On October 4, 2016, the Austin Film Festival releases the book On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films.
For over 20 years, AFF has gathered the top screenwriting talent in the industry, placing them in conversation with one another at both the festival and its Writers Conference; Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films is a collection of these discussions. The tome is another edition in the festival’s On Story series of books (the first, Screenwriters and Their Craft, was published in 2013), as well as its On Story television series with PBS. The talent pool in these pages is remarkable: Paul Thomas Anderson interviews Jonathan Demme; Sydney Pollack and Deadwood creator David Milch get candid; Judd Apatow moderates a talk with the late, great Harold Ramis. (There’s also a foreword written by James Franco.)
The following conversation between moviemakers John Milius and Oliver Stone is an excerpt from the book—from a chapter titled, appropriately, “A Conversation with John Milius and Oliver Stone.” Milius is best-known for writing Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now, as well as countless other hits; he also wrote and directed Big Wednesday, Conan the Barbarian and cult hit Red Dawn, and was the subject of a 2013 documentary Milius. Academy Award-winner Stone’s streak of politically charged films continues with his latest, Snowden, released on September 16; he also has a lavish biographical coffee table book, The Oliver Stone Experience (by Matt Zoller Seitz), currently in bookstores.
Together, the two legends speak about their affinity for war films (from Platoon to Starship Troopers) and a filmmaker’s responsibility to depict war in a way that is telling of its horrors but still cinematic and ultimately entertaining. – Caleb Hammond
John Milius (JM): Many of our perceptions of World War II come from films, and those are the perceptions people wanted us to have. It’s only now that we can look at them another way. We couldn’t have made a film like, let’s say, the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, where Americans are being blown to pieces and all that. Though some films were pretty harsh during World War II, stuff like A Walk in the Sun, which is probably one of the quintessential war films.
Oliver Stone (OS): Lewis Milestone, John Ireland, a beautiful film. That and Men at War in the Korean War affected me. Those are the two most realistic films I responded to as a kid.
JM: Men at War I haven’t seen in a long time, but it’s stunning. I remember I saw it when I was a little kid, and it so affected me. And also The Bridges at Toko-Ri. It’s funny, these war films were so patriotic and didn’t have anything unusual to say.
OS: Yeah. That was a shock to a ten-year-old.
OS: Because the heroes often died in the end.
JM: They seemingly die for nothing, and then in the end, they bring up the point, “What was this war for?” It’s funny, because there are so many World War II films or Korean War films, and a few of them stick out, but I remember the effect that films can have. When I was growing up, living in La Jolla, it was not a fancy place. It was next to Camp Pendleton, so all the people who you knew were marine dependents. A lot of them lived in La Jolla. I remember going to this movie called Retreat, Hell!, and in the middle, these guys are running out of ammo and more and more Chinese are coming up, and all of a sudden the sky breaks open and here comes the corsairs and the flying boxcars dropping ammo. The audience stood up, all of these adults—not kids but adults, because they were fathers and wives—and they stood up and started cheering, because they needed that. Nobody knew when this war was going to end.
OS: I think this is a very nostalgic point of view. And we are talking about our youth, but as we grow up, things change. I went over to Vietnam and spent fifteen months in the field, and John knows quite a few veterans and is quite a good shot himself. We may agree on nostalgia—I’m not sure where we stand in the present environment—but all I can say is, I’ve grown up with militarism and violence in film for years. This is a staple of life. I say this in reference to what happened, because Platoon was a big victory for me. It went against the grain, because I was told again and again, from ’76 on, “You can’t make the movie, it’s too realistic, it’s a bummer.” Instead, we had Rambo and then Top Gun. Top Gun is a very well-made film, but it’s very devious. It makes the statement of basically saying, “Yeah, bring on World War III.” That’s the way I see the film, and I think it’s a horrible message.
Platoon came out, and it was a brief antidote, and there was a series of those kind of movies, up and through the nineties, and what I think happened is really historically fascinating. I’ve said this before, but I noticed in the American culture a pullback into the shock and awe, this worship of technology, which we find in our movies again and again. Saving Private Ryan is a worship of a certain “America won the war” ethic, which does not allow for Russia or our allies’ huge contribution. Basically, without Russia smashing Hitler’s military machine, we would’ve lost millions of more men. But that’s another conversation. Pearl Harbor is an obscenity to me because it doesn’t really share what happened and it remythologizes history in the wrong way. Then we have Black Hawk Down. It’s shockingly remote, impersonal, and a Pentagon view of what the soldier should be that has not anything to do with the reality we saw. Black Hawk Down received several Academy Award nominations because it’s a very well-made picture, but it’s a lie. Everything was pulled and propagandized because the Pentagon was involved, and what happened? All the shock, awe, and all this great war stuff, and what do we do? We go right back into Iraq after having this spate of Vietnam films, including John’s, that made us question Vietnam. So it was very disheartening for many veterans, including myself. And I can’t speak for all, but Iraq is a nightmare déjà vu situation.
