At The Jan-Michael Vincent Memorial, John Milius Stands Tall

John Milius
Alex Berliner/BEI/Shutterstock

“We knew how good we had it.”

John Milius, 33 years old, said that to the Los Angeles Times in 1977. At the time, he was shooting Big Wednesday, his third full-blown feature film as a director. Supposedly, it was about surfing in Southern California. In truth, the movie was about John, and that one glorious moment in his life – those years on the beach, in the early 1960s – when he was briefly at one with the times.

Milius was back on the beach Wednesday (no accident, that particular day of the week), where he anchored a gathering at Duke’s, in Malibu. The occasion was a memorial service for Jan-Michael Vincent, who died last February after a long, troubled life that was only briefly interrupted by his role as surf legend Matt Johnson in Big Wednesday.

“He was a good bad boy,” said actress Lee Purcell, who played his wife and lover in Big Wednesday, to murmurs of approval from the crowd of four or five dozen Vincent friends and admirers.

“A troubled Golden Boy,” Milius called Vincent in a video recapping the actor’s career. The reel got rolling on Wednesday when Milius growled “Action!” It acknowledged but didn’t dwell on the drug and alcohol struggles that were already baked into Vincent’s Big Wednesday character, who opened the movie drunk, and at one point caused a traffic debacle that matched any number of crack-ups in the actor’s later life.

Inevitably,  Milius was a center of attention on Wednesday night. Chris Kobin, who helped organize the event and featured Milius in the documentary Hollywood Don’t Surf!, of which Kobin was a producer, stayed out of the limelight as one guest after another – Jeff Berg, Gary Busey, Billy Katt – paid court at the Milius table. And there he was, grizzled as ever, working somewhat to overcome the effects of a stroke he suffered in 2010, and wearing a bright red cap that said: “Make Surfing Great Again.” Clearly, he is still at odds with his industry, his era, the prevailing political winds – with almost everything except for that very short time when, like his avatars in Big Wednesday, he lived on and for the beach.

In truth, Milius was never really about nostalgia: Other than his surf years, he didn’t seem to have much use for any of the decades in which he was assigned to live. “I just don’t like the present,” Milius told Variety in 1993, shortly after the release of Walter Hill’s Geronimo: An American Legend, of which he was one of the writers.  Instead, he yearned for times – mythic or otherwise – in which clear, inviolable codes applied. Before Michael Ovitz popularized Sun Tzu and the Chinese art of war, Milius was a student of Bushido, a Samurai way of life built around honor, courage and compassion.

Though unmentioned, that code bound the surfers in Big Wednesday. In life, it dragged Milius through a series of films that sometimes worked, sometimes didn’t, but which almost always stunned critics and the casual observer with their stark refusal simply to blend in. Pauline Kael thought his best work had ‘fascist’ tendencies. How else to explain scenes like the ‘Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?’ moment from his Dirty Harry rewrite, or the ‘napalm in the morning’ line from Apocalypse Now? But Milius consistently denounced Sam Peckinpah for what he saw as film violence without moral purpose. And Janet Maslin, in the New York Times, denounced Milius when, as in Big Wednesday, he kept the violence down to some fairly harmless party fights. You’d have thought the film “would have boasted at least enough trigger-happy machismo to make it controversial,” she complained.

It wasn’t just that 2010 stroke that moved Milius farther and farther from Hollywood’s center. More, it was his stubborn insistence on another element of the Samurai code, the need for mastery – actual knowledge of real things, and an ability to use them. In a digital world, Milius remains an analog man. He gets in the water, or did until his 50s. (Those boards hanging in his Culver City office weren’t just wall art.) He doesn’t just write about shooting, he shoots. A hunter, he would insist that to watch an elk die was horrifying, but should be faced, not just by the writer of a Milius script called “Liver-eating Johnson” (it became Jeremiah Johnson with Robert Redford, minus the Crow livers) but those who eat meat.

Famously, Milius refused to start working on Dirty Harry until Warner Bros. delivered a Purdey shotgun, part of his fee. He often insisted on tangible compensation of that sort. In the early 1990s, a story around Columbia Pictures said the studio gave him a Cuban cigar every day when he turned in his pages (or page) for the Texas Rangers. Maybe it was even true. Certainly, those on the lot were glad to believe it, because the yarn marked Milius as an increasingly rare individual who valued the real, both in life and in his work.  “This is all real. These are real surfers on the beach,” Milius said in a Big Wednesday-era clip that was included in the Vincent memorial.

Sometimes, reality ran away with him. There was a feud with writer John Fasano over the authenticity of the guns in a Milius project. (I watched Fasano, since deceased, dump a bag full of pistols on the table in a meeting to establish his credentials in the matter.) On Flight Of The Intruder, the budget ballooned as Milius juggled Paramount’s imperatives against his own fascination with military hardware, including his proudest prop, the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Independence. In 2003, his former accountant was arrested for embezzling $3 million from Milius, in part by fabricating purchases of collectible guns, thus using the filmmaker’s fascination with real things to defraud him.

By then, Milius was outside the film industry’s mainstream. “I am to the right of most people in the movie business,” he had told Esquire, with rare understatement, as early as 1973. When his Red Dawn was much later being remade by others with Chinese (changed to North Korean) invaders replacing the Russians as villains, Milius, more blunt than politic, shared a now perhaps unthinkable thought with the Los Angeles Times. “I would have done it about Mexico,” he said.

Sentiment of that sort can bring banishment in the age of social media. Yet he was still standing proud as of Wednesday, the same John Milius. Crusty.  Weathered. More than a bit damaged. But still real, and still unbowed. Mostly, he laughed, and repeated a few happy phrases, “Oh, yes, yes, yeah,” and “very good!’

Gary Busey said simply: “God bless John Milius.” Those of us lucky enough to have run across Milius now and then could only concur, and be grateful. We knew how good we had it.

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