Some critics have considered the representation of violence in Milius’ films as an expression of racist tendencies. In his review of Conan the Barbarian, for example, Roger Ebert claimed to be disturbed by the depiction of a "Nordic superman confronting a black," in which the "muscular blond" slices off the black man's head and "contemptuously [throws it] down the flight of stairs." [open notes in new window] Similarly, Red Dawn received scathing reviews for its overt anticommunist message. Other critics have suggested, in contrast, that violence in Milius’ films can be read as ideologically ambiguous. Douglas Kellner for example, suggests that while Red Dawn advances an anti-communist position, which specifically reproduces fears the Reagan administration constantly played on, it also celebrates the audacity of communist revolutionaries. Red Dawn opens with a shot of a monument displaying a quote of ultra-imperialist U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt:
“Far better is it to dare mighty things than to take rank with those poor timid spirits who know neither victory nor defeat.”
While the communist invaders clearly play the role of villains, the full scale invasion of the United States shown at the beginning of the film could be interpreted as the sort of “mighty daring” that Roosevelt/Milius praise. Similarly, the heroism of the two main communist antagonists, Cuban officer Bella and Russian Special Forces Colonel Strelnikov, is presented in a sympathetic light. Colonel Bella respects the fighting spirit of the resistance fighters; even though at the end of the film he comes across the two resistance leaders, he lets them go. Likewise, Strelnikov’s character is clearly inspired by Colonel Mathieu, the French paratrooper commander (and former member of the Resistance) who in the Battle of Algiers (Pontecorvo, 1966) admires the anti-imperialist revolutionaries he was sent to crush.
|Anti-colonialist film classic, The Battle of Algiers, was the main source of inspiration for Red Dawn.|
|The character of the communist commander, Strelnikov, is a nod to Colonel Mathieu, the leader of the French special forces in The Battle of Algiers.|
In an interesting reversal of ideological positions, by showing the transformation of a small group of teenagers into partisan resistance fighters, Milius recuperates for the Right the figure of the heroic revolutionary freedom fighter, which played a central role in 1960s leftist mythology in the form of Che Guevara, the Viet Cong and others. The ideological ambiguity of Red Dawn is also highlighted in Andrew Kopkind’s review for The Nation, a popular left wing U.S. magazine. Shortly after its release Kopkind defined the film as “a celebration of people’s war”:
“Milius has produced the most convincing story about popular resistance to imperial oppression since the inimitable ‘Battle of Algiers’. He has only admiration for his guerilla kids, and he understands their motivations (and excuses their naiveté) far better than the hip liberal filmmakers of the 1960s counterculture.”
Milius’ anti-communist project is undercut by the celebration of both the anti-imperialist values of the Wolverines and the imperialist might of the communists. The foregrounding of violence in Milius’ films transcends the ideological allegiance of the characters and could be defined as “metapolitical.” German historian and philosopher Ernst Nolte defined the “metapolitical dimension” as the set of grand ideas that transcend the mere political level and potentially cut across ideological differences. Milius himself claimed that:
“I actually like leftwing radicals. I don’t like liberals. Whether you’re a rightwing or a leftwing anarchist you are probably throwing the same bombs.”
In Red Dawn, both the communist invaders and the U.S. guerilla fighters commit brutal acts of violence so that the difference between the two sides becomes increasingly blurred. As the Wolverines are about to execute a prisoner of war, one teenage guerilla asks, “What’s the difference between us and them?” To which the leader’s only feeble response is, “We live here.”
For Milius, violence is a purifying element responsible for returning mankind to its original state: barbarism. Milius thus describes the original script of Apocalypse Now:
“It is about a descent to savagery, or an ascent into savagery depending on how you look at it. Kurtz has a line: ‘Yes, I have descended, but I have become much greater for the descent.’”
Similarly, the most famous quote of the film, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning,” uttered by Kilgore after a destructive helicopter ride, refers to the exhilarating, revitalizing effect of violence and war on soldiers’ minds. Milius’ heroes are either barbarians like Conan or gradually regress to savagery after a brutal confrontation with nature and their enemies. Jeremiah Johnson leaves the civilized world to become a mountain man and eventually a ruthless warrior feared and respected by the local “savages.” In Apocalypse Now Kurtz rejects the hypocritical rules of the U.S. army to become the king of a tribe of heathens. The surfers of Big Wednesday are “barbarians” who do not conform to the rules of the civilized world. The UFC was conceived as a primal battle between barbarians. Milius regards savagery as an essential element of the U.S. character:
“I tend to like the savagery. I like that about Americans: we have a tremendous energy and vitality. To disguise this or to be ashamed of it is despicable – it’s denying our culture and what we really are. We seem to be a nation consumed with guilt; our movies are. I don’t want to see a Western where the Indians are portrayed as peaceful people who worship the sun and birds, and the white men are the only rapists and killers around. They were savages and we were savages; we were even more savages than they were” (Milius cited in Thompson 19).
