“I love the smell of napalm in the morning”: violence and nostalgia in the cinema of John Milius

by Alfio Leotta

“'I’ve been blacklisted for a large part of my career because of my politics—as surely as any writer was blacklisted back in the 1950s,” claims John Milius, one of the most controversial filmmakers in the history of Hollywood cinema.[1][open endnotes in new window] Along with the likes of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Milius was a central figure of the so called “New Hollywood,” a period in U.S. film history spanning from the mid 1960s to the early 1980s, characterized by an anti-establishment, formally innovative approach to filmmaking. During this period Milius achieved international fame as the screenwriter of Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), for which he also received an Academy Award nomination, and as the director of a number of commercially successful films such as The Wind and the Lion (1975), Conan the Barbarian (1982) and Red Dawn (1984). More recently, Milius was credited with the creation of the HBO series Rome (2005-2007) and the invention of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, a controversial martial arts competition conceived for pay-per-view TV.

A self-proclaimed right-wing “Zen anarchist,” Milius has often been associated with provocative stances on guns, U.S. imperialism and war. While there is no evidence of an alleged Hollywood blacklisting of Milius, his political leanings have often earned him the scorn of famous film critics such as Pauline Kael who frequently wrote scathing reviews of his films. Kael defined Milius as both a “bad storyteller”[2] and a representative of the industry’s “fascism and amorality.”[3]

Within academia very few film scholars or historians have engaged with the critical analysis of Milius’ work.[4] Both scholars and critics have often overlooked the complexity of Milius’ cinematic oeuvre, which is characterized by a distinctive authorial signature and a consistent set of stylistic and thematic concerns including a peculiar portrayal of hyper-masculinity and violence, the celebration of heroism and honor and a pessimistic rejection of the modern world.

This article fills a gap in the literature by analyzing the stylistic strategies deployed by Milius to articulate some of the reoccurring themes in his cinematic oeuvre, in particular the nostalgia for a lost, idyllic past and a fascination with violence and barbarism. Violence and nostalgia are common tropes of the New Hollywood movement to which Milius belonged; however, in his films they are inflected by a peculiar style and political beliefs. The article will, therefore, contribute to current debates about the representation of violence in Hollywood cinema. The auteurist study of the formal and thematic characteristics of selected Milius’ films will be complemented by the examination of the ideological nature of his body of work.

The cinema of John Milius provides a very interesting case study as it represents a useful starting point to articulate a more nuanced approach to right-wing politics in U.S. cinema, detailing the fault lines between Fascism and other forms of conservative discourse. Recently, film scholars have dedicated significant critical attention to the work of other conservative actors and filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson. The study of the cinema of John Milius will provide a useful point of comparison to better understand politically conservative Hollywood. Furthermore, the examination of Milius’ body of work from an auteurist perspective sheds new light on the tension between personal creative vision and industrial modes of film making. To this end I will look at the way in which Milius mobilized extreme political discourses to develop a distinguishable (and marketable) authorial persona.

Milius worked as an uncredited writer on Dirty Harry for which he wrote iconic lines such as "Ask yourself one question: 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do you punk?” Jeremiah Johnson is a quintessential Miliusian hero: a loner forced by the social and physical environment to commit brutal acts of violence.
Milius achieved international fame for his work on Apocalypse Now. Dillinger, Milius’ first feature film.
For the Wind and the Lion Milius was able to cast a major star such as Sean Connery. Cult surf film Big Wednesday.

John Milius was born in 1944 to a Jewish family in St. Louis (Missouri). When he was seven his family moved to California where Milius became an avid surfer.[5] Surfing subculture played a crucial role in the development of Milius’ artistic personality, featuring prominently in some of his films, particularly Apocalypse Now and Big Wednesday. During his teenage years he moved briefly to Colorado where he became fascinated with the Rocky Mountains, which in turn served as the setting of some of his stories. Throughout his adolescence Milius developed a fascination for Japanese culture, becoming particularly interested in Japanese martial arts like Kendo and Judo.[6] During this period Milius dreamed of a military career; however, when he volunteered for Vietnam service in the late 1960s he was rejected due to chronic asthma. Milius’ inability to fight in Vietnam led to a profound identity crisis and he briefly considered becoming a historian or an artist. After attending a Kurosawa retrospective in Hawaii, however, he decided to study film at the University of Southern California.

