By Sean Tuohy
Rebel. Maverick. Basis for Coen Brothers' characters. Badass writer.
These words define John Milius, the gun-toting, cigar-chewing filmmaker, who for the past 40 years has been bringing movie goers character-driven action films.
From penning the classic “Apocalypse Now” to directing the Cold War-era war movie “Red Dawn,” Milius has always written and directed films his way with little concern for the rest of the world. A brilliant, inspiring, and tear-inducing documentary about Milius' career was recently released. Milius declares himself a “Zen anarchist.” He approaches movie making the same way a big game hunter approaches a hunt; a wicked smile painted to his face just before he steps into the dark and wild jungle ready to conquer all.
Before becoming a writer and filmmaker, Milius attempted to join the military during the Vietnam War. He was not accepted for medical reasons. He was pretty bummed about this. You read that right. Milius felt he was letting his country down by not serving in a war that was slaughtering his peers and dividing the United States. Not many people volunteered cheerfully to get in that war. Milius did.
Feeling deflated, Milius went to USC Film School where his classmates were George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and some other filmmaker wannabes including Basil Poledouris (won an Emmy for his score of the mini-series “Lonesome Dove”), Randal Kleiser (directed a relatively unknown film named “Grease”), and Don Glut (wrote the novelization for “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back”). It was during this time that Milius began to craft and shaped his wilder-than-life personality. Milius was a rare breed who loved reading about war heroes and firing guns, but at the same time loved the peaceful world of surfing.
Milius penned a low-budget film before selling his script for the Robert Redford film “Jeremiah Johnson,” where it is said that Milius gave up half his paycheck so he could keep some of the guns from the movie set.
He began cranking out work left and right and worked on high profile films such as “Dirty Harry.” Yup, the most badass Magnum-toting cop in America got some of his badass-ness from Hollywood wild man Milius. You want to know which line Milius is best remembered for writing in that movie? “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” Yeah, you’re right, no one really remembers that one. Daniel Ford only says it 576 times a day. He wrote the USS Indianapolis scene in “Jaws” for his buddy Spielberg. According to the recent documentary, Richard Dreyfuss wasn’t doing a whole lot of acting as he sat there bugged eyed and slack-jawed listening to Robert Shaw nail Milius’ dialogue.
Milius adapted every high school kid’s worst nightmare, Heart of Darkness, but switched out the deep, dark Congo for war-torn Vietnam. The film proved to be a giant hit and is now a classic. The film is the reason the Writer’s Bone crew loves the smell of napalm in the morning. We enjoy the smell of victory.
Milius soon moved behind the camera himself working on cult classics like the surfer film “Big Wednesday.” He also helped bring Arnold Schwarzenegger into the main stream by casting him in “Conan the Barbarian.” Schwarzenegger, himself one of the more well-known cigar chewing tough guys, so trusted Milius that he said, “Tell me exactly what to say, when to say it, and how to say it.” We’re pretty sure that was the last time anyone told The Governator what to do.
Milius then upset a lot of people off with 1980s “Red Dawn.” The Cold War film, that featured American teenagers fighting off invading Russians, was one of the highest grossing films of its time. It was topical and raised a lot of scary questions, so logically, people hated it and Milius was somewhat. His later career would include work on “The Hunt for Red October” and HBO show “Rome.”
Look, despite everything I’ve told you, I cannot do this man justice. He is too wild and too much of a legend for me to capture in one blog post. Milius was a true storyteller; a man who is driven by that unknown force within to tell a story—and to tell it well. Milius is himself, nothing more or less. He is the embodiment of walking with a big stick; a man who walks into the room and pulls you in with his a great hook and a big swell of fear.
I want to say this piece sums up Milius’ spirit but it’s not even close. It barely scratched the surface. Milius had a stroke recently which left him without the ability to communicate easily. Yet, at the end of the documentary, he delivers Dirty Harry’s famous catch phrase and bursts out into a giggle. There’s nothing wrong with his spirit, so there’s nothing wrong with ours.
Ford and I have been writing ever since we saw that documentary. Go watch it, go watch all his movies, and then tell your own badass story.