Hollywood Barbarian

Column: The Romantic genius of John Milius

Art by Gary Locke
December 26, 2014

Everyone has a favorite John Milius story. This is mine:

It is the mid-1980s. There is a party at the house of screenwriter Paul Schrader. Milius, who wrote Dirty Harry and Apocalypse Now and directed Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn, is there when Pauline Kael arrives. Kael is the liberal New Yorker film critic. To her, a Milius film is only slightly better than a slime mold.

Milius has had some wine. He has an intermediary tell Kael that he would like a "conference" with her. A message comes back: Kael wants to know if Milius, who in meetings with executives was fond of displaying pistols, is armed.

"Tell her I’m not armed," Milius says. "But I myself am a weapon."

I love this episode because it illustrates the mythic dimensions of Milius’ reputation in Hollywood, the way in which he came to resemble the charismatic and unpredictable and dangerous heroes he created for the screen. And Kael’s reluctance to confront the filmmaker whose art she did so much to degrade, her alternation between rhetorical ferocity and social cowardice, is characteristic of certain types of left-wing movie folk, as we see today in the studio reaction to threats made against The Interview.

Indeed, there may be no better moment than now to reflect on the life and work of John Milius, the Romantic genius whose influence spans the films he wrote, the films he directed, and the films such as American Graffiti (1973) and The Big Lebowski  (1998) whose characters he inspired. The documentary Milius (2013) is available for free on Amazon Prime. It is the best place to start for someone eager to learn more about Hollywood’s most notorious conservative, a natural storyteller attracted to, as his daughter puts it, "the extreme man who knows no fear."

Dirty Harry
Dirty Harry

Born in 1944 to a Jewish family in St. Louis, Milius’ childhood heroes were Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, John Wayne, and Chuck Yeager. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was seven years old. Milius was a troublemaker, a raconteur, a tall and hefty teenager who surfed and shot and dreamed of a military career. But he couldn’t enlist: asthma. "It was totally demoralizing," he once said.

Milius’ inability to fight in Vietnam led to a profound crisis of identity. What to do? One day he wandered into a retrospective of the films of Akira Kurosawa. He found his calling somewhere in the images of armored samurai enforcing ancient codes of honor. He enrolled in the film school at the University of Southern California. It was, he said, "the West Point of Hollywood."

Milius was among the early graduates of film programs at USC (George Lucas), UCLA (Francis Ford Coppola), and NYU (Martin Scorsese) who established the contemporary movie experience. They were joined early on by Steven Spielberg, who had been rejected from USC twice but won a job at Universal television nonetheless. The group socialized, promoted, and collaborated with each other.

Milius was known for his writing ability, his girth, his bravado, his hijinks, his politics. He was skeptical of government and defended the Second Amendment and supported the war in Vietnam. He mocked the counterculture that was on its way to becoming the dominant culture. The hero of the student revolutionaries was Ché Guevara. Milius’ was Theodore Roosevelt.

These were not the dominant opinions in Hollywood. Hippies often wore buttons emblazoned with peace signs and the slogan, "Nirvana Now." Milius changed the peace sign into the silhouette of a B-52 and replaced the slogan with "Apocalypse Now." Nor were his antagonisms limited to his generation. One day an instructor told George Lucas that a film of his could not be shown because it would make the other students feel inadequate. Milius punched the instructor in the face.

By the time he graduated in 1967 those traits of Milius’ personality that would most inform his work were set: stubborn independence, an oppositional mentality, ambivalence toward authority, and a fascination with manliness, with confidence in the face of risk, with extremity, violence, heroism, and honor. He was a cinematic Romantic trafficking in intense emotions, in heightened dangers, in pristine settings and noble savages.

And he was one of the first members of his class to get an actual job. The B-movie studio American International Pictures (AIP) hired Miliius as a writer. His first script was a remake of the Dirty Dozen called The Devil’s Eight (1969)—eight, because AIP couldn’t afford 12 actors. Next George Hamilton asked him to script a biopic of daredevil Evel Kenievel (1971). The subject of compensation arose. What do you want? Hamilton asked. Milius answered: "I want girls, gold, and guns."

