Saturday, September 13, 2014

John Milius, Motorcycle Muse to Sons of Anarchy

by Gilbert Colon

“Sing, O muse, of the rage of Achilles.”

“…My whole concept of what I do goes back to the old theme of telling the story, of the Homeric thing of being able to tell the tale of the Trojan Wars again and again…”
—Milius in Milius

In the epic Epix channel documentary Milius (2013), filmmakers Joey Figueroa and Zak Knutson interview FX’s Sons of Anarchy creator Kurt Sutter about movie maverick John Milius, famous for directing films such as Red Dawn (1984) and for his script work on Apocalypse Now (1979).  Unlike other Milius guest interviewees–Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas, and Clint Eastwood among them–Sutter has no direct association with Milius besides his expressed admiration.  In his segments, Sutter acclaims Milius for being “one of the first guys who said, ‘Hey, this is how people talk,’” and concludes from his “amazing body of work” that “if somebody asked me to describe who the dude was, I’d say he was a storyteller.”  

But Milius’ mark on Sutter’s creative process may go far beyond simple story and dialogue.  A more concrete clue lies in Milius’ end credits when Miami Vice scenes and the superimposed B-movie episode title “Viking Bikers from Hell,” pseudonymously written in 1987 by Milius, flash across the screen with other clips from his filmography.  Though Sons of Anarchy is stylistically, tonally, and philosophically different from Milius’ episode, it is not a leap to see how it put the gas in the tank of Sutter’s imagination.  

During Milius’ rolling credits, Miami Vice co-creator Michael Mann cops to the amusing circumstances of how the episode was hatched.  “I says John, come on and write an episode, it was a phone call … ‘Great, I got something I want to do called “Viking Bikers from Hell.”’  So I bought it on the title alone.”  Starring actor Reb Brown, a Milius alumnus from Big Wednesday (1978) and Hardcore (1979), “Viking Bikers from Hell” begins when his character, also named Reb, is sprung from prison.  Reb Gustafson is a man on a mission and a motorcycle (a Yamaha Fazer 700cc) after a biker brother, “The Wire,” is killed while selling drugs.  Reb’s obsessive devotion towards The Wire puts him on the warpath with a fanatical vengeance.  With The Wire’s true killer unknown to Reb, he methodically murders The Wire’s every customer in a ruthless process of elimination.  As it was vice detective Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) who blew The Wire away rather than blow his own cover, his deep cover alias makes its way to the berserker-biker’s death list, catapulting the two on a bloody collision course.

Evidence of Milius’ anonymous authorship of the episode abounds.  The opening credits read “STORY BY WALTER KURTZ,” the Milius nom de guerre recognizable from Apocalypse Now’s crazed Colonel Kurtz (memorably played by Marlon Brando).  The episode even opens and closes with Apocalypse Now’s signature sun, blood orange against a crimson sunset sky at the beginning and rising to cast a red dawn at the end.  Throughout, Milius’ obsessions are all over “Viking Bikers from Hell.”  A prison psychologist compares Reb to Genghis Khan, emperor of the Mongols (the Asian horsemen, not the California motorcycle gang on the ATF’s watch list).  A Genghis Khan biopic has for ages been an unrealized dream project of Milius, and the documentary Milius animates some of his battle scene storyboards.  Its proposed lead is no less than Don Johnson’s Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man co-star, Mickey Rourke (“Motorcycle Boy” in Coppola’s Rumble Fish).  In Red Dawn (1984), just before the Soviet paratrooper invasion begins, a schoolteacher lectures his classroom about Genghis Khan’s military tactics.  In The Wire’s videotaped last will and testament in Miami Vice, he charges Reb with a duty: “I want you to play Geronimo,” Geronimo: An American Legend (1993) being a future film from Milius’ pen.  Then there are the episode’s allusions to German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, just as there are in Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, a film that also obliquely references Genghis Khan on two occasions.  Milius’ fascination with the motorcycle subculture on display here, those steel horses of the highways, years later gives birth to a Showtime Rebel Highway telefilm Motorcycle Gang (1994).  Even the “Viking” in the title anticipates his unfilmed 1990s screenplay The Northmen.  Mrs. Milius herself, Elan Oberon (Red Dawn, Farewell to the King), is cast as The Wire’s tragic sister who wants nothing to do with her brother’s life – “You come from a world I wish never existed,” she soulfully, bravely, tells Reb to his face.  

