“He doesn’t write for pussies. He doesn’t write for women. He writes for men. Cuz he’s a man.”
— Sam Elliott on John Milius
John Milius has had his meaty paws on so many movies that matter to me that it’s hard to really quantify his influence. He wrote the screenplay for the first movie I ever saw in a theater: Jeremiah Johnson. His original screenplay was considered way too violent and gory and was toned down. Waugh!
“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 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.”
Big Wednesday; Apocalypse Now; Farewell to the King; The Wind and the Lion; The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean; The Rough Riders. It’s ridiculous.
Like most Robert E. Howard aficionados, I am not a big fan of Conan the Barbarian, because it’s not Howard’s Conan. Milius was indulging his fascination with Genghis Khan and his favorite sport of tweaking hippies. A good movie, just not a good Conan movie.
His Dillinger is superior in many ways to Michael Mann’s more stylish Public Enemies. He was part of the creative team that produced HBO’s Rome, which I dearly love — and I recognize his touch all over the dialogue.
Francis Ford Coppola said that
“Everything memorable about Apocalypse Now was written by John Milius.”
He wrote so many iconic lines:
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
“Go ahead, make my day.”
“The Europeans have guns that fire many times promiscuously and rend the Earth. There is no honor in this – nothing is decided from this.”
“Ask yourself one question, ‘do I feel lucky?’ Well, do you punk?”
The Indianapolis monologue from Jaws.
I didn’t know this before, but apparently he was an instrumental figure in the early formation of UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship) mixed martial arts competition. The octagon was his idea. Of course it was.
Milius is considered a right-winger in Hollywood — and he obviously loves being a turd in that punchbowl. But he’s no reactionary. He’s really a counter-cultural figure, committed to a romantic masculine freedom that is actually more threatening to bourgeois values than the politics of the left and far more radical than anything peddled by the hippies he delighted in tweaking.
Milius is famous for his love of firearms — a specified gun is alway a part of his compensation package on a film. I met Milius several times when I worked for the firearms retailer Pachmayr. I managed the proshop at Pachmayr’s trap, skeet and sporting clays range in South El Monte for a while and he was a regular sporting clays shooter. I loaded several cases of shells into his car one afternoon and chatted him up about his unmade screenplay about Kentucky frontiersman Simon Kenton (who is one of the Frontier Partisans profiled in my forthcoming “Warriors of the Wild Lands”).
Like most of us who walk these now-obscure trails, he was thrilled to talk to someone who knew a bit about Kenton. This was in 1992 — and he said the movie couldn’t be made because no modern male lead could play it. Only a young Clint Eastwood. I say dust that thing off and get it made with Chris Hemsworth in the lead. One can hope…
My other encounter has stuck with me all these years. Milius got royally pissed off about something and gave the range manager, an Olympic shooting team veteran, all kinds of hell. It was a towering, stereotypical Hollywood director temper tantrum — and it was unseemly. He got into his expensive car and roared off in a rage. I was crushed. I loved the guy’s manly and noble — and funny — work, and here he was acting like a prima donna dickwad.
Wait, there’s a happy ending.
A few hours later, Milius pulled back into the range compound and asked for the manager. Didn’t know where he was. Milius said he needed to apologize to him for his behavior, which he acknowledged was way out of line. He’d driven all the way out to Santa Monica, then back to South El Monte — no small undertaking in L.A. traffic — because he needed to apologize man-to-man. My esteem not only reset to its previous level, it increased. And there have been a few times that I’ve needed to emulate that example.
The documentary Milius (trailer above) is available through Netflix. It’s a hoot. If it doesn’t inspire you to fire up your keyboard, load your guns, fire up cigar and get down to some storytelling, well…
Hats off to you, Mr. Milius.