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‘Apocalypse,’ Now and Then

There’s a vintage photo on the wall at John Milius’ Warner Bros. offices that belongs in a Hollywood history book. Taken in the late 1970s, it shows the young Milius on the MGM lot with two nerdy young buddies, both intently eyeing a script in Milius’ hands. On Milius’ right, wearing a plaid shirt and frumpy jeans, is George Lucas, who was Milius’ classmate at USC film school in the ‘60s. On his left, with scraggly long hair and canvas sneakers, is Steven Spielberg, who was preparing to make “1941,” a Japanese-invasion comedy based on a Milius story.

It’s no wonder both men are staring enviously at the script. It was the blueprint for “Apocalypse Now,” the last great movie of Hollywood’s last great decade, the heady 1970s. The movie returns to theaters Friday billed as “Apocalypse Now Redux,” having been reassembled by director Francis Ford Coppola with 49 minutes of never-before-seen original footage. And whatever you think of the new footage--I could live without it--"Apocalypse Now” looks better than ever. Arriving at a time when Hollywood movies are largely corporate loss leaders designed as a platform to generate video, TV, toy and theme park income, “Apocalypse Now” is a bracing reminder of a time when movies were made by filmmakers who aspired to greatness.

Though Coppola is credited as the film’s co-writer and put his stamp all over the script, “Apocalypse Now” could only have been created by Milius, an unabashed flag-waver who saw war as a hellish but equally glorious experience.

In fact, it’s the very tension between Milius’ militaristic swagger, as exemplified by Robert Duvall’s napalm-loving Col. Kilgore and Coppola’s revulsion against war, seen in Martin Sheen’s self-doubting Willard, that gives the movie its dramatic punch. Milius says Coppola would often taunt him by wearing “his Viet Cong black pajamas,” but he adds: “We argued about politics, but we never conflicted about art.”

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The new version of the film has been getting raves. But for Milius, its revival must feel bittersweet. At 57, he’s viewed as a dinosaur by a generation of young studio executives whose film memories begin somewhere around “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” The last movie Milius directed was for cable TV. His last major produced script was “Clear and Present Danger,” seven years ago. When I asked him the other day if he’s considered over the hill, he instantly responded: “Yeah! I’m lucky that I’m working at all.”

Patton, Teddy Roosevelt Were His Heroes

In the 1970s, things were different. Milius was Hollywood’s raging bull--a gun-toting behemoth with a love for surfing, military lore and swashbuckling characters like George Patton and Teddy Roosevelt. He mythologized men who made their own law and created their own legends, writing Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry,” Sydney Pollack’s “Jeremiah Johnson,” John Huston’s “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean” and directing “Dillinger” himself. When “Jaws” needed a boost, Spielberg went to Milius, who wrote Robert Shaw’s spellbinding speech about the sinking of the USS Indianapolis.

He is still a great storyteller, especially when recounting the history of “Apocalypse Now.” He never set foot on the set, saying that as the movie dragged on, Coppola grew less enthusiastic about a Milius visit.

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“Francis thought that if I showed up there’d be an attempted coup,” he recalls. “He thought they’d throw a net on him, declare him insane and have me finish the movie, because I was the only one who knew how it ended.”

When you see Milius today, older and grayer, his belly ballooning against his shirt, you are reminded of Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” hissing to William Holden, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Milius doesn’t fit into Hollywood’s new era of lowered expectations. One of his current projects is a “Conan the Barbarian” sequel (he co-wrote and directed the original), which is being produced by the Wachowski brothers of “The Matrix” fame. As Milius dryly puts it: “I represent ancient barbarity, so they’re keeping me hip.”

Milius’ defiantly un-hip office is dotted with Soldier of Fortune magazines, a stuffed wild boar on the wall and a framed ad Milius did for the NRA. When we talk, he puffs on a cigar, cheerfully ignoring the studio’s strict anti-smoking policy. He actually has a soft spot for the Warners lot. It’s where he wrote the original draft of “Apocalypse Now.” Milius had read Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” as a teenager and had always wanted to recast the story as a Vietnam-era film.

“It was quite apparent that its mid-19th century evangelical idea of bringing Christianity to the brown brothers had a lot of similarities to selling democracy to Asia,” he explains. “Picture these blond-haired, crew-cut Marines going up the river, teaching peasants how to plant their crops and build new bridges. It was pretty easy to imagine a guy like Kurtz at the end of the river.”