“The greatest pleasure is to vanquish your enemies
and chase them before you, to rob them of their
wealth and see those dear to them bathed in tears, to
ride their horses and clasp to your bosom their wives
and daughters.” 
                        —Genghis Khan

“The noise was like a landslide, or a wing of bombers passing over.  Even knowing the Angels, I couldn’t quite handle what I was seeing.  It was like Genghis Khan, Morgan’s Raiders, The Wild One and the Rape of Nanking all at once.”
—Outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson in Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga

The Violators, Milius’ Miami Vice biker gang, are a breed apart from Sutter’s “Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club” (also known as “the Sons” and SAMCRO).  As the episode title suggests, these “Viking Bikers from Hell” are almost a nomadic Aryan Brotherhood on wheels (or at least wolf pack leader Reb is).  They are the very opposite of, for example, moviemaker George A. Romero’s quixotic fellowship of Renaissance fair motorcyclists in Knightriders (1981) questing for a chivalry that flowered in a mythic England where King Arthur warred with Viking invaders.  In contrast, Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy began, its founder’s journal entries reveal, as an idealistic motorcycle club started by American Vietnam vets and other anti-establishment types looking to drop out of society and live according to their own unfettered notions of American freedom and individualism.  In the present-day, however, the “Ride Free or Die” band of brothers has devolved into a “Fear the Reaper” organized crime family dealing in guns, drugs, and murder, far from the vision of its founding member John Teller (and one of the dangers of going down the road of “do your own thing”).  Another Vietnam War serviceman, Colonel Kurtz, goes his own way too in Apocalypse Now, well off the beaten path and straight into the Heart of Darkness.

La propriété, c’est le vol!  (Property is theft!)”
—Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, What is Property?
Or, an Inquiry into the Principle of Right and
of Government

“Not here for your money.  Here for the bank’s money.”
—John Dillinger in
Michael Mann’s Dillinger

The original intellectual underpinnings of Sutter’s Sons are the radical leftist founding fathers of anarchist theory, international syndicalist Emma Goldman and French socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, both quoted in the personal journal manuscript of founder Teller, deceased father of the series’ main star, Jax (the melancholy Dane of Sutter’s “Hamlet-on-Harleys,” played by Charlie Hunnam).  Jax himself explicitly rejects Nietzschean thought: “There’s an old saying, ‘That what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’” – the opening Nietzsche aphorism in Milius’ Conan the Barbarian – “I don’t believe that.  I think the things that try to kill you make you angry and sad.”  In the pilot episode, Jax discovers his father’s diaries and learns of the early days of Teller’s easy riders when they began as “a Harley commune” based on “social rebellion.”  “It wasn’t outlaw, it was real hippie s—t,” he tells his mother with stars in his eyes.  Later that season, the reigning SAMCRO president Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman) even hurls the counterculture epithet “fascist pig” at a federal agent.  One wonders how Milius, wishful to complete a Theodore Roosevelt trilogy he began with The Wind and the Lion (1975) and Rough Riders (1997), would regard the Sons of Anarchy considering his hero TR’s war on anarchists (after their own Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley), not to mention the writer-director’s own self-avowed “Zen anarchism” and politics affectionately tarred by Milius interviewee and Conan collaborator Oliver Stone as those of a “crazed right-wing nut case.”  Ironically, earlier in the documentary director Randal Kleiser (Grease) describes Milius as, of all things, a “wild anarchist.”  