It was the sort of exchange that one expects to find in a Milius screenplay: the uncompromising and emphatic demand of a rugged, authentic, and independent man. Milius became famous for the sound bite, the killer speech, the character or turn of phrase that would haunt audiences after repeat viewings. From Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973): "Do you feel lucky, punk?" "Go head, make my day." From the story of the U.S.S. Indianapolis in Jaws (1975): "The bomb. The Hiroshima bomb." "The thing about a shark, he’s got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll’s eyes." From Apocalypse Now (1979): "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." "Charlie don’t surf."

Actor Sam Elliott sums up the Milius style when he says, "He doesn’t write for pussies and he doesn’t write for women. He writes for men." The typical Milius screenplay has no hugging or learning experiences, few roles for women and children, and lots of struggle and violence and gore. This emphasis on war, bravery edging on recklessness, feats of strength, and vengeance made him a popular screenwriter. Milius’ script for Jeremiah Johnson (1972) became a hit for Robert Redford. He sold The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean to Paul Newman and John Huston for $300,000 in 1972—the equivalent of more than $1.5 million today. Apocalypse Now originated in bull sessions with Lucas and Coppola and earned him an Academy Award nomination. "Everything memorable about Apocalypse Now was invented by John Milius," says Coppola.

His directorial debut came in 1973 with Dillinger. The film is noteworthy for the complexity of its depiction of the title character, played by Warren Oates. Dillinger is less the picture’s anti-hero than he is its antagonist, fleeing justice in the person of Special Agent Melvin Purvis (Ben Johnson), the true hero of Milius’ story, an indefatigable lawman who recognizes the skill and fearlessness of his quarry.

With The Wind and the Lion in 1975, Milius appeared set to release a film every couple of years. Embellishing a historical episode in which President Teddy Roosevelt deployed the Marines against a Berber warlord who had kidnapped U.S. nationals, Wind and the Lion brought Milius into contact with Sean Connery, features historically accurate battle scenes and a thrilling score by Jerry Goldsmith, and in its speeches distills the essence of Milius’ philosophy.

In 1978 he made a coming of age story, Big Wednesday, a beautifully shot and bittersweet exercise in nostalgia about a group of surfers in southern California divided by Vietnam and the onset of adulthood. It was a flop. Milius was bereft. He wondered whether audiences were interested in the movies he wanted to make. He considered joining the French Foreign Legion. "But I couldn’t decide to fly to Marseilles in first class or coach."

If Wind and the Lion and Big Wednesday are his most personal films, Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984) are the fullest expressions of Milius’ artistic vision. It was Oliver Stone who wrote the initial screenplay adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s pulp fantasy stories. Milius picked it up and re-worked it and sold it to producer Dino De Laurentiis.

Conan the Barbarian / AP
Conan the Barbarian / AP


Milius wanted bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to star. De Laurentiis said absolutely not.

So, De Laurentiis said in his Italian accent, who’s it going to be?

Milius paused and said: "Dustin Hoffman."

De Laurentiis exploded in curses. But Milius got Schwarzenegger.

Conan was a hit, a brutal and exciting and weirdly captivating two hours of beheadings, swordplay, orgy, and percussion. For his follow-up Milius chose an anti-war screenplay by Kevin Reynolds called Ten Soldiers. When he finished with his rewrite the script had become Red Dawn, a depiction of the insurgency that follows a Soviet-Cuban invasion of Colorado at the beginning of World War III. The film was released to box office success but withering disapproval from critics, who considered it obscenely violent and reactionary and implicitly fascist.

How you feel about Conan and Red Dawn is a good clue to your politics. A lot of liberals hate these movies; a lot of conservatives love them. And yet, when one watches closely, the caricature of Milius as a fire-breathing cigar-smoking NRA-board-member Republican is exposed as false.

Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn are not partisan movies. It is not political scenarios that attract Milius but pre-political ones. He is drawn to landscapes where there is no law, no sovereign, no state, to the desolate places where men must make their own way. His characters are renegades. They either oppose the dominant order like Dillinger, Kurtz, and the Great Raisuli (Sean Connery), or they exist outside it entirely like Jeremiah Johnson and Conan the Cimmerian and the Wolverines. The authority figure Milius admires most is Teddy Roosevelt, exponent of muscular Christianity and the New Nationalism, frontiersman, soldier, hunter, dynamo. Not exactly a square.

