John Milius is less well known today than his contemporaries Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. He’s only noticed when conservatives require a public face for the NRA or need an example of how right-wingers are blacklisted in Hollywood (Milius hasn’t worked steady since the 1990s). But once upon a time Milius was the hottest screenwriter in 1970s Hollywood. He penned the first two Dirty Harry films (1971 and 1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), which earned him an Academy Award nomination. Moreover, he has created phrases that are part of our cultural history, such as Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” Called by Spielberg the “best storyteller” of his group, he has also been the go-to writer for many directors; when Spielberg was stymied on how to begin and end Saving Private Ryan, it was Milius who suggested the older Ryan visiting the grave of the soldier who saved him.
In interviews, Milius comes off every bit as colorful as the rumors. His love of guns (he frequently accepts payment for scripts in the form of a firearm) and his maverick conservatism (he is so anti-statist that he calls himself “a zen anarchist”) certainly puts him at odds with Left Coast Hollywood. But what is fascinating, and a testament to his talent, is the array of liberals interviewees (Harrison Ford, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Oliver Stone) who are frankly admiring of him. In one of the interviews Spielberg stated:
“John is our scoutmaster. He’s the one who will tell you to go on a trip and only take enough food, enough water for one day, and make you stay out longer than that. He’s the one who says, ‘Be a man. I don’t want to see any tears.’ He’s a terrific raconteur, a wonderful story teller. John has more life than all the rest of us put together.”
Milius was born in 1944 and was moved to California while still a child. He quickly became obsessed with surfing and credits surfer storytelling as educational to him as a screenwriter as apprenticing under John Huston. Wanting to be Hemingway at an early age, Milius drifted into film after watching John Ford and Howard Hawks (two equally colorful movie makers) and attended the famous University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television along with George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
But Milius was also obsessed with serving in the military and attempted to enlist in the Marines during the Vietnam War. He was declared 4-F because he was asthmatic. Reviewing his film output, helpfully provided by clips selected by the documentary director for their violence, one cannot help concluding that Milius has used cinema to overcompensate. His Dirty Harry mows down leftwing revolutionaries. Jeremiah Johnson blows away Vietcong-like Indians. Conan beheads Manson-like flower children of a cult. And in his ultimate fantasy, Red Dawn, sportsmen like himself take the fight to the Communists.
Milius is unapologetic about his politics. He proudly calls himself a “right-wing extremist” who hates all “forms of government.” But he also has a hatred of corporate America, declaring himself on that issue “a Maoist.”
He claims to be blacklisted in Hollywood because of these views. While possibly true, the impression that viewers might take away from the studio members interviewed is that profit was the key to his banishment. Milius’ humor-free heroes and his message promoting the erotic possibilities of violence may have made him box office poison as much as any conservative views; Francis Ford Coppola was aghast at Milius’ original ending for Apocalypse Now in which Kurtz and Willard join forces to repel a Cong invasion merely because “it feels good” and changed it.
Milius is not only a documentary worthy of its subject, but it also shows how the older generation of liberal filmmakers, unlike their younger counterparts today, could separate their disagreements from talent. Of all of them, Milius has remained a maverick and certainly delights in some of the political ruckus he causes.