Despite sharing a gun- and drug-running business model, the hell-on-wheels Vikings of Miami Vice subscribe to a much different weltanschauung than the Sons.  Reb’s prison reading taught him Nietzsche: “The will to power, eternal recurrence.  The man understood it all.”  Reb’s infatuation with a philosopher in the Nazi Party pantheon is one of many hints that he would fit right in with Marilyn Manson’s Aryan Brothers on Sons of Anarchy more than SAMCRO.  Reb’s Nordic name “Gustafson” and the references to the Vikings and Valhalla (down to a song by that name by Chris Barr and Rick Conrad) drive the point home.  To the sister of a fallen fellow biker, he even says with a solemn stoicism, “My loyalty is honor,” a close translation of the Waffen-SS motto etched on their ceremonial daggers.  The jailhouse shrink who wrote Reb’s psych evaluation equates the “extraordinary bond” between Reb and The Wire to that of “Hitler and Himmler.”  These are not sensational embellishments, however, considering how historical Hells Angels regalia includes the hooked cross, Iron Crosses, Luftwaffe insignia, and SS bolts, a connection that does not go unnoticed by biker films like American International Pictures’ The Glory Stompers (1967) and Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels (1966).  Even a comedy starring marginal Milius trouper Eastwood, Every Which Way But Loose (1978), comprehends this.  

Naïvely dismissing the Hells Angels “swastika fetish [as] no more than an antisocial joke,” embedded journalist Hunter S. Thompson, in his ride-along exposé Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, almost seems to speak to Sutter from out of the past, like Teller’s “Motorcycle Diaries,” when the gonzo journalist advises Hells Angels to “drop the swastika and decorate their bikes with the hammer and sickle”–the Sons come close, adopting the Proudhon anarchy-is-order symbol–“[because] that would really raise hell on the freeways...hundreds of Communist thugs roaming the countryside on big motorcycles, looking for trouble.”  Nazi paraphernalia may be absent from SAMCRO, but in the end the paths of both gang’s lunatic fringe worldviews lead to the same place of crime and violence, inciting Smith & Wesson-armed Crockett and shotgun-pumping Tubbs to conclude cheerfully that the only way to restore “cosmic balance in the universe” is to be “better shots” than “the monsters, the freaks, the animals.”  

More Milius motorbike menace can be seen in his 1994 remake of the 1957 AIP Motorcycle Gang which the director calls, in an IGN interview by Ken P., “one of my favorite films.”  What begins as a road movie turns into a showdown when psychopathic Jake and his heroin-dealing road pigs-on-hogs terrorize a peaceful Ike-era family traveling the lonely Southwest highways to California.  Jake is played by actor Jake Busey – it must be contractual that Milius’ motorcycle hoods keep their real first names a la Reb–son of Big Wednesday’s Gary Busey, a motorbike enthusiast who made headlines with his near-fatal 1988 crash that left him with brain trauma.  Elan Oberon from “Viking Bikers” plays the postwar family’s adventuresome mother, and once again her real-life husband, Mr. Milius, supplies her with lines that put the motorcycle outlaw phenomenon into moral perspective.  When her bad-boy crazy teen daughter (Carla Gugino) compares the bikers to “Beatniks” and Brando in The Wild One, Oberon’s otherwise adventuresome mother counters with the facts of life, dismissing Jake and his crew as nothing more than “gangsters” and “dangerous criminals.”  Jake proves Leann’s mother right by later kidnapping the dewy-eyed daughter, violating her, and offering her up for gang rape.

“The Menace is loose again, the Hell’s Angels…
running fast and loud on the early morning freeway,
low in the saddle, nobody smiles, jamming crazy
through traffic and ninety miles an hour down the
center stripe, missing by Genghis Khan
on an iron horse, a monster steed with a fiery anus,
flat out through the eye of a beer can and up your
daughter’s leg with no quarter asked and none given.”
—Outlaw journalist Hunter S. Thompson in
Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga.
“No questions,  no quarter,  no mercy.”
—Daughter Leann in voiceover from Motorcycle Gang.

