John Frederick Milius (born April 11, 1944) is an American screenwriter, director, and producer of motion pictures. He co-wrote 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.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. 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.” 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.” He says he was also influenced by the oral story telling of surfers at the time, who had a beatnik tradition.
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. 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.
He made an animated short called Marcello I’m Bored (1967) with John Strawbridge which was edited by his classmate George Lucas and won best animation at the National Student Film Festival. Marcello screened around the country in various festivals and was praised by Vincent Canby of the New York Times.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 cell after cell.”
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.” So Milius commenced his filmmaking career.
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 Gordin, reading scripts and eventually collaborating on the script for an action film, The Devil’s 8.
Milius’ first original scripts were Los Gringos and Last Resort. 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.”
Milius then wrote Truck Driver, Jeremiah Johnson and Apocalypse Now. 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). However the commercial failure of that movie 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 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.
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. For instance, he only rewrote Dirty Harry on the proviso he was given an expensive gun.
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.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.
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.
With Buzz Feitshans he 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 as well as producing films by friends Paul Schrader and Steven Spielberg. Spielberg said in 1978 that he 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.
Milius enjoyed his greatest commercial success as a director with Conan the Barbarian (1982). This was followed by Red Dawn (1984). However his career was hurt by the box office failure of two expensive adventure films, Farewell to the King and Flight of the Intruder.
He created the HBO/BBC television series Rome.
In 2007, Milius was the recipient of the Austin Film Festival’s Distinguished Screenwriter Award.
In March 2011, Milius was a story consultant for the video game Homefront, about a North Korean conquest of America.
Mickey Rourke has been in talks with Milius to star in a biopic of Genghis Khan. Milius has also had talks to adapt the novel Aztec into a miniseries.
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.
Nonetheless, Milius has made a considerable impact as a filmmaker. He wrote a number of iconic film quotations 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 “Do you feel lucky?”. Milius also had a hand in the USS Indianapolis monologue in the film Jaws, however his version was rejected and the whole sequence was written and 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. 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 Walter Sobchak character in the 1998 film The Big Lebowski, made by his friends the Coen Brothers, was partly based on Milius.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.
In 2013 a documentary about his life, Milius was released.
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.