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John Milius

John Milius
Born John Frederick Milius
(1944-04-11) April 11, 1944 (age 71)
St. Louis, Missouri,
United States
Alma mater University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television
Occupation Screenwriter
Film director
Film producer
Years active 1966–present

John Frederick Milius (born April 11, 1944) is an American screenwriter, director, and producer of motion pictures. He was one of the writers for the first two Dirty Harry films, received an Academy Award nomination as screenwriter of Apocalypse Now, and wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion, Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn.

Early life

Milius was born in St. Louis, Missouri, the youngest of three children to Elizabeth (née Roe) and William Styx Milius, who was a shoe manufacturer.[1] When Milius was seven his father sold his business, retired and moved to California, where Milius became an enthusiastic surfer. When he was fourteen his parents sent him to a small private school, the Lowell Whiteman School, in the mountains of Steamboat Springs, Colorado "because I was a juvenile delinquent."[2] Milius became a voracious reader and started to write short stories. "I had learned very early, to write in almost any style. I could write in fluent Hemingway, or in fluent Melville, or Conrad, or Jack Kerouac, and whatever."[3] He says he was also influenced by the oral story telling of surfers at the time, who had a beatnik tradition.[4]

Milius attempted to join the Marine Corps and volunteer for Vietnam service in the late 1960s, but was rejected due to a chronic and sometimes disabling case of asthma. "It was totally demoralizing," he said later. "I missed going to my war. It probably caused me to be obsessed with war ever since."[5]

At one stage Milius considered becoming an artist or historian. During a rainy day on a summer vacation in Hawaii, he stumbled upon a movie theatre showing a film by Akira Kurosawa and fell in love with cinema.[6] He studied film at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television where his classmates included George Lucas, Basil Poledouris, Randal Kleiser and Don Glut. Milius reflected that:

My ambitions stopped at B Westerns... I thought that was a good life. I never wanted to be Hitchcock or some big mogul, I didn't want to be Louis B. Mayer. I wanted to be, I don't know what, Budd Boetticher or something... John Ford, that's who I wanted to be.[7]

He made an animated short called Marcello I'm So Bored (1967) with John Strawbridge which was edited by his classmate George Lucas and won best animation at the National Student Film Festival.[8] Marcello screened around the country in various festivals and was praised by Vincent Canby of the New York Times.[9][10] He received a job offer to work in animation but Milius was not interested in that field as he could not see himself "sitting there drawing cel after cel."[11]

Early career

Milius' first original scripts were Los Gringos and Last Resort. Milius then got a summer job working at the story department of American International Pictures through a student colleague of his who had begun working there, Willard Huyck. Huyck and Milius worked at AIP under producer Larry Gordon, reading scripts and eventually collaborating on the script for an action film, The Devil's 8.[12]

In 1968 his name had been mentioned in a Time magazine article about the new generation of Hollywood filmmakers, which also referred to George Lucas and Martin Scorsese. This was read by Mike Medavoy, who became Milius' agent. Medavoy called Milius "a badboy mad genius in a teenager's body, but he was a good and fast writer with original ideas."[13]

Milius then wrote The Texans for Al Ruddy at Paramount followed by Truck Driver. He later expressed dissatisfaction with the scripts:

I didn’t do a good job and I realized the reason I didn’t do a good job was because in both cases I was influenced by the people who had hired me. They said put this in and put that in, and I went along with it. Every time I went along with something in my whole career it usually didn’t work. Usually there’s a price to pay. You think of selling out, but there is a price to pay. Usually what people want you to do is make it current. They want you to make it relate to people in 2000.[14]

Milius then wrote Jeremiah Johnson which he called:

The real breaking point where I knew – and it was almost overnight – that I had become a good writer with a voice... When I started working on that, it was called The Crow Killer and I knew that material. I’d lived in the mountains, I had a trapline, I hunted, and I had a lot of experiences with characters up there. So, it was real easy to write that and there was a humor to it, a kind of bigger-than-life attitude. I was inspired by Carl Sandberg. I read a lot of his poetry and it’s this kind of abrupt description – ‘a train is coming, thundering steel, where are you going? Wichita.’ That great kind of feeling that he had, that’s what I was trying to do there. I remember there was a great poem about American braggarts. You know, American liars – ‘I am the ring-tailed cousin to the such and such that ate so and so and I can do this and I can do that better than Mike Fink the river man...’ I just realized that this was the voice that the script had to have. It was as clear as a bell. I knew that writing was particular to me.[14]

