The Return of Captain Milkshake
by Mike White
There was a time in my youth when it seemed that every week brought another Vietnam movie. There seemed to be a glut of Vietnam tales after the successful release of PLATOON-FULL METAL JACKET, GARDENS OF STONE, et cetera. Like all film genres, war films come in waves (witness the recent releases of BLACK HAWK DOWN, HART’S WAR, WE WERE SOLDIERS, BEHIND ENEMY LINES). However, mainstream films dealing with the Vietnam War had only a few better milestones of any merit before PLATOON-APOCALYPSE NOW, COMING HOME, and THE DEER HUNTER come to mind.
Certainly, there were “smaller” films that dealt with Vietnam but most of them, along with the aforementioned, were released after the U.S. pulled its troops out of Southeast Asia. The rare film dealt with the War in a non-exploitative manner while it was happening. Richard Crawford directed CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE six years before the official end of the War, when the fighting was at a fever pitch.
The film stars Geoff Gage as Paul Fredericks, a fresh-faced Marine back from Vietnam on a family leave to attend his stepfather’s funeral. While he’s back, Paul meets Thesp (David Korn) and Melissa (Andrea Cagan), two socially minded hippies who live in a groovy pad with several other cats and chicks. Paul falls for Melissa in a big way. However, their divergent views on the War, along with Thesp’s obstreperous banter, put their relationship in peril.
Throughout CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE, the audience sees Paul struggling to survive back in suburbia. He’s constantly reminded of events from his tour of duty, which come to light in the form of quick flashbacks that pepper the film. Despite identification with Paul, he remains something of an enigma due to his naiveté. His attitude contrasts well with the starry-eyed idealism of his new chums. None of the characters has ownership on truth and their flaws make them interesting.
More than being a pioneer Vietnam film, CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE is a progenitor of counter-culture films. The open drug use, “free love,” and motorcycle scenes anticipated those of Dennis Hopper’s EASY RIDER by months. Likewise, Crawford employed several avant-garde stylistic devices that would be unusual even in today’s cinema. Most notably, Crawford shot the film in color and b&w. For the most part, scenes of Paul in Vietnam, or when his life becomes more intense, are in color. Meanwhile his life back in the United States is in b&w.
Unfortunately, CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE is a casualty of a war between Crawford and his distributor. After playing for a few weeks, the film disappeared. It remained a faint memory until nearly thirty years later when it played at Slam Dunk in Park City, UT. Since then, Crawford’s screened it at a few other venues and has spent a great deal of effort trying to locate any remaining prints of the original fifty struck.
The film, while not perfect, remains a forgotten treasure of U.S. cinema. Cinephiles should mourn the loss of CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE. Luckily, there remains hope that the film will become available to the public in the future. If any film deserves a re-mastering and release on DVD, it’s CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE.
Cashiers du Cinemart: Why the title?
Richard Crawford: You balance aesthetics with commercialism. I wanted a title that would break through the conservative newspapers and that kids who saw the title would know that this was not their average Hollywood movie. At that time, all the rock groups were bearing names like “Surrealistic Pillow,” or “Vanilla Fudge.” In other words, you wouldn’t want to have named the thing, “A ROSE FOR PAUL.”
I thought the imagery was appropriate. This kid was a straight arrow whose father and uncle had been in the military. He pretty much bought the country line that he was going over to Viet Nam to save the world from communism. So, even though we didn’t explain it in the picture, he was so all-American that he was something like a milkshake. Plus, people would react to the title. They’d try to figure out what the hell it meant and it got peoples’ attention.
I’m not the kind of person who believes in making “important film.” My job is to entertain people. Let’s leave “important” to somebody else. What I make may turn out to be “important film” by giving people insight as to what was going on during that time but I never set out to make something grandiose. After all, it’s all show business.
CdC: What’s your background?
RC: I worked for General Dynamics and did film reports on the space program. I did a lot of writing and directing about the progress of the Mercury and Apollo programs as well as intercontinental ballistic missile development. That was my first real job out of college. It was a great opportunity. I got to have all this beautiful, expensive equipment that the government paid for and I would stay around nights and weekends and learn the craft. Within a month or so I was filming half hour film reports for the Air Force which was wonderful training as a filmmaker; you’ve got to learn how to compress time, use music, and so on.
