheen. And some superlative supporting cast work from Ron O’ Neal as the multi lingual Cuban, Bella.William Smith as his more ruthless Russian counterpart, Streinkov, Harry Dean Stanton, Ben Johnson and Powers Boothe.
Taking a year or do respite to delve into episodic anthology television with a script for Michael Mann’s Miami Vice titled Viking Bikers From Hell. With John Matuszak, Reb Brown, Sonny Landham among other depraved bad ass bikers gunning for Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) after his killing a fellow gang member in a guns and drugs sting gone bad.
Then jumping headlong under the protective wing of director, Walter Hill and former alum, Powers Boothe being the superb protagonist, Cash Bailey opposite Texas Ranger Lawman, Nick Nolte as Jack Benteen and a Rogue’s gallery of character actors portraying supposedly dead Special Operators (Michael Ironside, Clancy Brown, William Forsythe, Larry B. Scott and Dan Tillus, Jr.) in the excellent drugs across the border shoot ’em up “Guy Flick”, Extreme Prejudice. Which I had critiqued tears ago for Ruth over at Flixchatter.
Carrying on with Farewell To The King. A nearly forgotten little film shot in Borneo, Malaysia and Hawaii. And starring Nick Nolte as an American POW who escapes execution in WWII. Washes up on the shore of a secluded village and takes a page out of Rudyard Kipling/ Becoming their leader. Until a British forward unit stumbles across them with ideas of recruitment to fight the Japanese.
A wonderful looking film with a great feel for lush tropic seclusion and isolation.While also giving a boisterous, flashy and noisy glimpses of how Colonel Walter Kurtz and his indigenous forces may have executed guerilla tactics when encountering enemy troops in an earlier, much more expensive film.
Carrying on the war genre with Flight Of The Intruder. And its side trip to the South East Asian War Games. An US Navy aircraft carrier (USS Independence) at Yankee Station during President Nixon’s second term . The ship’s assorted crews and aircraft. And the pilot (Brad Johnson) of an A-6 bomber who loses his Bombardier/Navigator in the film’s opening moments and decides to make the war personal. Scheming to make a statement. Violate Rules of Engagement and bomb “Sam City” north of Hanoi. With the aid of his new B/N and side seater, Willem Dafoe).
More of a personal “Guilty Pleasure” than a favorite. For the mere fact that it is a Vietnam War Film. But also its attention to detail, despite some members being badly miscast (Sorry, Danny Glover). More than worthwhile CGI and Special Effects. And its blatant theft of a key scene from Dick Powell’s 1958 Korean War film, The Hunters to create a suspenseful “Jolly Green Giant” and “Sandy” shoot ’em up rescue and finale.
Then jumping on the band wagon of screen writers, editors and script doctors for 1994’s Clear And Present Danger. An exercise in cinema that got the political infighting, pissing contests and ass covering of the White House and cabinet right, But much more wrong (Black Hawk helicopters. Even with extended fuel tanks cannot reach Cali Columbia from Howard AFB in the Canal Zone without refueling at least twice in the air or on the ground. And Willem Dafoe as John Clark!). And always struck me as a whittled down one third of what could have been a great, larger budgeted and written film or television mini series.
Then onto a side trip to Showtime’s take on the Drive~In, B-Movie Biker genre with Rebel Highway and its Made For Television episode Motorcycle Gang. With Gerald McRaney heading a family tormented by bikers led by Jake Busy. Who fancies and kidnaps McRaney’s daughter, Carla Gugino. Working from a script by Kent Anderson and Laurie McQuillian. The film highlights Mr. McRaney’s propensity for payback and violence (Mr. Majestyk) and rises just above Grind house. Which was its intent all along.
Before calling in all his markers on everyone Mr. Milius had ever worked with and finally getting the band back together as dozens of others expressed an interest and signed on to create one of TNT’s best cable projects, Rough Riders. A very personal project of Tom Berenger, Who performs chameleon like magic as Undersecretary of the Navy, Teddy Roosevelt. Lateraled into Mr. Milius’ capable hands at writing, sculpting, directing and executing a two-part television masterpiece.