Milius sold the script for $5,000. He says was offered $17,000 to rewrite Skin Game (1971) but then Francis Ford Coppola made a counter offer of $15,000 to write Apocalypse Now.[3] Apocalypse Now was an adaptation of Heart of Darkness set in the Vietnam War which George Lucas intended to direct as a follow up to his first feature THX 1138 (1971).[15] Milius:

He offered that wonderful fork in the road where I could go do my own thing rather than just rewrite some piece of crap that would probably be rewritten by somebody else. That was the most important decision I made in my life as a writer. That sort of steered me onto the path of doing my own work and being a little more like a novelist... I tackled an unpopular subject that no one was going to make a movie about where the chances were really slim that I could pull it off. There was no book, nothing but me and the blank page. And that was wonderful because I had followed my heart. One of the nicest times in my life was writing Apocalypse Now.[14]

However the commercial failure of THX 1138 delayed production plans.

Nonetheless Milius's writing career went from strength to strength. He sold his script for Jeremiah Johnson to Warner Bros for what became a record amount[16] then followed this up by doing an uncredited draft of Dirty Harry. He sold his script The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean for another high amount, which was compensation for not being allowed to direct. He then wrote the Dirty Harry sequel, Magnum Force.[17]


By now Milius was one of the most sought after screenwriters in Hollywood. His profile was higher than most writers because he was seen as a colourful character with a talent for lively interviews, and his self-styled "Zen Anarchist"/"American samurai" persona made him stand out in Hollywood.[18] For instance, he only rewrote Dirty Harry on the proviso he was given an expensive gun.[19]

Milius wanted to move behind the camera and offered American International Pictures his script to Dillinger for a fraction of his regular fee if they would let him direct it as well.[20][21] The movie was moderately successful and launched Milius's directing career. Contemporary film writers grouped him in with the emerging "movie brats" generation of filmmakers that also including Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, Terence Malick and Martin Scorsese.[22]

Milius next directed the popular adventure film The Wind and the Lion (1975), the success of which enabled him to get backing for an autobiographical surfing picture, Big Wednesday (1978). This was a major commercial disappointment although it has gone on to be a cult film.

Milius' script for Apocalypse Now had been eventually filmed by Francis Ford Coppola and was released in 1979 to great acclaim. Milius' friendship with George Lucas saw him given a percentage of the profits for Star Wars, which Mike Medavoy estimated earned Milius $1.5 million - in exchange Milius gave Lucas a percentage of the profits for Big Wednesday which amounted to nothing.[23]

With Buzz Feitshans Milius then formed his own production company The A Team and also turned producer. He acted as an early mentor for Robert Zemeckis, producing some of that director's earliest films[24] as well as producing films by friends Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg said in 1978 that Milius was key to the group of young filmmakers known as the New Hollywood, which included himself, Lucas, and Coppola:

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.[25]

Milius enjoyed his greatest commercial success as a director with Conan the Barbarian (1982).[26] This was followed by the popular, if controversial, Red Dawn (1984).

However Milius' directorial career was hurt by the box office failure of two expensive adventure films, Farewell to the King and Flight of the Intruder. He continued directing films for cable such as Rough Riders and remained in demand as a screenwriter, especially for action films such as Clear and Present Danger.

Milius helped create the HBO/BBC television series Rome.

In 2007, Milius was the recipient of the Austin Film Festival's Distinguished Screenwriter Award.[27]

In March 2011, Milius was a story consultant for the video game Homefront,[28][29] about a North Korean conquest of America.

Mickey Rourke has been in talks with Milius to star in a biopic of Genghis Khan.[30] Milius has also had talks to adapt the novel Aztec into a miniseries.[31]


Milius has long claimed to be an outsider in Hollywood. In 2001 he stated:

I've always been considered a nut. They kind of tolerate me. It's certainly affected me. 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. It's just that my politics are from the other side, and Hollywood always veers left.[32]

Though politically right wing,[33] Milius worked very well even with left wing colleagues. He has made a considerable impact as a filmmaker. He wrote a number of iconic film lines such as "Charlie don't surf" and "I love the smell of napalm in the morning," from Apocalypse Now, and the famous Dirty Harry one-liners delivered by Clint Eastwood, including "Go ahead, make my day" and "Ask yourself one question, 'do I feel lucky?' Well, do you punk?". Milius also had a hand in the USS Indianapolis monologue in the film Jaws;[25] the sequence was performed by Robert Shaw. When Spielberg asked him to punch up the screenplay for Saving Private Ryan, Milius suggested the Normandy cemetery bookends where Ryan, now an elderly hero of World War II, in a moment of survivor guilt, asks his wife "Did I live a good life?"