I got out of that and started doing national commercial work for Ford, Kodak, and other companies. Then I got to the point where I had been in the business for ten years and said, “You know what? I want to make a feature film.” Everybody reaches that point that’s been a filmmaker. And then the quest was to try do something legitimate and trying to find someone to finance it.
I didn’t know where to start to raise money and I didn’t want to wait around anymore so I went to the Coronado Yacht Club. I stood on the dock and looked for the biggest boat I could find. I knocked on the side of it and told the guy that came out that I was looking to finance a movie. “You either have money or know someone who does,” I said.
After he told me that I had a lot of nerve, he invited me up for a drink, introduced me to some of his buddies and started me on that trail of chasing money. I couldn’t get anyone who wanted to make a legitimate picture. They all wanted to make “tits and ass” pictures and I resisted that for a long time. When I couldn’t raise the money I said, “Okay, I’ll do a T&A movie.” I had a friend who was dating the star of Russ Meyer’s VIXEN and I got her signed to a picture called ‘THE TEASER.’ The guy who was backing it had done some business in pornographic bookstores and very keen on the idea. I told him that if we were going to do a T&A movie that we should do it in 3-D and be the very first 3-D T&A movie.
I got everything in place but my conscience was bothering me that there was no alternative cinema and it was time to do something for the “youth market.” Kids were looking for something relative to sex, drugs, and rock & roll and not another Doris Day movie. I kept feeling that if someone could do a breakthrough movie like that it’d be thematically correct but it’d also be a great financial idea.
I went to my backer and told him that I understood that he really wanted to do this but that I had heard that X-rated movies were coming to market and, if that happened, no one would want to see his T&A movie. I told him that we could still use 3-D and make a picture for the youth market. Admittedly, it was all pretty crazy to come to him like that at the last minute but he gave me four weeks to come up with a script or the whole deal would be off.
I locked myself away in a room with a friend of mine, Barry Leichtling. He knew the “hippie scene” in San Diego. We lived there, having our girlfriends bring us food, and typing pages. We walked into my backer’s office four weeks later, plopped this thing on his lap and called him on it. In the meantime, he had gone around and talked to a lot of people who told him that what I was saying was true; it was time for some kind of youth cinema. We wanted to capture that “head market,” those kids that were lining up for the second half of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001.
CdC: What was the political/social atmosphere at the time of CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE’s release?
RC: It’s difficult to imagine a time when the Viet Nam War was kept under wraps. We weren’t supposed to know too much about it. The idea was to keep people living at Disneyland and not let them think about the war. The Military-Industrial Complex had its purpose of protecting Shell Oil, rubber plantations, and other big corporate interests over there. But it’s hard to get Mom and Dad to send their kids overseas to help the rich guys keep their stuff. So, the idea was that this was just a little “police action” and that we were sending over people to be “military advisors.”
All of a sudden, these body bags started showing up. In a conservative town like San Diego, the parents were shocked that their kids were coming back dead. There was such a good cover up of it that no one wanted to hear the truth about it. If you said anything contrary about the war at all you were deemed an insurrectionist and told to either “love it or leave it.” I thought that people should at least see both sides of the story before they go jumping into it.
CdC: How did you manage to get such big name music acts to lend their talents to the film?
RC: Steve Miller, Country Joe and The Fish, and some of these other bands weren’t very well known at the time. They were still “San Francisco groups.”
CdC: Why the mix of color and b&w film?
RC: I was really struck by how the guys I had talked with who had come back from Viet Nam were so shell-shocked. Most of them had left from an Iowa farm and within 21 hours they were thrown into a jungle where there were a bunch of guys crawling around in tunnels killing them. The shock of that shifted reality was so incredible that when they came back to the States they had a hard time adjusting to the kind of “La-La Disneyland” lifestyle.
The other word was so unreal. As a reality, it was hyper-real. I felt that there had to be some way, cinematically, to show that the Viet Nam reality was a more intense reality than this life back here. So, I thought that if I could use color as an effect other than making the whole movie in color. I’d let it be the contrast, the super-reality. So anything in Viet Nam-or in the protagonist’s life as he becomes more alive-that reality would be in color to make it all the more intense.
