Sitting in a swank Century City hotel room with B-listers milling around the pool below me, I’m far removed from the jungles of Vietnam. Nevertheless, my mind is elbow deep in the bugs, stink and rot of the Vietnam War as I chat with acclaimed writer and director John Milius (Apocalypse Now, Big Wednesday, The Wind and The Lion, Red Dawn, Conan The Barbarian. Milius recently finished cutting the narration for a documentary film about the Vietnam War and surfers titled BETWEEN THE LINES. The following is a ‘recorder-in-hand’ impromptu QnA with Milius. — Scott Bass
SURFERMAG.COM: What’s your opinion of Between The Lines, this new documentary that you’ve narrated?
JOHN MILIUS: This movie is the real deal. This is the soil from which APOCALYPSE NOW grew out of. The surfers go out and they do it, you know… they live the whole Charlie’s Point reality… the Colonel Kilgore experience (Laughs). It’s just wonderful. I loved it. The two surfers are such great characters. What’s really remarkable is that the two sort of become more and more alike. At the very core of all true surfers, the core of our nature, is that we really do not like authority. The film really captures that and it brought the war back and it really portrays surfing as it should be portrayed. You know, as an escape and as a culture. This is one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen on the Vietnam era.
SURFERMAG.COM: There have been a few Vietnam War movies that carry in them a character or theme that’s based around surfing? BIG WEDNESDAY, APOCALYPSE NOW, even PLATOON… Why do you think directors and screenwriters have included surfers in their portrayal of the Vietnam War?
JOHN MILIUS: Well the Vietnam War was a California war. It was a clash of cultures between the United States and this far off Asian land. But even more than that it was a clash between California culture and Asian culture. There was California music, and Hells Angels flames on Huey gunships. It was a California war. I guess the surfer is a clich for the Vietnam War in the same way that the kid from Brooklyn stuck in the B-29 tail-gunner position was the World War II clich.
SURFERMAG.COM: Is it true that surfing and surfers represent the ultimate freedom so the concepts are great tools for contrast?
JOHN MILIUS: Yeah I think that is part of it, but it is also the idea that the general public thinks, ‘oh my god, when I go in the Army, I’m never going to do anything even remotely as cool as surfing.’ Surfing is completely useless. There is no redeeming value, unless of course you are a surfer. In the army you can play football or baseball or box, but surfing is completely useless. But when you think about it, it’s quite logical. I mean the concept of surfing in Vietnam makes perfect sense. There is an ocean in Vietnam. There is the South China Sea. There are waves in Vietnam.
SURFERMAG.COM: Why is the famous surfing scene that you wrote into APOCALPYSE NOW important to the movie? What did you want us to learn?
JOHN MILIUS: Well first of all, (Col.) Kilgore subjugated himself to his hero Lance (surfer). Surfing is what Kilgore loved so to have Lance in his presence, it was like having Michael Jordan or Kelly Slater in your presence. Lance was a surfing hero and like in any other sport a sports hero has a tremendous amount of weight and a tremendous amount of respect. Especially as an individual sports hero like you have in surfing. You know, Kilgore is like, ‘cool, I get to watch Lance surf.” I love the idea of this mighty Colonel getting to be a kid again. You know he says to Lance, “I really admire your cutback and your nose riding.” Of course it is still Kilgore’s world. He takes Charlie’s Point so the two of them can go surfing.
SURFERMAG.COM: That particular part of the scene, where did you get that concept?
JOHN MILIUS: The whole idea of blasting the VC off of the point so they could go surfing is an idea I got from Ariel Sharon. Sharon wanted to go skin diving near the Suez Canal. He had heard that there was a particular type of fish that lived there and Sharon wanted to go diving and see these fish. Sharon was like, ‘I’m going to go down there and GET THEIR FISH!’ (much laughter). Of course Sharon was going to be traveling by tank (laughing). You don’t get much better than Ariel Sharon. If Ariel Sharon could have been a surfer he would have been. I’m surprised he wasn’t because there is good surf in Israel.
SURFERMAG.COM: There are a lot of larger than life characters in the surf world.
JOHN MILIUS: Well Laird (Hamilton) is sort of like Daniel Boone. He’s a frontiersman. He led the way out at Peahi. He really is like Daniel Boone. He’s a very affable guy that everybody likes, but he also lives in his own distinct world. Laird is a pure character. He is as close to those old mountain men as you’ll ever find. Like Daniel Boone, Laird is the best of the best. He is the model. Laird never really sought any publicity. He was going to do what he did and what he does with or without us. He just did his thing. But it is interesting because people have found his path and cluttered it up. But for a while he was the only one, or you know one of just a few. Of course now there is a lot of guys doing it. That’s inevitable isn’t it?
SURFERMAG.COM: How do you think BETWEEN THE LINES portrays surfers in context to the average guy who had to face the draft?
JOHN MILIUS: I don’t the average guy has the balls of either Pat (Farley) or Brant (Page). I mean these guys are surfers and surfers ARE unique. Look at (Mark) Martinson. He says, “I’m not going down to that draft board. I’m a fucking surfer man (pause). I’m a surfer. I don’t even wear shoes (laughter).” We are a special breed. And Farley is like that too. He says, “I don’t mind killing gooks.” We’re surfers. We are individuals. You know Pat is the right wing side of it and Brant, you know, is sort of the left wing side of it, but you know that’s part of being a surfer. But they are in many ways the same because they are individualistic. Surfing IS it’s own culture. It’s peculiar. It’s a tribal culture. It’s not a part of normal society. We are different. We are branded. We can have jobs and everything else in society but we are different. It’s a religion.
SURFERMAG.COM: Was the Vietnam era a significant turning point for surfing as a culture?
JOHN MILIUS: Yeah, because surfers basically went hippie; Man of the land type hippies. You know, guys on Maui chanting their mantra, living off the land, eating blotter acid, surfing Honolua Bay and in their down time contemplating the ultimate Brewer gun. Now, the other significant part of surfing during that time was people like Farley. The surf media just didn’t publicize it. Surfers going to war for their country? What? They were viewed as slightly un-hip. But they became hip again with APOCALYPSE NOW and now this film. Many, many surfers went to Vietnam. Some wanted to talk about it and others never wanted to talk about it. What is great in this film is that there is no condemnation for either group, going to war or not going to war. What is really powerful about BETWEEN THE LINES is that you can really view the era in the light of time and history. For me, you know, this is my era, this is my generation. There is a time when you are distant enough from it that it becomes a piece of history. Like talking about the Civil War or World War I. You can see it clearly for what it is. It’s almost like a sigh of relief. It doesn’t have the weight of judgment anymore. The burden of judgment is gone.
SURFERMAG.COM: If there is one John Milius film, besides APOCALYPSE NOW and BIG WEDNESDAY, that a fan of your work should go see which one would you recommend?
JOHN MILIUS: Gosh I don’t know. I like ROUGH RIDERS a lot. RED DAWN. No. What they should see, I don’t why it skipped me, they should go see CONAN! (laughter) CONAN THE BARBARIAN has it all. I mean it’s got Gerry (Lopez), it’s got Arnold (Schwarzenegger).
SURFERMAG.COM: There’s a rumor floating around that your movie RED DAWN is being remade with a modern twist.
JOHN MILIUS: Well, (chuckles to himself) if Hillary Clinton gets elected President we won’t have to remake anything, Red Dawn will be a reality.
For more info go to BetweenTheLinesfilm.com