Where Tom Berenger’s Roosevelt comes on like a force of nature while aligning the wherewithal of volunteer regiment across the US with the guidance of Colonel Wood after Congress declares war against Cuba in the wake of the sinking of the USS Maine. In a performance every bit as my enjoyment of James Whitmore’s flawless live stage performance in Bully!
Aided by Sam Eliot playing Colonel Bucky O’Neil. Gary Busey as Senator and retired Confederate General Joseph Wheeler. Brad Johnson as Stage Coach Robber and Highwayman, Henry Nash. Illena Douglas as unflappable Edith Roosevelt. Dale A, Dye, superb as Colonel Leonard Wood. Brian Keith (Marine. Actor. Raconteur! Who passed on during Post production) as cagey President William McKinley. George Hamilton, excellent as William Randolph Hearst. R. Lee Ermey underplaying as Secretary of State, John Hay. Nick Chinlund as artist Frederick Remington. Chris Noth, exceptional as Horseman, Bronco Buster. Steeple Chase Master and one of Teddy’s “Wall Street Crew”, Craig Wadsworth. Along with Holt McCallany as Sgt. Hamilton Fish. James Parks as William Tiffany. Adam Storke as author, Stephen Crane. William Katt as Edward Marshall. Geoffrey Lewis as Mule Skinner and Chef, Eli. Newcomer, Titus Welliver as B.F. Goodrich and Marshall R. Teague as “Black Jack” Pershing. Among many others delivering their collective “A-Games”!
All done a mediocre budget extremely well spent. And using many locales in Texas. Including San Antonio, Rusk (Railway Station) and Baldera (Rural railway sidings) to fill in for Washington, DC, Florida, Arizona and the scenes of many major battles in Cuba. Including Kettle and San Juan Hills. And clocking in at two episodes just over ninety minutes.
With Cavalry (Roosevelt, Wheeler, Wood and Pershing) and Infantry (Nash, Wadsworth, Tiffany, Goodrich, countless “Buffalo Soldiers”, et al) marching through a rough, gently sloping upward quarter-mile to get under the guns of entrenched and determined Cubans and their German heavy weapons and artillery advisors.
Before advancing and attacking Kettle Hill. And moving west to flank the defenders of The Heights of San Juan Hill.
Aided by period based soundtrack by Peter Bermstein. And a lovely rendition of The 7th Cavalry’s signature quick step, “Garry Owen” courtesy of Mr. Milius’ wife, Elan Oberon.
Cinematography by Anthony B. Richard. Superior Production Design by Jerry Wanek. Art Direction by John Bucklin Set Decoration by Carla Curry and Costume Design by Michael T. Boyd.
Creating a minor masterpiece that is much more than the sum of its many parts!
Before shifting gears again and joining forces with Bruno Heller and William J. MacDonald to create the BBC~HBO, Sofia, Bulgaria and Italian based cable series, Rome and kibitzing to crank out its twenty-two episodes from 2005 to 2007. Before having his original screenplay hijacked and heavily embellished and gutted for the particularly lame and “Why Was This Film Made?” 2012 remake of Red Dawn directed by former Stunt Man and Coordinator, Dan Bradley.
Overall Consensus: Beyond being the inspiration for pistol packing loose cannon, Walter Sobchak in the Coen brothers’, The Big Lebowski. And acquiring the fortunate ability of being in the right place at the right time later in his career. The fact that Mr. Milius would create a near essential trend among film professionals of attending and graduating from the University of Southern California Film School. Establishing his desire and credibility early on with his direction of his animated class film, Marcello… I’m Bored. Which, not surprisingly relied upon story rather than visual polish.
Mr. Milius understood that one has to start somewhere. And usually from the bottom of the pecking order. Letting others handle his written words while becoming more familiar and confident of the other equipment around him. And like Clint Eastwood after him, got behind the camera to call the shots and tell his own stories his own way. And if that telling involves montages, which critics have noted. In The Wind And The Lion. Conan The Barbarian. Flight Of The Intruder and Rough Riders. So be it. Because they save time, film and advance the tale forward with elegant, well executed simplicity.
Just one more tool in an ever-expanding, well used, polished and maintained Tool Box. In a career which has spanned most of my adult life!