John Milius' "The Wind and the Lion": A Modern Review
Writer-director John Milius’s The Wind and the Lion premiered in May 1975 and was a modest hit, overshadowed by the release of Jaws, the first summer blockbuster, a few weeks later. Ironically, Milius also wrote one iconic scene in Jaws, that memorable monologue about the USS Indianapolis.
After I left the Miracle Theater in Coral Gables having seen The Wind and the Lion in the summer of 1975, I felt I was floating on air. As a seventeen-year-old already interested in American history, in swords and rifles, in the Muslim world, it affected me deeply and that affection has endured. Two decades after seeing for the first time, I introduced my friend, Syrian writer (and later Minister of Culture) Riad Ismat to Milius’s film, while serving as an American diplomat in Damascus. Ismat loved it. I also had the good fortune of being able to visit the sites in Spain (subbing for both Morocco and the United States) where the film was lensed, from Madrid’s train museum to the Alcazar of Seville to the beguiling castle at Calahorra near Granada.
The film is Milius’s romanticization of the Perdicaris Affair of 1904, the kidnapping of Greek-American businessman Ion Perdicaris and his British step-son by a Muslim tribal chieftain in Morocco, Ahmed al-Raisuni (called El Raisuli by Westerners), which resulted in President Theodore Roosevelt’s dispatch of much of the Atlantic Fleet to Tangier to demand “Perdicaris Alive or Raisuli Dead.” The young Milius had first read of the event in an article by Barbara Tuchman in the August 1959 issue of American Heritage magazine. He later came across English explorer Rosita Forbes 1924 book Sultan of the Mountains: the Life Story of Raisuli.
Romanticization is a good word to describe the making of a film Milius described as something out of the Boy’s Own Paper, and “Kiplingesque,” comparing it to grand imperial adventure films made by the Korda brothers like The Four Feathers (1939) and Drums (1938). In the script, Perdicaris is a woman (played by Candice Bergen), kidnapped with her two children, by Sean Connery’s El Raisuli. In Milius’s portrayal, Roosevelt not only sends the Great White Fleet, which actually happened, but sends in the Marines to seize the government in Tangier, which didn’t. Enriched by a stunning score by Jerry Goldsmith, it is a rousing, beautifully made film, as Variety described it at the time, “well-written and better directed.”
But as much as I have enjoyed the film through repeated viewings, its transcendence is not so much in it being a good adventure film but in its unique portrayal of the two main protagonists. The Wind and the Lion is one of the best film portrayals of an American president and also one of the best portrayals of a Muslim leader ever shown in a Hollywood film.
Neither should surprise. Milius’s sympathetic treatment of “savage” peoples, without watering down or softening that savagery, is a constant in his work, from El Raisuli to Genghis Khan to the head-hunting Dayaks in the underrated 1989 Farewell to the King (cruelly butchered in the editing by studio executives) to Geronimo and the Chiricahua Apache. Milius’s 1982 Conan the Barbarian movie is essentially about the fictional rise of a faux-Viking, it could have been about the rise of a barbarian king in medieval Europe. His “savage” or savage-loving Americans, men on the margins of civilization, gone into the wilderness, are also a regular theme, from Red Dawn’s wolverines to Dillinger to Jeremiah Johnson and Judge Roy Bean to assorted surfers and motorcyclists.
John Milius on the set of "The Wind and the Lion", 1975 (Courtesy of Amanda Milius)
John Milius on the set of "The Wind and the Lion", 1975 (Courtesy of Amanda Milius)
Milius made two films about Teddy Roosevelt more than twenty years apart and would have liked to have made a third, about the young Roosevelt coming of age in the Dakotas, in what would have been a first ever presidential film trilogy. American presidents have generally, aside from Lincoln, been poorly or scantily treated by Hollywood. You have Oliver Stone’s trio of Nixon, George W. Bush and (indirectly) JFK and other, hagiographical portrayals of Kennedy, FDR, and even, in 1944, of the odious Woodrow Wilson. No George Washington, but Jefferson in Paris and 1776. You have two (in my view, underrated) portrayals of Andrew Jackson by Charlton Heston in two very different films in the 1950s. Milius’s Teddy Roosevelt of 1904 is marvelously alive in Brian Keith’s full-bodied portrayal. Some might think he is portrayed as too rambunctious and forceful in the film but the Democrats in the 1904 elections actually tried to portray Roosevelt as some sort of out of control wild man, as “spasmodic, erratic, sensational, spectacular, and arbitrary” and themselves as a “safe” alternative. Milius’s fictionized TR rings true.
Milius’s Teddy Roosevelt is anything but “safe.” He and the “brigand’ El Raisuli are not so different, both men of action, men who know what they want, men on horseback, men with guns. Roosevelt wants “respect! Respect for human life and American property! And I’m going to send the Atlantic Squadron to Morocco to get that respect.” El Raisuli wistfully speculates that his ransom demands should include “gold, rifles, the head of the Bashaw in a basket of melons, the sovereignty of my people.” Neither is so much interested in the niceties of things, in abstracts such as the rule of law or international treaties, as they are in first principles, in defending their own. “Why spoil the beauty of the thing with legality?” In our world seemingly constricted by the web of international agreements, globalist cabals and leftist dark money, a man who unapologetically puts his people first, that stands up unashamedly for his own, still shocks. This was exhilarating when the film first came out (the New York Times’ Vincent Canby panned the film as “ludicrously jingoistic”), shortly after American troops left Vietnam in defeat and it exhilarates still today when so much of Hollywood’s production seems to consist of emasculated men, cartoonish boys and mewling buffoons, rather than larger-than-life characters.
The film features witty banter from and at the expense of both characters but both are, in the end, serious men of purpose and vision, vividly seen as when Roosevelt talks of the American Grizzly and El Raisuli tells of his years in prison at Mogador. Teddy’s Marines are ready to risk world war to accomplish their goals, El Raisuli tells his men that, if he is betrayed “let there be Jihad. Let the swords run with the infidel’s blood.” Teddy and, yes, the Berber El Rasouli too have elements of D.H. Lawrence’s century old description of the American soul as “hard, isolate, stoic and a killer. It has never yet melted.” Lawrence, a contemporary of the real Roosevelt and El Raisuli, actually knew very little about Americans but seemed to be contrasting the crude vigor of Americans with decadent and effete Europeans. Both of these Milius characters would rather settle thing personally. Teddy with “a couple of Winchesters and a battalion of Marines,” El Raisuli decries the Europeans who “fight as dogs” with heavy weapons, instead of settling things personally with swords or rifles where they can see each other’s eyes.
El Raisuli may be a brigand and “the last of the Barbary pirates,” and Roosevelt acknowledges the age of such driven “great men” is passing. The real Roosevelt died relatively young, at the age of sixty in 1919. The real El Raisuli, the old “Eagle of Zenat” who had survived a thousand skirmishes, would outlive him, dying a prisoner at the hands of his bitter enemy Abd El-Krim in 1925.
In contrast to our degraded, nihilistic age, both of Milius’s main characters are men of deep conviction, of “antiquated values,” as the director puts it, “if you don’t have some sort of code larger than yourself, you have nothing.” This is truth whether uttered in a movie or in our own real-life age of confusion. These are characters that believe in themselves and their mission in life. He could be speaking for either character when El Raisuli says “is there not one thing in your life that is worth losing everything for?” The Wind and the Lion is both a pleasant afternoon at the movies and a bit of a slightly fictionalized history lesson, but finally also a paean for men who fight fiercely, bloody but unbowed, for those venerable verities that endure.