Milius was part of a group of early U.S. film graduates that also included George Lucas (USC) and Francis Ford Coppola (UCLA). These young filmmakers, who would later form the backbone of the American New Wave, often collaborated with and influenced each other. While studying at USC Milius codirected his first movie, Marcello I’m so Bored (1966), a short animated film edited by George Lucas. The film, a sarcastic critique of the studio system and a surreal homage to both U.S. and European cinema, was structured around a series of loosely connected vignettes.[7] This was the only animated film that Millius directed, and shortly after its release he refused a job offer to work in the animation industry.

After graduating from USC, Milius was employed by American International Pictures, a production company that specialized in low-budget action and horror films. For AIP Milius collaborated on the script for a film inspired by The Dirty Dozen (Aldrich, 1967), The Devil’s Eight (Topper, 1969). Milius’ major break into the industry, however, came with the sale of the script of Jeremiah Johnson (Pollack, 1972) to Warner Brothers. Shortly afterwards Milius also sold the screenplay of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (Huston, 1972) and worked on drafts of both Dirty Harry (Siegel, 1971) and its sequel Magnum Force (Post, 1973). In the early 1970s Francis Ford Coppola contracted Milius to write Apocalypse Now, which would eventually become one of the most critically acclaimed films in the history of cinema. During this period Milius also collaborated with other members of the New Hollywood movement such as Steven Spielberg, writing the famous USS Indianapolis monologue in Jaws (Spielberg, 1975) and, a few years later, the script for 1941 (Spielberg, 1979)[8]

Milius’ reputation as a successful screenwriter eventually led to his directorial debut with Dillinger (1973), a gangster film about the life and criminal exploits of notorious bank robber John Dillinger. Two years later Milius wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion, which blended historic facts into a fictional confrontation between Berber bandit, Er Raisuli, and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, one of Milius’ favorite heroes. The commercial success of both Dillinger and The Wind and the Lion allowed Milius to get backing for a more personal project, Big Wednesday, a surfing film loosely based on his own life that celebrates friendship and lost youth. Big Wednesday was a major disappointment at the box office but eventually found a cult audience after its theatrical release.

In the early 1980s Milius achieved his greatest commercial success with Conan the Barbarian (1982), a fantasy film about the adventures of the eponymous character created by R. E. Howard. The film revolves around the barbarian’s quest to avenge his parents who have been massacred by a band of warriors led by evil wizard Thulsa Doom. Conan grossed more than $130 million at the box office launching the acting career of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of the muscular barbarian.

Two years later Milius directed Red Dawn, a popular yet controversial tale about a group of U.S. teenagers undertaking guerilla warfare to resist a communist invasion of the United States. The film outraged liberal critics and reinforced Milius’ reputation as a conservative filmmaker. Red Dawn was followed by two films set respectively during World War II and the Vietnam War, Farewell to the King (1989), which explores some of the themes addressed in Apocalypse Now, and The Flight of the Intruder (1991). Both films proved to be major commercial failures and marked the decline of Milius’ directorial career. From the late 1990s Milius became increasingly involved in television productions, writing and directing Rough Riders (1997), a mini-series about Theodore Roosevelt, and co-creating and co-producing the popular cable series Rome (2005-2007). In 2010 Milius had a stroke that left him unable to speak and walk. However, he allegedly recovered and in 2014 he claimed to be working on a script for a film about Genghis Khan, the legendary Mongol warrior.[9]

Milius' films often explore the values of tradition, adventure, spiritualism, honor and loyalty. His stories tend to focus on heroic, legendary figures such as John Dillinger, Er Raisuli or Conan. Milius consistently creates a mythical aura around the protagonists of his films: the surfers of Big Wednesday are titanic figures who seem to embody Aryan perfection. Similarly, Conan is an extraordinary individual characterized by superhuman strength. In Millius’ films, characters such as the Wolverines (Red Dawn), Dillinger or Jeremiah Johnson become living legends whose courage, valor and strength are often explicitly acknowledged by their own enemies. The mythic resonance of Milius’ heroes is emphasized by the fact that their feats are often witnessed and relayed by “mediating figures” such as journalists (Dillinger; Rough Riders; The Wind and the Lion), chroniclers (Conan the Barbarian), or external observers (Farewell to the King).