From “Viking Bikers” to Motorcycle Gang, Milius’ iron horsemen are elemental forces of terror, not a tragedy of fallen ideals as depicted in Sutter’s series.  As rough and tough as Sons is, Sutter downplays many of the more loathsome realities of biker culture, institutional gang rape being one, perhaps fearful few would follow weekly exploits as described by the unusually sympathetic Thompson in Hell’s Angels.  None of Milius’ motorpsychos make any pretense of belonging to a legitimate “MC” (motorcycle club).  What film critic Elvis Mitchell says in Milius about the filmmaker’s work, Dillinger (1973) from AIP in particular, holds true for his biker fare: “They were enormous morality plays.  He didn’t romanticize Dillinger in a way that Coppola romanticized the Corleone family.  He basically still said that as interesting a guy John Dillinger is, he’s a criminal.”  In the end, Motorcycle Gang’s common criminals wind up dead as Dillinger when they prove no match for World War II vet, avenging father, and “Go for Broke!” Zen samurai Gerald McRaney (Major Dad himself) in the film’s Straw Dogs finale.

“No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that’s in the right and keeps on a-comin’.”
—Captain Bill McDonald, Texas Ranger.

Elsewhere, Milius’ fetishization of the motorcycle mystique can be seen in his screenplay work for Magnum Force (1973) and its Moto Guzzi Eldorado V7 850 Police Specials as well as Evel Knievel (1969) and that daredevil’s trademark Harley-Davidson XR-750.  In Milius, George Hamilton, who starred as Knievel, relates efforts to recruit Milius for a shooting script.  “But would you like some motorcycles?  ‘Motorcycles,’ he said.  So I got him a motorcycle and he was riding on the motorcycle and he was in love.”  When script progress stalled, Hamilton threatened “there’d be no more riding the motorcycles...,” after which time all 140 telegrams of Milius’ complete screenplay poured in piecemeal over the wire.  

More recently in 2003-2004, both Stax from IGN FilmForce and Ain’t It Cool News reported that “Milius’ biker flick Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death)...hit a roadblock,” describing the project as “a modern day Western, set among motorcycle gangs, drugs and codes of honor in the modern Southwest...a neo-Western following ex-Marine/ex-Hell’s Angel/ex-con Jonah Hawk’s vengeful campaign against the Road Wolves, a vicious biker gang that kills Jonah’s friend and kidnaps the man’s girlfriend.  Jonah targets the Road Wolves and their allies, culminating in a battle royale in the New Mexico desert.”  With a Southwestern setting, an ex-serviceman, Mexican drug-smuggling, bikers, and a kidnapping, it feels like “Son of Motorcycle Gang.”  Go further west and Jornada del Muerto could almost be Sons of Anarchy.  

Shotgun with Milius!

Milius continues his road romance with motorcycle culture in his novel Homefront: The Voice of Freedom, a thriller from Del Rey co-written with Raymond Benson about an invasion of the U.S.A. by a Korea unified under dictator Kim Jong-un, and the grassroots American “resistance cells...made up of soldiers...National Guard units...policemen...firefighters, Texas Rangers, and plain, ordinary folks…”  With Communist Koreans instead of Communist Russians, Homefront sounds vaguely like the Red Dawn remake (2012) Milius publically skewered.  Several scenes feeling like outtakes from Jornada del Muerto dot the landscape of this book: 

“Motorcycles.  Another gang of outlaws ... Now to get out of there and back to the Marine base.  ... Walker got off the Spitfire [and] drew the kitchen knife from the jury-rigged sheath on his calf … Four serious motorcycles roared into the backyard –a couple of Harleys, a Kawasaki, and a Triumph [carrying] seven men … all whooping like American Indians circling the covered wagons ...”  

The description of one rider sounds like a nod to the preproduction casting of WWE pro wrestler and sometimes actor Triple H in Jornada del Muerto

“The one … riding alone was bald, had the build of a professional wrestler, and had tattoos up and down his bare arms.  All of them wore black leather jackets with the sleeves cut off.”  