That’s also when I thought that I’d never seen 3-D used aesthetically, to heighten an image or to isolate it from a flat background. I thought, “Wouldn’t it be fun to use 3-D in a way other than just poking spears at the audiences’ face?” What could be better than to flash to Viet Nam and have it in 3-D and in color then go back to the kind of bland, black & white American landscape? I got a lot of criticism for my mixing of color and black & white. At that time, it wasn’t done except for, say, THE WIZARD OF OZ. I had a lot of people giving me grief when the movie came out for various reasons but a few told me, “It’s too bad you ran out of money, kid, and couldn’t make the whole thing in color.”
CdC: Did you use the standard red/blue 3-D or were other three-dimensional processes available?
RC:We used polarized filters. That was the next step up from red/blue. It still provided 3-D without affecting the color. However, it never was released in 3-D. That was the plan but our backer listened to a lot of old projectionists and old farts out in L.A. who complained about how difficult it is to run 3-D and how it would ruin our prints. They didn’t want to have to work harder and just wanted to start the movie and read their newspaper. I tried to tell my backer that if we could do this in just the major markets-Dallas, Detroit, L.A. We could promote the heck out of it and every stoney kid in America would want to see this amazing film. But, in the end, when it came down to making the prints of the film, he wouldn’t give up the additional money for the 3-D processing. This was after we had to build our own camera rigs for 3-D because they didn’t exist at that time. It was so frustrating that we had done so much but the backer wouldn’t give us the extra $25K for 3-D. It would have been killer.
CdC: Is it just me, or do the protesters, especially their leader, come off as unsympathetic?
RC: That’s part of the reality of that time. I tried to not be too empathetic with anybody. I showed Melissa as kind of a rich kid who was out slumming. There was a lot of that going on: kids getting dirty and grungy so their parents would be upset.
But, I modeled Thesp after Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman who would just be so obnoxious that the press couldn’t ignore them. The problem was that the press wouldn’t give them any coverage for their protests or marches so they became so outrageous that would get the coverage they wanted. I tried to do this with the scene where Thesp demonstrates the “nerve gas” that the protesters are going to use. Maybe I missed the mark by not making him sympathetic but I didn’t want to glorify the hippies or glorifying the soldiers. Both sides are human, both have their foibles.
CdC: How was the film received?
RC: It was amazing! Young people just lined up! When we opened in San Diego it was booked for three weeks solid. We sold every ticket. Part of that was from shooting in San Diego, so we could take advantage of that for promotion. But when the film played other theaters around the country it was being held over in several theaters. They were double-billing it at the drive-in circuit. The distributors were testing it in the Southern market to see if the Southerners would stand for it. They couldn’t afford to lose their Southern market. If they could only play it in the North they couldn’t make as much money.
CdC: What happened after the film was released?
RC: It opened against ZABRISKIE POINT, JOE and a couple other Hollywood movies and it was out-grossing them. I thought, “Wow, we’re off to a good start here.” And that’s when the backer decided that he had a picture that was going to make him a lot of money and he set out to steal it from me.
It was a classic Hollywood situation. The minute the film looked like it was going to go, then it all moved into legal maneuvering on his part to try to arrest the picture from me and take control of it. He was pretty successful and this is where I started to get the education they don’t teach you at school. It turned out to be a nearly three-year legal battle and I learned a lot of hard lessons. I finally got to the point where I got so frustrated and was so broke that I had to just let go of the picture.
CdC: So what did you do after that?
RC: I ran away to the carnival. It turned out to be a great way to travel around the country and make money. So, I’d do that in the summer then I’d come back in the winter and do film; commercials or corporate film work.
CdC: What’s the current state of developments with the film?
RC: I ran CAPTAIN MILKSHAKE out in Park City a few years ago at Slam Dunk. I got to see that there are a lot of bad pictures being made by inexperienced filmmakers. I hung around with one of the committees from Sundance and they discussed how disappointed they were with the quality of work from young filmmakers because they all seemed to be kind of college-oriented without solid stories. I realized that there’s a lot of older, experienced filmmakers with stories people will pay to see.
CdC: What can we expect next from you?
RC: I’m currently raising a large amount of capital to start up a film production company. We’re at that point where we’re coming down to final negotiations. We’re looking at bringing back the old studio model and crank out a lot of independent pictures every year, working with teams of filmmakers who have been trained so you get a really well-oiled group of people making films. Instead of making one film every two years, they could make six films in one year and, in the process, become really good filmmakers because you need to practice your craft.