JM: I have to tell an Oliver story. I always quote this because you know I love this story. Everybody was raving about Saving Private Ryan, and I liked the beginning of Private Ryan. I thought it was extremely well done, and I asked Oliver what he thought of it. And of course he came through with flying colors and said, “I would have shot Tom Hanks.”
OS: For people who haven’t seen the movie, Hanks drags his poor platoon halfway across France looking for one soldier, which is ridiculous in the first place. Practically every single member of his platoon is killed. What I’m saying is, once you start losing men, and eventually most of your platoon along the way, any leader’s credibility is going to come under question. Men don’t die for officers or sergeants when it makes no sense. They would’ve taken control of the platoon and if necessary, killed Hanks. But the mission in the first place was not real—a product of a screenwriter’s mind. In other words, this was a wholly hypothetical situation, which allowed for a false heroism. The irony is the film was treated as realistic because of the withering opening sequence on the beaches, and I think that sequence is very powerfully done. But after that it becomes a ridiculous, old, Frank Sinatra kind of World War II movie.
JM: And I love it.
OS: People will do tremendous things in combat. They will save, reach out for the wounded, try and save the wounded—bouts of heroism—but to sustain that plot, it borders on the absurd. It’s like a Waiting for Godot movie.
JM: There are things in that movie that are very realistic and very well done. Then all of a sudden, everyone is bunched up together, talking—because he has to have everybody there talking—and of course, they were never bunched up together. Because that’s a good time shoot them, when they are bunched up together.
OS: But we have to be careful. There’s a bigger issue, which is calling together the national sacrifice of World War II and saying this is what’s missing in our generation—all that Tom Brokaw bullshit, like we’re guilty, like we didn’t do it right. The Greatest Generation, but they were scared shitless. I talked to a lot of the vets later—I grew up in New York, my father was a veteran. I remember guys who fought in the Pacific, and they would say it was a shit war. Island to island, they hated it. There was fear. Read any of the books, whether it’s [James] Jones or Norman Mailer. John knows them all. It was a shitty, hard, miserable existence. These guys were not these great heroes. They were heroic for surviving, but most of them will say, honestly, “Don’t make a big deal out of me.”
JM: But they seem to say, which most survivors of war will say, “I was doing my job,” because that covers it. That’s about all you can say. And even in Platoon you have every character represented: Tom Berenger, he loves the war; he really has no place to go when that war is over. Willem Dafoe, who doesn’t love the war, but he does a good job. Then you have Charlie Sheen, who really wants to be out of there. So you have the spectrum. One of the best war movies, and probably my favorite war movie of all time, is a movie called Battleground, which is a William Wellman movie about the Battle of the Bulge.
OS: Wellman was in World War I.
JM: And everything is in that movie. You’ll see every character, every point of view. There are people who want to be there, people who don’t, people who are complaining. You actually see something that probably was never in an American movie before: you see a guy turn coward, and he’s the hero of the movie. It’s Van Johnson, and the SS is coming in, and there’s a firefight, and he gets up and runs. He runs around this bridge and flops down, terrified. He’s sitting there and realizes he’s broken. Then all of his buddies flop down with him and think he’s taken them around the flank, and all of a sudden they can shoot. But he knows he didn’t, and that was a very powerful scene.
The Line between Realism and Drama
OS: Well, I’ve obviously played with that line. You take license because the real distance is further in reality. The enemy is harder to see. The violence is sometimes awkward and not graphic. I think we all have taken liberties in licensing to goose it up. I’ve been criticized for it because war is oddly beautiful; it’s got this fatal beauty. I think Terry Malick did a beautiful job with The Thin Red Line. It’s a movie with poetic voice-overs. Is that serving a purpose? Yes, in a strange way, it’s a fever. War is a fever for those guys. There’s something enticing about going into the army. If you’re a young kid and you see The Thin Red Line, you might want to go in. Apocalypse Now, you want to go in. Even Platoon made some of these kids want to go in.
JM: The whole idea of the Vietnam War, and probably any war, if you look at it, there’s a sense of absurdity. A friend of mine who is a SEAL, he trained and had to get into the SEALs. He went through BUD school and trained and was so tough that way. And suddenly, he said, it was like a blink of an eye and he’s in the Delta somewhere, and they’ve dropped him off with no radio, no contact, and the next SEAL is a thousand yards down the rice paddy. He says, “What am I here for? How did I get in this much trouble? I’m hearing everyone in this country doesn’t like me. All the bugs are trying to get in me.” All he’s figuring out is how to stay alive for that night, until somebody will come and get him, and that’s realistic. That’s where everybody is, and so if you betray that, it’s not real.
OS: Just to make one new point, which I think is overlooked too much: people ask me, what is the difference between Iraq and Vietnam? One of the differences is that we were truly a citizen-soldier, drafted army in Vietnam. In Iraq, it’s purely enlisted men, purely volunteers, and I think there’s a difference in values there.