After his work on Rough Riders (1997), Milius became an instrumental force in lobbying Congress to award President Theodore Roosevelt the Medal of Honor (posthumously), for acts of conspicuous gallantry while in combat on San Juan Hill.[34] Milius made two films featuring Roosevelt: The Wind and the Lion (where he was played by Brian Keith) and the made-for-TV film Rough Riders (where Tom Berenger took the role).

The character of John Milner from the 1973 George Lucas film American Graffiti was inspired by Milius, who was a good friend of Lucas while they were at USC film school. Likewise, the character Walter Sobchak in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, made by his friends the Coen Brothers, was partly based on Milius.[35] Aleksandar Hemon's novella "Blind Jozef Pronek and Dead Souls" features an episode with Milius, who is described as "sitting at a desk sucking on a cigar as long as a walking stick."

Milius was also instrumental during the startup of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) organization: it was his idea to use the octagon-shaped cage, and his association with UFC helped provide interest and investors to the startup UFC.[36]

In 2013 a documentary about his life, titled Milius, was released.[37][38]

Writer Nat Segaloff called Milius:

The best writer of the co-called USC Mafia, a tight-knit group that resuscitated—some say homogenised American cinema in the 1970s... Raised on Ford, Hawks, Lean and Kurosawa, shaped by filmmakers as disparate as Fellini and Delmer Daves, Milius favours history books over comic books, character over special effects, and heroes with roots in reality, time, place and customs. Milius' stories reflect his own deeply held ethic, which embraces the values of tradition, adventure, spiritualism, honour and an intense loyalty to friends... Although he privately chafes at his public image as a gun-toting, liberal baiting provocateur, he allows himself to be painted as such, at times even holding the brush. He plays the Hollywood game like a pro, yet sticks to his own rules; he is a romantic filmmaker who avoids love scenes; his movies contain violence, yet no death in them is without meaning.[39]

Personal life

Milius is a self-proclaimed Zen anarchist, but he also publicly aligns himself with conservative factions in Hollywood and he was interviewed in the documentary Rated R: Republicans in Hollywood. He has also been consultant to a military think tank, the Institute for Creative Technologies.[32] Milius:

I’m not a reactionary — I’m just a right-wing extremist so far beyond the Christian Identity people like that and stuff, that they can’t even imagine. I’m so far beyond that I’m a Maoist. I’m an anarchist. I’ve always been an anarchist. Any true, real right-winger if he goes far enough hates all form of government, because government should be done to cattle and not human beings.[40]

For years Milius was a member of the Board of Directors of the National Rifle Association, where he was a leader (with Charlton Heston) in resisting a takeover attempt by advocates of the so-called Militia Movement.

Milius is Jewish[41] and has been married three times.[42] His current marriage (since 1992) is to actress Elan Oberon (who appeared in Red Dawn as the woman behind the counter at the store, his 1989 film Farewell to the King and who is seen—and heard—singing Garryowen in Rough Riders).

He has two children by his first wife, Renee Fabri (m. 7 January 1967), and one child by his second wife, Celia Kaye (m. 26 February 1978).

Milius was a passionate surfer for much of his life but gave it up when he turned fifty.[43]

Milius suffered financial reversals when a good friend absconded with his money. He also had a stroke which left him unable to speak or walk. However, he recovered.[44]

Selected credits

Milius also made cameo appearances in The New Twilight Zone, Conan the Barbarian, Big Wednesday, Crazy Mama, The Wind and the Lion and Deadhead Miles.