Milius’ characters do not reside in the United States. They reside in states of nature. And it is in this state, Milius believes, that the true character of an individual, his guile and wit and vitality and mettle, is revealed.

Nor are the relationships that most interest Milius political. His solitary men enter into attachments not out of biological or ideological loyalties but out of sentiment and memory and place. Dillinger’s gang is a troubled and malformed simulacrum of a family. Raisuli leads a tribe of brigands. The protagonists of Big Wednesday share a love of the beach and of waves. Conan’s mercenary fellowship bonds over tribulation. The Wolverines are a pack of insurgents. Indeed, one of the teenagers in Red Dawn is reduced to the point where he recognizes that they are not fighting the Communists for ideas or for glory but simply "because we live here!"

The apolitical nature of friendship and its importance to Milius is underscored by the fact that Schwarzenegger, Bryan Singer, Michael Mann, Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Richard Dreyfuss, Harrison Ford, Scorsese, Stone, Ed O’Neill, Robert Zemeckis, Kathleen Kennedy, Sylvester Stallone, and many other actors, writers, editors, directors, and producers appear in the 2013 documentary. These friends—the closest of which, Spielberg and Lucas, are prominent liberal donors—understand that the partisan can be separated from the personal and that Milius’ views do not conform to the typical left-right divide.

These friends also know that Milius may not be a tragic writer but a comic one. "I have a healthy sense of the absurd," Milius has said. It is at the absurd extreme—consider Apocalypse Now—where the best black comedy is mined. In the late 1970s, Milius and Spielberg collaborated on 1941 (1979), a farcical send-up of Los Angeles at the beginning of the Second World War. There are moments throughout the filmography that cannot help being funny: The sex scene between Conan and the sorceress, Conan in the snake pit, the Soviet renovations to the local movie theater and drugstore, the reeducation camp in which Harry Dean Stanton’s character pleads, "Boys! Avenge me! Avenge me!" And anyone who casts Sean Connery as a Berber prince knows how to laugh.

While Milius is more interventionist and pro-military and unapologetically American than your average filmmaker—he understands the utility and necessity of force—the inherent silliness that runs through much of his work reveals a melancholy worldview that should not be ignored.

Red Dawn
Red Dawn


The very point of Red Dawn may be less obvious than its fans and critics believe it to be. "I think it shows the utter futility, a certain desperate futility, of war," Milius has said. "In the end of the movie, in spite of all that heroism and valor, the reasons and revenges on both sides, and everything else, all that’s left is a plaque, a lonely plaque, on some desolate battlefield that no one ever goes to."

I do not mean to rob Red Dawn of its jingoistic charms. I mean only to suggest that Milius cannot be dismissed out of hand as an unthinking manufacturer of violence, to advocate the serious appreciation and consideration of his work. For the past decades have not been kind to him.

The reception of Red Dawn affected Milius more deeply than the commercial failure of Big Wednesday. Executives were reluctant to back his movies. He believed himself the victim of a liberal blacklist. And he was unwilling to make the artistic sacrifices necessary for steady work. Then studios interfered in the production and with the editing of Farewell to the King (1989) and Flight of the Intruder (1991).

At the beginning of the twenty-first century a corrupt accountant left Milius near bankruptcy. Looking for work so he could pay for his son to attend law school, Milius approached his friend David Milch and asked for a staff position on Deadwood. Milch was flabbergasted. There was no way he could walk into the office as Milius’ superior. So Milch himself paid for Ethan Milius to go to Loyola. And then, after creating Rome for HBO, John Milius paid Milch back.

Milius fell victim to stroke in 2010. Now 70 years old, he is in recovery, and is said to be continuing his development of Genghis Khan. But the reality is that his presence was missing from Hollywood long before his illness. The absence is jarring: Where is the filmmaker today with the audacity, the verve, the primal sense, the gift for the theatrical, the unapologetic love of soldiering and ribaldry and camaraderie and courage of John Milius? Who is the filmmaker today of whom Pauline Kael would be afraid?

Noting his size and demeanor, his gentility and ferocity, Milius’ friends liken him to a bear. It is a comparison he has adopted. And it is the bear’s fate to which Milius seems destined. "Loneliness," Teddy Roosevelt says of the bear in The Wind and the Lion. "The bear lives out his life alone. Indomitable, unconquered, but always alone. He has no real allies, only enemies. But none of them are as great as he."