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John Milius in His Time

There is so much more to the great conservative director than Red Dawn.


As a dyed-in-the-wool conservative in an industry dominated by left-wing conformists, the filmmaker John Milius has long affected a fatalistic tone about his place in show business. “I was always a pariah,” Milius once said in an interview. The 79-year-old director of Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn and co-writer of Apocalypse Now hasn’t made a motion picture in close to a quarter of a century, so it’s hard to argue with him.


Was there ever a time when Hollywood could have made peace with Milius? In fact, Milius knows better than most that Hollywood could be a pretty conservative place in the 1950s and early ’60s. He was born in 1944 in St. Louis, Missouri, but spent much of childhood and young adulthood in Southern California.

Back then, the reigning star was John Wayne and the most widely acclaimed director was John Ford. Many of the leading filmmakers were either men’s men, such as Robert Aldrich, Howard Hawks, and Raoul Walsh, or outright patriots, such as Frank Capra and Leo McCarey. Not all of them were conservative politically—not by a long shot—but almost none could be described as left-wing in the modern sense of the term. 

By the same token, Hollywood once supported causes and practices that would be abhorred by the woke today. The Production Code enforced moral standards. The blacklist was in living memory. The brave filmmakers who broke it as Otto Preminger did (rightly in his case) when he made sure that Dalton Trumbo was properly credited with writing his masterpiece Exodus were regarded as genuine outliers. There were countless Republican-boosting movie stars: Irene Dunne, Ginger Rogers, Barbara Stanwyck, Jane Russell, Shirley Temple. 

That was true, and then it wasn’t. By the late 1960s, when John Milius attended the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts, the movie business was being convulsed by the counterculture. Hippies, dropouts, and dopeheads had emerged as a constituency. These were the days of Woodstock, Easy Rider, The Strawberry Statement, and Zabriskie Point. Peter Bogdanovich, a conservative by temperament, once told me that he witnessed the rude-mouthed weirdo Dennis Hopper tell off the genteel George Cukor: “We’re going to bury you.”

Ironically, this atmosphere undoubtedly improved the career prospects of Milius, who—like his pals George Lucas and Steven Spielberg—would have been seen as a conduit to the youth movement and therefore given a wide berth. The trouble was that Milius was not interested in channeling flower children but in paying homage to the strong, stoic men he had revered as a youth. 


“My heroes when I was a little kid were the incomparable Gene Autry, Roy Rogers,” the filmmaker said in the appreciative 2017 documentary Milius. “John Wayne was an equal influence. Oddly enough, Chuck Yeager, because he broke the sound barrier.” The inclusion of Yeager in Milius’s litany of heroes wasn’t odd at all. From an early age, Milius seemed to regard life as a series of tests of physical stamina and strength. Taking advantage of his coastal upbringing, he developed into an expert surfer.

He has consistently said that he regretted not having served in Vietnam. “I thought I’d either be killed or have a military career,” he said in Milius. “I had asthma and I washed out. It was totally demoralizing. I missed going to my war.” His delight in firearms was so complete that he is said to have agreed to rewrite Dirty Harry only if he was given a sought-after gun. Even as an older man, his appearance suggests brute force: stocky, bearded, his pursed lips either issuing politically incorrect pronouncements or chomping on a cigar. 

Early on, Milius was amusing enough—and sufficiently lucky in his connections—to be consistently employable. He wrote or co-wrote a spate of punchy, tough-minded movies, including John Huston’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, Sydney Pollack’s Jeremiah Johnson, and the first Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force. When Steven Spielberg was making Jaws, he tapped Milius to enlarge and heighten a famous speech in which Robert Shaw recounts the sinking of the USS Indianapolis and the subsequent attack on its unlucky survivors by feasting tiger sharks (the final version of which seems to have pieced together by Shaw, himself a fine writer). 

Alas, the center would not hold. Milius was smart enough to recognize that modern audiences would not accept his worldview in its pure, unvarnished state. When he began directing, he sought acceptable vessels to get across his martial vision. 

Historical settings provided the filmmaker with some cover. His first three directorial efforts—Dillinger (1973), The Wind and the Lion (1975), and Big Wednesday (1978)—were each set in the distant or recent past, when displays of gallantry, integrity, and occasional lethality were palatable. His later films were at their most successful when he arrived at altogether fantastical contexts for his worldview, namely, Conan the Barbarian (1982), starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

In not serving in Vietnam, Milius missed his war; by accident of birth, he also missed his moment. As a filmmaker, his central message boiled down to this: giants once roamed the Earth—the key word being once.

This idea is given its most deliriously grand expression in The Wind and the Lion, which adapts the so-called Perdicaris affair of 1904, in which Greek-American writer Ion Hanford Perdicaris and his stepson were kidnapped by Moroccan bandit Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni. In the film, Raisuni is transformed into Raisuli (Sean Connery), who takes as his hostage the high-born American widow Eden Pedecaris (Candice Bergen) and her two brave and intensely curious offspring, William (Simon Harrison) and Jennifer (Polly Gottesman). Through diplomatic and military means, President Roosevelt (a superior impersonation by Brian Keith) seeks to free Mrs. Pedecaris and her brood. The drama revolves less around their fate—as played by Connery, the witty Raisuli never seems a real threat to them—than on how quickly the Moroccan brigand and the American president will realize they are two of a kind. 

Raisuli speaks with inquisitive admiration of his adversary across the sea. “This President Roosevelt, he would try and take it himself?” he asks Eden. T.R., for his part, recognizes a comrade of sorts. “Sometimes your enemies are a lot more admirable than your friends,” says the president, who, in Keith’s effusive characterization, is a man who takes great delight in great power. “Have the train go slowly,” Roosevelt says to an advisor on a whistle-stop campaign appearance before adoring crowds. “I want to listen to them for a while.”

The Wind and the Lion is not really about a clash of civilizations. Milius is ecumenical in his admiration for sheer force. He savors the swordplay of the Raisuli, but he also relishes—and draws out to great length—an extraordinary scene in which the Marines march through the streets of Tangier, plowing down bystanders, on their way to capturing a palace. The film reaches its ecstatic high point when young William dozes off with images dancing in his head of the Raisuli fighting, leading, terrorizing.   

Sometimes Milius’s extreme vision can seem like satire, but his sincerity was confirmed in his greatest film, Big Wednesday. The film is a beautifully ungainly study of three friends who forge bonds on surfboards during a span of twelve consequential years from 1962 to 1974. The surfing scenes are cinematic feats. As the three friends endure coming-of-age traumas—alcoholism and vagrancy, unrepentant draft dodging, admirable service overseas—their mastery of the waves gives their lives a special largeness and purpose. In Milius’s world, surfers taming an ocean is not so different than Marines subduing a palace.

Milius was on borrowed time in the 1970s. By the 1990s, his time was up. Whatever leeway he had been given was gone after several films—Farewell to the King, Flight of the Intruder—failed to make a dent at the box office. His friends remained devoted to him, but they carried on with their own thriving careers in his absence. He has not gotten behind a camera since he made a miniseries about T.R. for TNT in 1997, the superb Rough Riders. He accumulated writing and producing credits on the HBO series Rome in the 2000s, but that’s about it.

In hindsight, perhaps it was a blessing that Milius made films in a hostile age. Milius was always destined to be a contrarian artist. He coined the phrase “Apocalypse Now” after reacting badly to peacenik buttons that read “Nirvana Now.” If he had been born 30 or 40 years earlier, he would not have stood out as dramatically. His pugnacious outrageousness was no more pronounced than Sam Fuller’s, his militarism no more hawkish than John Ford’s. In his time, though, Milius was unique.