Again in Homefront, as with Motorcycle Gang and the Milius-scripted Extreme Prejudice (1987), there is Mexican border strife.  In true Teddy Roosevelt fashion, Milius bares his teeth in a 2009 phone interview with CNN about the War on Drugs south of the border: “We need to go down there, kill them all, flatten the place with bulldozers so when you wake up in the morning, there’s nothing there.  I do believe if you have a military, you use it.”  Somewhere Oliver Stone is rolling his eyes.  

“I want frontier justice on this, boys.  You forget
about the rules because down on the border,
I write the rules.”
—Texas Ranger in Motorcycle Gang
while loading his six-shooter.


What do I want?  I want respect, that’s what!  
Respect for human life and American property!  
And I’ll send the Atlantic Squadron to Morocco to get respect.

That’s illegal.

Why spoil the beauty of the thing with legality?
—President Theodore Roosevelt ordering the rescue of a kidnapped American family held captive by Moslems in The Wind and the Lion.  

In 2010, former Hells Angel and Rourke outrider Chuck Zito (Homefront and HBO’s Oz where bikers ally with Aryan Brotherhood) sued Sutter for stealing the idea for a motorcycle gang show he pitched to FX (under the name Nomads, then The Wild Angels).  The case was settled in favor of Sutter in a court of law (not on the street) because Sutter was able to prove he shopped Sons of Anarchy to HBO and AMC prior to FX.  In a conciliatory move, Sutter gave Zito a recurring fifth season guest role as Nomad biker Frankie Diamonds, along with some screen time on his Discovery Channel documentary series Outlaw Empires (which features episode titles like “American Bikers,” “Aryan Brotherhood,” and “Italian Mafia”).  If Zito needs more consolation, he owns the authentic “Black Death” that Rourke rode in Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man and not long ago received a blurb from Milius himself for his autobiography Street Justice.  Zito appears in Milius to credit the moviemaker, along with Rorion Gracie, with “start[ing] the UFC [Ultimate Fighting Championship] back in 1993.”  Gracie, in his clip, explains how together they came up with the octagonal cage to keep ultimate fighters in the arena, but only after Milius first proposed “a moat with alligators or sharks or an electric fence.”  

Milius’ own strange and terrible cycle sagas–“Viking Bikers from Hell,” Motorcycle Gang, the unmade Jornada del Muerto–all notably predate both Zito’s Nomads and Sutter’s Sons.  Of course no broadly-sketched creative concept can be uniquely claimed by any single creative mastermind, else nobody could ever again make another crime lab series or police procedural show.  It is a straight line from Milius and Sutter all the way back to a whole outlaw biker gang film genre stretching to The Wild One (Brando again, on his own vintage Thunderbird 650cc) and Easy Rider (where 1960s idealism, like in Sons of Anarchy, becomes an excuse for narcotics trafficking) to any number of the “bikesploitation” movies of AIP and Roger Corman, both of which employed Milius.  But this does not mean that inspiration is untraceable.  During the course of the Zito-Sutter suit, Sutter said via Twitter: “HAVING THE F***ING IDEA IS NOT THE SHOW. THERE HAVE BEEN DOZENS OF OUTLAW MOTORCYCLE TV DRAMAS PITCHED IN THE LAST TEN YEARS. NONE OF THEM HAS MADE IT TO SERIES, EXCEPT SOA...”  Naturally he is right, and none of this is to suggest Sutter has been derivative of anything of Milius’.  Just as there are radically different visions held by Milius’ and Sutter’s biker gangs, so too the depictions differ.  But Sutter is not shy about tipping his hat to the pop culture artifacts and experiences that have shaped his work, so unless footage of him acknowledging his debt to Vice, however small, exists someplace on the cutting room floor of Milius, why not speak up when the cameras were rolling?  Sutter told the Wall Street Journal (11/30/09) that he attended a birthday bash for Hells Angel founding member Sonny Barger (Lenny “The Pimp” Janowitz, founding member of SAMCRO on two episodes of Sons of Anarchy).  He also shared how in his twenties traveled cross-country on his Harley, sold it to pay for grad school, but rides one once again thanks to Harley-Davidson who sponsors his show.  Most significantly, in “Kurt Sutter Explains His Cultural Influences (New York Magazine, 9/16/13), Matt Zoller Seitz got Sutter to enumerate his muses.  Everything from Sons of Anarchy’s well-known Hamlet angle to the Godfather connection is there, along with personal political picks like Barack Obama and Bruce Springsteen.  Unsurprisingly, Sutter lists the Rolling Stones who infamously hired Hells Angels bodyguards.  In TV land, Hill Street Blues makes the cut, but oddly not the seminal “Viking Bikers from Hell.”