Milius’ interest in superhuman characters played a crucial role in the emergence of the so called “hardbody film,” a sub-category of the action genre which showcases hyper masculine characters (usually played by bodybuilder-actors) engaged in various feats of heroism.[10] Notable for their excessive violence and hyperbolic action sequences, hardbody films such as Conan the Barbarian focus on the sculpted muscularity and physical prowess of the body of the male hero. Conan, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, eventually became a prototype masculine figure in both hardbody action films and the Sword and Sorcery genre for several decades. Milius’ depiction of hyper-masculinity has often been interpreted as a direct reflection of the conservative ideals of aggressive and hyper individualistic masculinity espoused by the Reagan administration during the 1980s.[11] Milius’ construction of superhuman heroes, however, is also reminiscent of the ideas of traditionalist right-wing philosophers such as Julius Evola, who called for the reawakening of spiritualism and heroic ideals through war.[12]

Milius himself claimed that the main theme in his oeuvre could be defined as a sort of enthusiasm for the struggle:

“What are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to be happy? I don’t think so. I think we’re supposed to put up a good fight.”[13]

Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan, the quintessential ‘hard body’ cinematic hero. Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies: Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Milius often follows the protagonists on an initiation journey during which they need to overcome a series of overwhelming obstacles that will deeply transform them. In some cases, these obstacles take the form of large contingents of enemies. In Jeremiah Johnson the eponymous character faces alone a whole tribe of Native Americans. Similarly, in Conan, Red Dawn and Rough Riders the protagonists are severely outnumbered, yet they eventually prevail. At times these hurdles are represented by vast natural spaces: the desert in The Wind and the Lion, the ocean in Big Wednesday, the mountains in Red Dawn and the jungle in both Farewell to the King and Apocalypse Now. The ethic of Milius’ universe is condensed in the Nietzschian epigraph that opens Conan the Barbarian: “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.” Whether they are lone trappers, marine deserters or young surfers, all Milius’ characters gradually acquire self-awareness of their place in the world after a cruel struggle against both nature and society. Milius’ stories revolve around the radical psychological transformations of his protagonists.

The Nietzschean epigraph that opens Conan the Barbarian. Milius’ heroes often must face large contingents of enemies (as in Rough Riders) ...
... or vast natural spaces (the mountains in Jeremiah Johnson or ... ... the Ocean in Big Wednesday).

In his analysis of the cinematic adaptation of Conan the Barbarian, Michele Tetro notes that Milius’ interpretation of the famous barbarian is significantly different from the original version conceived by R.E. Howard.[14] While in Howard’s prose Conan is a berserker who often fights in a nearly uncontrollable, trance-like fury, in Milius’ cinematic version the barbarian is a more self-reflexive figure who, by the end of the film, completes a complex maturation process. The central element of the film’s plot is not mere vengeance, but rather the solution of the so called “Riddle of Steel.” In the final sequences of the movie, after beheading Thulsa Doom and freeing his acolytes from his evil influence, Conan reflects upon the riddle. He realizes that his father’s teachings about the power of steel were misguided. It is Thulsa Doom who provides Conan with the solution: the might of steel is nothing without the will of the flesh. Conan’s maturation process requires the sacrificial killing of his “anti-father.” The ending of Conan the Barbarian is reminiscent both thematically and aesthetically of the final scene of Apocalypse Now in which Willard ritually sacrifices Kurtz after the latter has bequeathed the former his knowledge and theories of war, humanity and civilization.[15]

