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The Big Picture

'Apocalypse,' Now and Then

For the film's co-screenwriter John Milius, the redux is a time for bittersweet reflection.

July 31, 2001|Patrick Goldstein

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."

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.

"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."

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