Unmade scripts

  • Los Gringos (1968) - his first completed script - "It actually wasn't bad. It was sort of like The Wild Bunch ... there was a lot of killing and shooting and riding and dust... sombreros.... It was a pretty good idea, actually. It had everything, and it was certainly as original as The Wild Bunch, but it wasn't as skillfully written as later stuff."[47]
  • The Last Resort (1969)[48] - the second script he ever wrote
  • The Texans (1969) - a contemporary version of Red River written for Al Ruddy at Paramount after Milius' work at AIP[49] - announced in 1979 to be made with Sam Peckinpah[50] - Milius later said it "wasn't very good"[14]
  • The Haul (1971)[51] - originally called The Truck Driver, Milius's third script
  • The Life and Times of Joe McCarthy (mid-1970s)[52]
  • Give Your Heart to the Hawks (1970s) - about mountain men in the 1820s based on a novel by Winfred Blevins[53]
  • biopic on Jedediah Smith[54]
  • East of Suez (1978)[55]
  • Sgt Rock (1993)
  • Mexico (1990s)
  • Manila John (2000) - about John Basilone
  • King Conan: Crown of Iron (2001–02) - sequel to Conan the Barbarian[56][57]
  • The Northmen (1990s)
  • The Son Tay Raid - about the Son Tay Raid
  • Curtis LeMay biography
  • Dodge City (circa 2005) - Western series for CBS[58]
  • Saigon Bureau (circa 2008) - about the AIP Bureau of photojournalists in the Vietnam War, a collaboration with Chris Noth based on the book Requiem[59]
  • Genghis Kahn (circa 2010) - three hour biopic on the famous leader[2]
  • Pharaoh - proposed 2010 TV series[60]


  • The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) - based on his script
  • The Wind and the Lion (1975) - based on his script
  • Homefront: The Voice of Freedom (2011) - based on the video game