Ultraviolence was a common trope of the New Hollywood era and it is an essential thematic ingredient of all of Milius’ films. Milius’ cinema foregrounds what Richard Slotkin considers to be a common trope of U.S. culture, the myth of regeneration through violence. According to Slotkin the use of violence has been integral to the construction of a distinctly U.S. mythology. In describing the evolution of the myth of regeneration through violence, Slotkin identifies the hunter as an archetypal U.S. hero. According to Slotkin the key to understanding the myth of the hunter is the fact that it “is one of self-renewal or self-creation through acts of violence.”[16] Violence is an essential step in the maturation process of Milius’ heroes who often must choose between death and murder. Only when Conan is made gladiator, forced to kill people and applauded by the masses, he finds what the voice-over calls “a sense of self-worth.” With the exception of Big Wednesday, all Milius’ films feature an extensive number of battle sequences and fight scenes. In Milius’ work, violence is brutal and relentless. At the time of its release, Red Dawn was considered the most violent film in the history of cinema by the Guinness Book of Records and The National Coalition on Television Violence, with a rate of 134 acts of violence per hour, or 2.23 per minute.[17]

The representation of violence in Milius’ films is characterized by a clear stylistic approach. Milius avoids both the use of slow motion, popularized in the 1970s by directors such as Sam Peckinpah, and the depiction of gruesome, sadistic violent acts, which are the trademark of other conservative filmmakers such as Mel Gibson. In Milius’ films violence is generally ubiquitous, but also quick and over soon. In battle scenes in particular, violence is impersonal and devoid of any emotional power. Occasionally, however, violence becomes much more graphic and bloody, particularly during one-on-one confrontations, as the gladiator scenes in Conan demonstrate. In turn, Conan’s gladiator scenes provided the visual blueprint for the invention of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, which has often been criticized for its extreme violence and brutality. Milius himself was a practitioner of martial arts and a student of Rorion Gracie, a Jiu Jitsu Grand Master and a co-founder of The Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). Milius was nominated artistic director of UFC and was responsible for developing some of the trademarks of the sport, including the idea of holding the competition inside an octagonal cage.[18] Milius’ passion for gladiatorial combat continued to follow him throughout his creative career; and it was particularly apparent in the Rome TV series (2005), which featured several gladiatorial episodes.
Despite its brutal, barbaric nature, Milius’ violence is often framed within a rough honor code:

“I like Kurosawa violence, John Ford violence. Violence that take place within a code. I’m Japanese at heart. I live by the Kendo code of Bushido. Honor and skill. All my characters have their codes. I mean Dillinger probably had no code. He was probably just a common criminal a hood you know. And the FBI probably had no code. But in my ‘Dillinger’ there is a whole chivalric code of the hunter and the hunted.”[19]

Milius’ fight scenes are often inspired by some of his favorite films and directors. In Conan the Barbarian, for example, the eponymous character learns his sword skills from an Asian samurai-type master, a nod to the cinema of Kurosawa. Similarly, Conan’s final battle among the burial mounds, in which the protagonist and his friend face dozens of warriors is a reference to the Seven Samurai (Kurosawa, 1954).[20] Sometimes, the sources of Milius’ inspiration subvert his reputation as a hyper-conservative filmmaker. The opening sequences of Conan the Barbarian in which Thulsa Doom’s army pillages and destroys Conan’s village reference the beginning of Alexander Nevsky (Eisenstein, 1938), in which the Teutonic knights conquer and massacre the population of the city of Pskov. Alexander Nevsky, directed by Eisenstein during a period of strain between the USSR and Nazi Germany, celebrates Russian resistance and is usually considered to be a quintessential anti-fascist film. Eisenstein also provided a major source of inspiration for the final sequence of Apocalypse Now as the juxtaposition of Kurtz’s murder to images of an ox being slaughtered is clearly reminiscent of a similar sequence in Strike (Eisenstein, 1925).

The battle of the mounds in Conan the Barbarian is a nod to The Seven Samurai.
The main source of inspiration for the villains in Conan the Barbarian was the portrayal of the Teutonic Knights in Alexander Nevski.
The final sequence of Apocalypse Now is clearly reminiscent of the ox slaughter in Eisenstein’s Strike.