“For me, the stories are huge on Sons – it’s an epic show and it’s pulpy.”
—Kurt Sutter, Wall Street Journal (11/30/09)

If there remains any doubt that “Viking Bikers from Hell” caught Sutter’s eye early on, consider the Sons of Anarchy episode “John 8:32” in which Clay chomps a prison guard noseless.  The Scripture passage for which the episode is named, “The truth will set you free,” contains Reb’s exact words before he drowns a man he is pumping for information, though the only real truth these devil riders hold is best expressed by a poster for The Wild Angels that screams, “Their credo is violence!  Their God is hate!”  In another episode, “The Culling,” it is Clay’s right-hand man Tig Trager who bites an ear off a white separatist.  Meanwhile, back on Miami Vice, Crockett stops by a biker bar and roughs up the Violator’s point-man Jack Cragun, played by none other than actor Kim Coates, the future Tig on Sons of Anarchy.  “You know, I knew you were in here.  I could smell you all the way outside,” Crockett growls.  “Think it’d be better if I bit your nose off?” Cragun snarls back, recalling images of biting Mick Belker from Miami Vice co-creator Anthony Yerkovich’s other show, Hill Street Blues.  Crockett sneers, “I love it when you talk that way.  Makes me so hot!,” as it probably would the deviant Tig.  “Now we’re gonna play name the wacko!’” he continues before proceeding to use Cragun as his own personal punching bag.  Even with a malodorous Cragun stinking up the joint, at least this time Johnson refrains from vomiting on his suspect the way he does two years later in John Frankenheimer’s Dead Bang (1989) where he plays a cop gunning for neo-Nazis (and, briefly, some bikers).

“When you’re a Ranger, you’re a Ranger for life.  These guys were handpicked by the Attorney General of Texas.  They were heroes.  Guys like Bill McCulloch, Bigfoot Wallace.  Frank Hamer was the guy that got Bonnie and Clyde...These guys could ride into hell with a bucket of water.  They used to send one Ranger in to clean up an entire town.  Backup was on his hip.”
—Sonny Crockett,
Miami Vice

With all the corrupt lawmen sullying Sons of Anarchy, the series could use a straight shooter like Crockett, who in one episode called the Texas Rangers childhood heroes of his.  (Said Rangers are Milius’ true heroes, as demonstrated by those in his eponymous 2001 film, the historic ones who hunted John Dillinger, the one in Extreme Prejudice out to smash the Mexican drug trade, those who rode with TR’s Rough Riders, or the one on the trail of bikers in Motorcycle Gang.)  It would be an imaginative bit of cameo casting for Sutter to give “Marlboro Man” Johnson a second go at Tig in Sons of Anarchy.  His Crockett character boasted to the man destined to be Tig, while slapping him around during questioning: “I could do this all day, every day.”  With Sons of Anarchy’s final season in overdrive, today could be one of those days.

GILBERT COLON has written for publications ranging from Filmfax to Cinema Retro to Crimespree Magazine.  His interview with Abel Ferrara (Bad Lieutenant, The Funeral) for Mystery Scene’s Ed Gorman appeared in the anthology book They’re Here, with further articles forthcoming at sites such as Bradley on Film.  Read him at Gilbert Street and send comments to  


Jack Seabrook said...

Gilbert! Welcome to bare bones! This is a very detailed and well-researched article and I'm sure it will garner lots of interest!

Professor Flynn said...

Gil, super duper! Don't get mad that I've never watched Sons of Anarchy but you have certainly made me interested. Is this article sponsored by Time Warner Cable?