Coppola gave Milius enough money to live on for a year while he wrote the script; the director had a deal at Warners in those days, and halfway through his writing, Milius showed the script to John Calley, then Warners’ studio chief. Calley said the words that are magic to any screenwriter’s ears: What else do you have? Milius gave him his “Jeremiah Johnson” script, which Warners made in 1972. But no one would make “Apocalypse.”

Milius had written it for Lucas, who opted to make “Star Wars” instead. Milius considered directing it himself but, having no takers, he went off to make the historical adventure “The Wind and the Lion.” Eventually Coppola decided he would direct it himself.

“Francis thought it would be easy,” Milius recalls. “He’d make this simple little war movie in an idyllic jungle setting. After doing ‘The Godfather’ movies, he thought it would be a piece of cake--he wouldn’t have to deal with the Mafia anymore.”

Milius has no regrets. “George or I would’ve made a good movie, but neither of us had Francis’ theatricality and showmanship, which is what sets the film apart. Francis was at the height of his artistic megalomania. Only after you win five Academy Awards could you say, ‘Maybe the monsoon won’t come this year.’

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“He was like Napoleon after the battle of Austerlitz. He didn’t care whether anyone came to see the picture. This was just the movie he wanted to make.”

Script Battles Are Largely Forgotten

Milius and Coppola fought bitterly over the script, but two decades later, with the film’s reputation secure, Milius is generous about Coppola’s revisions. Milius initially loathed the scene in which the young soldiers stop a sampan and mistakenly slaughter everyone on the boat. “I thought it was terrible and anti-American, but Francis wanted the film to have a My Lai massacre scene. He said: The audience is innocent. They like these guys. We have to make them dirty.”

Still, Milius’ influence is everywhere. He wrote the film’s rock music cues into the script. And only Milius would’ve imagined a helicopter attack with the loudspeakers blasting Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” an act of bravado he proudly notes was adopted by the 18th Airborne Corps when it attacked Iraq during Desert Storm.

Coppola had all sorts of problems casting the film. The director wanted Al Pacino to play Willard, but the actor wouldn’t commit. Coppola also romanced Steve McQueen, having Milius hole up with the actor for weeks at his beach house, writing a draft for him. Coppola originally wanted Lee Marvin to play Kurtz: “We have great drawings of Marvin as Kurtz,” Milius says. Eventually Brando agreed to play the part. Once he committed, Coppola’s backers let him cast the rest of the film with lesser-known actors.

Milius is unimpressed by “Redux,” especially the 20-plus-minute scene at a French plantation. “When you’re going up river, looking for a crazy savage, you don’t want to stop and have a French dinner. I think Francis was right to cut the scenes out in the first place. They throw the movie out of balance.”

Coppola seemed to lose his creative bravado after “Apocalypse.” “The movie definitely took something out of him,” Milius says.

“I told him there’s a price to pay for you messing with the war. It’s bad medicine. Everyone who worked on that movie is like a Vietnam vet. It was the most profound experience of their lives, and no one was ever the same again.”

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Hollywood was never the same again either.

The debacle of “Heaven’s Gate” came less than a year after “Apocalypse.” The studios reacted by curbing filmmakers’ freedom--and artistic ambitions. It would be hard to imagine any studio today allowing a director the free rein Coppola had making “Apocalypse.”

Frustrated by his inability to mount his personal projects, Milius doesn’t mince any words. “They’re all nabobs. The film executives today are all in a heat-seeking contest--all they care about is who’s hot and who’s hip. They’d rather work with a hot new video director because they think he won’t give them any [expletive] about the characters or the story. So the most celebrated directors are not the ones who make the best film, but the ones who please the audience.”

Milius says he recently met several young screenwriters at a party. “They were all very handsome and they said they wanted to be famous. They asked me what I had wanted when I was young and I said, ‘I wanted girls and I wanted to make my Vietnam movie.’ ”

When he grew tired of hearing the young writers talk about fame, he reminded them of what Gen. George S. Patton, one of Milius’ favorite warrior princes, had to say on the subject: “All glory is fleeting.” It’s a maxim that’s just as true in Hollywood as it is on the battlefield.

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The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions, ideas or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com


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