JM: What was very good about the draft, and why there should be a draft again, is because everybody should do national service, whether it’s being in the army or something else. They should have to have their lives interrupted, whether it’s working on the roads or whatever. The draft took people and said, “There’s something bigger than you. It’s gonna come in and mess with your life. It’s gonna take you and force you to live with people you don’t know about. And it’s gonna force you, in the case of Vietnam, you might get killed.” I remember when the draft was around. Big Wednesday surfers had no problem dealing with the draft. They went down and they made a sport of getting out of the army. But there were many who went in, and it was an interesting thing that whoever it was, whether it was surfers or hippies, they couldn’t avoid this problem. Some fled to Canada, and that messed up their lives. Whatever they did, they had to become engaged in the world, and what I think was really bad, is that kids have grown up without being engaged with the world. They’re not even engaged in what their country’s doing. They just want to sit at their computers.
OS: I wouldn’t go that far. I think one of the best war films of recent times, and I know this is controversial, is Paul Verhoeven and Starship Troopers. You see a battle class, an elite class. These are elite soldiers, and everyone in Iraq knows, have $15,000 worth of technology on them. I get the picture. But they’re all volunteers. They’ve become loyal to the army, and it becomes like in Rome, becomes almost a robotic force that’s divided from a normal American culture.
JM: Yeah, they are, and the rest of the culture looks at them as cops.
OS: And they come back with cop attitudes and military attitudes, and they bring that violence back. It’s a very strange time we’re living through. The consequences are still coming up, as I try to show in Born on the Fourth of July with what happens after war when a guy comes home in a different frame of mind.
Representing the Vietnam War On Screen
OS: The first successful Vietnam film was The Green Berets. If John Ford had done it, it probably would have been a pretty good film, but because it was John Wayne and the Green Berets, it was a tired, typical, kind of 1950s film. But it was very successful because people wanted to see any- thing about what was going on and because that movie came out right at the beginning of the war controversy. And the other film that came out at the same time that was very successful, and a very good film, was Patton. MASH was also very good.
I think Coming Home stands out as one of the more realistic ones for me. I loved Apocalypse Now and I loved The Deer Hunter, but I think John would say they were a little larger-than-life. They were not in the reality levels of Coming Home, or what I attempted to do with Born on the Fourth of July and Platoon. Different movies have different meanings, and they’re both huge symbolic films, but I wish Brando had done a little more homework and learned his dialogue.
Anyway, the point is, films did take a twist. Rambo is a crucial film because it made a fortune, and it was a revisionist point of view. The military didn’t fuck up in Vietnam, the politicians did. They stabbed us in the back, which is the old Hitler routine from World War I. Don’t buy it for one second. Military fucked up in Vietnam. The leadership was terrible. The policy made no sense. The base camps, the money… the whole Goddamned thing was fought wrong to begin with. The policy of body counts, kill counts—some of the stuff we’ve learned we are using in Iraq. But we are still not mixing with the people. We are not getting the hearts and the minds. That’s how you’ve got to win these civil wars. There’s no way that our policy in Vietnam could have succeeded on a military level. Rambo sold the opposite theory and was very successful. I’m glad Platoon caused a few black eyes, I really am, because I think that class, some sunshine patriots, will always buy the Rambos.
OS: In Born on the Fourth of July, the interesting thing about Ron Kovic is he wants to be John Wayne. He goes to Vietnam as a boy from Massapequa, gets his spine blown out, ends up in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, but keeps fighting back after great despair and comes back as another form of hero—a hero who questions authority, questions his government, unlike the John Wayne figure who went to Vietnam. But don’t forget Hamburger Hill was also a patriotic attempt, though I think, much too pro-American. The guys who are running up the hill are the good guys. There’s no sense of the Vietnamese point of view. Forrest Gump is a wonderful film, but it certainly has its own view of history: Vietnam is represented by the legless veteran Gary Sinise, whose point of view is wholly militaristic and not at all what Born on the Fourth of July stands for.
JM: I liked Forrest Gump. It’s a good film. You can enjoy a good film, and you can disagree with it. There is nothing wrong with it. Actually, I liked that better than any of Zemeckis’s other films.
On Belief and Movies
JM: No matter how bitter and cynical you are—and Oliver was there, so he became very cynical—you still can’t accept the idea that your government is going to do something that’s a screwup. You think that behind it all there’s a really good reason for something we don’t understand. We were raised that way. But in fact, the most horrifying thing is when you realize that bureaucracies can screw up.
OS: I bet George Bush saw Black Hawk Down and loved it. We know that Nixon watched Patton twenty times before he bombed Cambodia. Americans worship violence. They worship shock. They worship awe. They called it that. We went out and we did the same thing. And the media that was so anti-Vietnam by the 1970s, where did that media go? To sleep. And we keep doing it. I’m not as cynical as John thinks. I really hope and hope. But I feel sorry for the Iraqi people—the people from both countries who have been killed and wounded by the war.
The best antiwar film for me is Dr. Strangelove because it gets to the point. I think it’s brilliant. I think it shows the consequences of this kind of mad thinking. The sadness of this society for me is we read the news- papers every day, we watch television, we grow accustomed to having madmen in power acting insanely. We believe their behavior is sane, but it isn’t. They talk aggressively and we accept it. We’ve accepted so much from this administration, and we’re sick of it.