John Milius (April 11, 1944) is the director and screenwriter that nobody knows, and yet some of his dialogues are the most memorable and repeated by lovers of the seventh art.
When we hear “go on, make my day!”, we automatically think of Clint Eastwood as Dirty Harry. When we hear “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” we inevitably hear in our heads the Ride of the Valkyries, and imagine the helicopters of Apocalypse Now. And if we think of Jaws, we probably remember Captain Quint’s (Robert Shaw) monologue, telling the fascinating story of the USS Indianapolis.
All these phrases come from the creative genius of John Milius. Yet, the general public has no idea of who he is. Milius was a college classmate of Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and George Lucas, who not only always considered him one of their closest friends, but also idolized him and thought he was the most talented of them all. In his student days, before fame and money, they considered him to be the best filmmaker, especially in his facet as a screenwriter, and were convinced that he would be the one to succeed and make a career in cinema.
He was nominated for an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Apocalypse Now in 1979, although he did not win. As a director, in Conan the Barbarian (1982), he defended Arnold Schwarzenegger as the only possible protagonist, when no one but Milius saw him as an actor, thus forging one of the greatest stars that action cinema has ever known.
However, Hollywood, so prone to promote mythomania and praise their creators, decided to hide Milius and abandon him to oblivion. Because John Milius was a very proud right-wing man, and that was unbearable for a Hollywood dominated, then and now, by very left-wing people. Milius is probably one of the screenwriters with the most cancelled projects known to man.
This is how Milius explained his relationship with Hollywood: “I’ve always been considered a nut. They more or less tolerated me. But it has certainly affected me. I’ve been blacklisted for much of my career because of my political beliefs, probably as any writer would have been in the fifties. Only my political stance is the other side, and Hollywood has always veered to the left.”
To get an idea of what Milius is like in person, both physically and personality-wise, we need only to think of the character of Walter in The Big Lebowski, played by John Goodman. This unmistakable character is based on Milius, also much loved and admired by the Coen brothers.
Curiously, despite being considered a dangerous and crazy right-winger by the Hollywood system, Milius sees himself as a “zen anarchist,” and has the respect and affection of his more left-wing colleagues, such as the aforementioned Coens, or Oliver Stone himself, a pop icon of progressivism.
John Milius, fascinated by guns and war -some of his jobs required payment in kind, in the form of collectible weapons-, was for many years a high official of the National Rifle Association (NRA), and achieved his greatest commercial success in 1984 with the war film Red Dawn. Released during the last years of the Cold War, the film depicts the military invasion of American soil by Soviet and Cuban troops, and how a group of patriotic teenagers, trained in the use of hunting weapons by their parents, organize themselves as guerrillas to defend the land of the free and home of the brave against the communist invader.
It was an absolute box-office success, and Ronald Reagan himself considered it one of his favorite films. With this film, Milius launched a whole generation of young actors to fame, such as Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, Lea Thompson and Charlie Sheen. However, the specialized critics, aligning themselves with the Kremlin’s opinion, trashed the film, accusing it of being reckless and provocative, even considering it a threat to world peace, and calling for its cancellation.
This great public success, paradoxically, meant the beginning of the end of Milius’ Hollywood career, who, to make matters worse, a few years later discovered that his accountant had stolen a large amount of money from him, leaving him in ruins and plunged into depression.
There is an anecdote that explains very well the deep conservative values and personality of John Milius. Broke, and in order to pay for his son’s college education, Milius asked his friend David Milch, showrunner of this western, for a job as a staff writer for the Deadwood series. Milch refused because he believed Milius was too great a writer to share a desk with mere television scriptwriters. Milch offered to personally pay for his son’s college and, although reluctant, Milius accepted.
Shortly thereafter, Milius became a huge success as the creator of the series Rome for HBO -without this series there would be no Game of Thrones today -and he repaid his friend in full. David Milch confessed that Milius had been the only person he had lent money to who had paid him back.
In 2010, John Milius suffered a stroke that caused him to lose the ability to speak and write. It is ironic that the person whom George Lucas, Steven Spielberg or Francis Ford Coppola consider the best storyteller and dialogue writer ever, lost the ability to express himself. With physiotherapy and speech therapy, Milius has managed to gradually recover his faculties, not without great effort and frustration, since inside his brain the brilliant ideas are still boiling, but the disease does not allow him to articulate them.
Sometimes life is cruelly poetic, and two illnesses have prevented Milius from entertaining us with his fascinating stories: stroke now and leftism before. A recurring theme in his films is that of the effort and sacrifice of his characters, who have had to face great challenges and swim against the tide to overcome life’s obstacles.
If neither leftist censorship nor stroke have managed to silence him completely, we trust that John Milius, like his characters, will manage to recover and finish his ambitious unfinished project, a film about Genghis Khan. Just now that Hollywood seems to be in the hands of China, we can’t think of a more appropriate challenge, only up to the level of a right-wing film giant like John Milius.