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Oliver Stone and John Milius on War Cinema: An Excerpt From Austin Film Festival’s On Story

Oliver Stone and John Milius on War Cinema: An Excerpt From Austin Film Festival’s On Story


When War Films Do a Disservice to the Public

JM: I think when they cheapen human life, they do a disservice. The beginning of First Blood is pretty good because there’s this guy and the police pick on him and they hunt him, and then toward the end of the film, he suddenly burns down the town and shoots everybody with his M60, and people are being shredded everywhere. Human life is cheapened, and it throws away everything the film did good up until then. A lot of action films just cheapen human life.

I remember in The Thin Red Line, which I liked a great deal, that when they finally take the hill, every time they shoot, the Japs just fall down. Well, all of you know people don’t fall down when you shoot them. They scream. They thrash. It’s not very pleasant. And it was strange because the film was so good up until then. Obviously, somebody advised him to do that. I can’t imagine he could’ve ignored that, because everything else was so carefully done. But I don’t like that. Whenever I see that in a film, I feel it cheapens human life.

Rescue-Mission Films

JM: I like rescue-mission films. It’s a human story, and you can approach the whole thing bleakly, but I love the idea that people are going to rescue somebody and bring them back—whether it’s some fantastic thing, like Missing in Action, or even going into the battlefield and bringing some- body else back. I mean, it’s one of human beings best impulses.

OS: Well, Black Hawk Down is one of the prime examples of an aborted rescue film. You know, guys go out, they get shot down. It’s a typical American thing about getting the casualties right away. This is a big issue in war. Do you advance your mission, or do you save the wounded? There’s no question in intelligent thinking—you advance the mission. Why would you endanger more people by saving the wounded? You become all fucked-up if the enemy gets away. You’ve got to keep going, that’s the idea. Then you come back. In Black Hawk Down, they kept sending more and more fucking people in there, and they get shot down. But one thing that stood out and just bothers the shit out of me is when the pilot is going down, and he knows he’s going down. Here he is, Mr. USA on the radio, signing off in perfect militaristic jargon. There was nothing human.

JM: Yeah, I wanted to follow what was going on in Black Hawk Down, and I couldn’t in the movie. In the book it was very clear. What I thought was very good in the book was that these people were questioning themselves, saying, “Am I going to deal with my courage? Am I going to stand up to this situation?” The guy fast-ropes down, and by the time he gets to cover he’s shot three children, two women, and one terrorist. And now he’s in a whole other situation. He doesn’t know if he’s going to get out of there. And they didn’t really deal with that in the movie. They were just running around, shooting where they were supposed to. In the book, there was a lot more consequence to what they were doing, and I agree with Oliver. In the movie, there were no consequences.

OS: Let’s talk about internal wars. I mean, how many of these crime shows have taught these cops how to behave? They run around, they pull out their gun, they all look the same. It’s the same thing—it could be Newark, it could be Mogadishu. What the hell is the difference? Crime shows are a form of police training. It’s a police behavior, police enforcement. It has a lot to do with military. Police and military crossover.

Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima

OS: I think Eastwood did a great job on Flags of Our Fathers. I think he was honest, and the film had integrity. From what we saw of Dirty Harry, Eastwood was a different person back then. He was a very violent man. Clint Eastwood is so much like a John Wayne, if John Wayne had transitioned into another personality. The older man is far more mature and far more interesting to me.

JM: I liked the book Flags of Our Fathers a great deal because of some of the views it shared on what and where we came from and how different we were from 1939 to 1945. What I found fascinating about the book was that three of those guys came from homes with dirt floors. We can’t conceive of that today. I thought, in the movie, these guys being taken aback by the phoniness of the situation they were put through—they knew what it was. They knew what it was long before they got there. I wanted more reflection on them and how they represented their cross section of America. The most interesting character in Flags of Our Fathers, the book, is the fellow who wrote it, James Bradley. His father ends up owning a funeral home and becomes a pillar of the community. He feels since he’s gone through war and he’s had this horrible experience, he can take care of the dead, and nobody else can do that. So he’s helping the community, and I thought that was a very noble character. I would’ve liked to see that movie concentrate on that, like, “What is able to come out of this?”

My favorite war film of all is Seven Samurai, which is a war film. But I like Braveheart. I think Braveheart is very good. He did a really good job. He did good with the telling of the story and everything. Anytime you have the Scottish killing the English, it’s pretty good—getting even, you know.

OS: I think those two examples are brilliant, good films. Very well made, but also very important messages, because they had the soldiers defending the weak, those who could not defend themselves. Those that were fighting for freedom in Braveheart and Seven Samurai, they were defending people who were not warriors, they were farmers. I think that was the original mission for soldiers. I mean, I’m not a pacifist. There are times when you have to strike, and you have to be violent about it. That’s part of life.

War is a part of evolution. War is not just shooting at each other. War takes the art of making films, making a living, having children, and being born or dying. War is happening all around us, all the time, because it’s the nature of life. Although there are times of great peace, shooting wars are almost the regeneration of civilization. I thought we overcame that with the apes and made some great progress until the 20th century. But we’ve had a setback. I really go back to the concept that we have to find a way in ourselves to get peace. The aggression in us is there, as Kubrick pointed out in 2001 and in Paths of Glory and A Clockwork Orange and Strangelove. It’s what you do with yourself to tame the beast. It’s a question of your character. MM

On Story—Screenwriters and Filmmakers on Their Iconic Films is on sale starting October 4, 2016 courtesy of University of Texas Press.

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