CINEMA / John the Barbarian makes waves: Chris Peachment finds John Milius's surf movie still hanging 10

Click to follow
I wouldn't want to say this while he was in hearing range, but at heart John Milius is a big old softy. This is the man who, when Warners wanted him to rewrite the script of Dirty Harry, demanded as a first condition a twelve-bore shotgun from Purdey in London, and a clear day in which to admire it. The studio limo delivered the gun within two hours. The studio later cut his scene in which the killer hijacks a busload of children and attaches a claymore mine to the vehicle. 'What's a claymore mine?' asks one of the cops. 'Well, if it goes off,' says Dirty Harry, 'They're all spaghetti.'

This is the man who once told me that the one audience which had really appreciated his Conan the Barbarian (1982) was a drunken, howling crowd of pilots all baying at the moon over Edwards Airforce Base. 'Them, and bikers of course. They are my constituency. Unwashed, leather- clad Mongols. Hideous people.'

He didn't take to Dino de Laurentiis, the producer of Conan, and so spent hours in his office hurling a bowie knife into a life-size photograph of the man. 'A bad case of Big Shot-ism,' was Milius's diagnosis. 'Give them no respect. Always complain about the fact that he is so short. Big Shots hate that.'

This is the man who christened Francis Ford Coppola 'the Bay Area Mussolini', as a mark of respect. The stories are endless; the image, carefully cultivated, is of a strident, magnum-waving, reactionary.

Look at his films, however, and a different picture emerges. Dillinger (1973) is a raffish piece of myth-making about two hard men, Dillinger and FBI man Purvis, circling each other with a wary respect. The Wind and the Lion (1975) is a cheerfully concocted piece of desert romance, in which Sean Connery played the chieftain of the Berber Riffs with all the douce manners of a Scottish laird. In Red Dawn (1984), adolescent farm boys and girls defend their homeland in the American Midwest after Russian and Cuban paratroopers have invaded. It is a proud piece of affronted patriotism, every bit as moving as John Ford's late, elegiac films. His Flight of the Intruder (1991), was a tribute to the pilots who flew over Vietnam in aircraft with no defensive armament.

If Milius could be bothered to think about politics as something which was not beneath him, he would probably be labelled a Tory anarchist. As was revealed by Hearts of Darkness, the recent documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now (for which Milius wrote the script), he was easily the most articulate, amusing, and friendly member of that film's crew. And all of his scripts reveal a man with an overwhelming faith in human grandeur.

And now they are re-releasing the film which is his personal favourite and which can stand as the one irrefutable counter to

all the politically correct frenzy which liberals whip themselves into when confronted by his films. There are no guns in Big Wednesday (1978), only surfboards, and the endless hot days of youth, when all that mattered was chasing the big wave.

Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey are the trio of beach bums who come of age while questing for their Great White Whale - a wave so huge and so perfect it will wash the past clean and usher in a new age. The draft interrupts them. And while the war in Vietnam is never shown, its effect on those who went away, visible on their faces after their return, is as moving as any of the histrionics of The Deer Hunter.

When they finally re-unite at the beach, on 'big Wednesday', to ride the predicted wave, they step out three abreast and walk down the shore with the heroic swagger of victorious samurai. I have seen strong men reduced to wet-eyed infants at this moment.

It is a hymn to surfing, to friendship, to lost innocence, and to the honour and heroism of ordinary men. Milius himself was going to play the part of 'Bear', a grizzled old mentor to the boys, but the studio forbade it. This prompted Gary Busey to say: 'He's out there hammering and sawing, building a Milius legend.' That was 1978 and Milius has by now built that legend. And its foundation is a heart the size of a whale.

'Big Wednesday' opens at the Prince Charles (071-437 8181) on Friday.