  1. "John Milius Biography (1944-)". Retrieved 2012-10-31. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Thom Patterson, "Apocalypse writer: Most scripts today 'are garbage' ", CNN, 9 March 2009 accessed 2012
  3. 3.0 3.1 IGN interview accessed 5 January 2012
  4. Segaloff p 280
  5. Ken Plume, "Interview with John Milius", IGN, 7 May 2003 accessed 5 January 2012
  6. Segaloff p 276-277
  7. IGN interview p 6 accessed 5 January 2012
  8. ANNUAL COMPETITION: 'A' GRADES FOR FILM FESTIVAL STUDENTS FILM FESTIVAL Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 22 Jan 1968: c1.
  9. Honored Student Movies Shown Here By VINCENT CANBY. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 18 Apr 1968: 58
  10. AT MUSEUM OF ART: ANIMATED FILMS ENTER THE CINEMA LIMELIGHT Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 24 May 1968: c1
  11. Segaloff p 281
  12. Segaloff p 282
  13. Medavoy p 6
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 "John Milius: American Outsider", American Screenwriter 27 May 2013 accessed 10 June 2014
  15. Movies Leaving 'Hollywood' Behind: Studio System Passe Film Forges Ahead By MEL GUSSOW Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 27 May 1970: 36.
  16. Red Hot and Redford By A.H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 09 Aug 1970: 77.
  17. MOVIE CALL SHEET: MCCARTHY, RAQUEL TO COSTAR IN 'BOMBER' Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 26 Apr 1972: h12
  18. What's So Super About This Superdirector?: Superdirector? By STEPHEN FARBER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 16 Sep 1973: 135.
  19. Hollywood's Script Door: Tom Mankiewicz, Tonic for Ailing Screenplays The Script Doctor By Paul Attanssio Washington Post Staff WriterLOS ANGELES. The Washington Post (1974-Current file) [Washington, D.C] 03 Mar 1985: G1.
  20. The dime-store way to make movies-and money By Aljean Harmetz. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 04 Aug 1974: 202.
  21. "An Interview with John Milius - IGN". 2003-05-07. Retrieved 2012-10-31. 
  22. Alumni of Film School Now 'Star' as Directors: 24,000 Students On '10. Best' Lists Wayne vs. Godard A Different Mood' By PAUL GARDNER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 30 Jan 1974: 24.
  23. Medavoy p 8
  24. ZEMECKIS PUTS HIS HEART AND SOUL IN 'ROMANCING THE STONE' Pollock, Dale. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 29 Mar 1984: m1.
  26. MILIUS: MIGHT MAKES A RITE: JOHN MILIUS Pollock, Dale. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 May 1982: h1.
  27. Austin Film Festival[dead link]
  28. Good, Owen. "Red Dawn's Writer Didn't Actually Write Homefront's Script, Say Ex-Developers [UPDATE]". Kotaku. 
  29. "'Apocalypse Now' And 'Red Dawn' Scribe John Milius Writing THQ's 'Homefront'". G4tv. 
  30. "Mickey Rourke to Star in John Milius' Genghis Khan". Reelz Channel. 
  31. David Wharton. "John Milius In Talks To Adapt Aztec Novel Into Miniseries". Television Blend. 
  32. 32.0 32.1 David D'Arcy, "Go ahead, pinko liberals, make my day", The Guardian, 8 November 2001 accessed 5 January 2012
  33. D'Arcy, David (November 8, 2001). "Go ahead, pinko liberals, make my day – David D'Arcy meets John Milius, Hollywood's right-wing, cigar-chomping, gun-toting mover and shaker". The Guardian. 
  34. Ken Plume (May 7, 2003). "An Interview with John Milius, page 15". IGN. 
  35. "One of the inspirations for the character of Walter is the Coen Brothers' friend, writer-director John Milius, an infamously bombastic right-winger with an obsession with all things militaristic."
  36. A Man Named Milius, and His Imprint on The UFC[dead link]
  37. "Quint says the SXSW 2013 documentary about John MILIUS is what is best in life!", Ain't It Cool News, March 15, 2013 accessed 2 May 2013
  38. SXSW Film explores wild life of a Hollywood iconoclast By Shawn Badgley, Austin Chronicle 5 March 2013 accessed 2 May 2013
  39. Segaloff p 275-276
  40. JOY IN THE STRUGGLE: A LOOK AT JOHN MILIUS Film Threat, 8 March 1999 accessed 5 January 2012
  41. Ken P. "An Interview with John Milius - Movies Feature at IGN". Retrieved 2010-05-22. 
  42. Biography for John Milius at the Internet Movie Database
  43. "Exclusive Interview: John Milius on ‘Milius’" Craveonle 6 Jan 2014 accessed 10 July 2014
  44. Milius review at Hollywood Reporter 2 May 2013
  45. FILM CLIPS: 'TELEFON' TO LINK BRONSON, SIEGEL Kilday, Gregg. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 30 Aug 1976: f7.
  46. "Back to the Beach" by Leonard Klady Los Angeles Times 4 Dec 1988 accessed 2 May 2013
  47. IGN interview with Milius accessed 5 January 2012
  48. MOVIE CALL SHEET: 'BARQUERO' ROLE TO MATHEWS Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 14 June 1969: a9.
  49. Medavoy p 173
  50. Chow Tells $60 Million Film Schedule Thomas, Kevin. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 05 Oct 1979: f39.
  51. MOVIE CALL SHEET: 'BIG' ROLE FOR CAROL WHITE Martin, Betty. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 19 Feb 1971: i9.
  52. News of the Screen: Machines and Man From Bartram Book Czech Director Looks at 'Cuckoo' Carol Burnett Plans Own Movie 'Life and Times Of Joe McCarthy' By A. H. WEILER. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 13 Oct 1974: 78
  53. MOVIE CALL SHEET: MILIUS TACKLES A NEW MOUNTAIN Murphy, Mary. Los Angeles Times (1923-Current File) [Los Angeles, Calif] 11 June 1975: e20.
  54. 'Wind and the Lion'--a look behind MGM epic: Comments from its 'superstars' and its writer-director Deliberate distortion? False image? By David Sterritt. The Christian Science Monitor (1908-Current file) [Boston, Mass] 28 July 1975: 26.
  55. Travolta the Producer Signs 2-Film Pact: Percentage of 'Fever' By ALJEAN HARMETZ Special to The New York Times. New York Times (1923-Current file) [New York, N.Y] 29 Mar 1978: C21.
  58. "New Conan Movie Has a Director!" Movies online March 2005 accessed 10 July 2014
  59. "Chris Noth" Interviews By Kathy Henderson Broadway Buzz November 10, 2008 accessed 10 July 2014
  60. Hopewell, John; Keslassy, Elsa (April 9, 2010). "Milius moves back in time with 'Pharaoh'.". Variety. 

Further reading

  • Medavoy, Mike with Josh Young, You're Only as Good as Your Next One, Astria, 2002
  • Segaloff, Nat, "John Milius: The Good Fights", Backstory 4: Interviews with Screenwriters of the 1970s and 1980s, Ed. Patrick McGilligan, Uni of California 2006 p 274-316

External links

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