The protagonists and the antagonists of Milius’ stories are both ‘barbarians’. In The Wind and the Lion Roosevelt and Er Raisuli admire and respect each other because they both feel they don’t belong to the modern, industrialized world. In Conan the villain’s henchmen are muscular barbarians just like the protagonist. In Red Dawn the American Wolverines need to become mountain men and regress to a condition of semi-barbarism in order to effectively combat the communist invaders. In turn, Milius sets up the Soviet soldiers as barbaric hordes by introducing them after a black high school teacher who is lecturing on Genghis Khan is shot by the invaders. Genghis Khan as a quintessential barbarian is a reoccurring figure in Milius’ work. The line that summarizes Conan’s aspirations in life (“to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you and to hear the lamentations of their women”) was inspired by a similar quote attributed to Genghis Khan. Similarly, Conan loyal friend and fellow warrior in the movie is called Subotai like one of Genghis Khan’s most trusted generals. In 2014 after his stroke Milius was reportedly working on a script for a film about Genghis Khan to be directed by hyper-conservative director Mel Gibson.
Milius’ fascination for barbarism is inextricably connected to a nostalgia for a lost, golden age. He often claimed that “the world I admire was dead before I was born”. In Milius’ films civilization is often a synonym of corruption, weakness and decadence. It is by regressing into savagery that the protagonists recover traditional values of courage, loyalty and heroism. From this point of view, Milius’ conception of history is influenced by conservative theories of civilization such as Spengler’s views on the Decline of the West. Spengler's civilization model postulates that any civilization is a superorganism with a limited and predictable lifespan which is inevitably destined to decline. Like both Spengler and the work of other U.S. conservative filmmakers such as Clint Eastwood, Milius’ cinematic oeuvre is informed by a pessimism and nostalgia for a lost age of purity. Milius’ stories are often set during a transitional period, the end of an era, the passing of a more innocent time to a more corrupt and complex one.
Anne Friedberg states that nostalgia (from Greek, nostos=a return; algos=painful) means a painful return, a longing for something far away or long ago, separated by distance and time. The etymological history of the word nostalgia demonstrates that its first usage in the late seventeenth century referred to the idea of “homesickness”. From this point of view, several Milius’ stories are often driven by nostalgia as they revolve around the protagonists (often symbolical) attempt to return home. In Dillinger home is represented quite literally by the old house of the protagonist’s father. In Big Wednesday the old steps to the beach epitomize the possibility to return to a sacred place where traditional values such as heroism, courage, loyalty and friendship are still upheld. In Milius’ films the mythical place of origins may take different forms. Sometimes this idealized ‘locus’ is the Frontier, the physical and symbolical home of the ‘authentic’ American character. It is only by going back to a Frontier lifestyle that the Wolverines (in Red Dawn) or Jeremiah Johnson (in the eponymous film) manage to find the strength and vitality necessary to defeat their enemies. In Apocalypse Now and Farewell to the King, the rejection of the modern world is counterbalanced by the nostalgia for a simpler, traditional world represented by the tribes of ‘savages’.
The HBO TV series Rome created by Milius juxtaposes the stern morality and traditional values of the Roman Republic to the corruption and decadence that characterizes the rising Roman Empire. In the show the honorable and severe character of Lucius Vorenus embodies the nostalgia for the Republic which Milius regards as the golden age of Roman history. Milius’ films frequently feature anachronistic characters such as Vorenus (Rome) or Er Raisuli (The Lion and the Wind) who are destined to disappear in the new order of things. While Milius celebrates the traditional heroic individualism of these characters, their defeat suggests that their values are inadequate to deal with modern life.
Milius’ indulgence in anachronistic characters and nostalgia more broadly could be considered to be in line with his extreme right-wing beliefs. According to Hutcheon, nostalgia is fundamentally conservative in its praxis as it aims to keep things as they were. However, while Milius’ nostalgia is essentially anti-modern, it is also trans-ideological as it cannot be associated with a specific political position. The nostalgic celebration of friendship and the critique of a capitalist, industrial society in Big Wednesday could be easily read as either a left or right wing appraisal of the contemporary world. Milius’ nostalgia is less political and more concerned with his personal admiration for a specific stylistic form: classical Hollywood.
Christine Sprengler claims that the narrative of classic Hollywood cinema in its most basic form is based around nostalgia. Classic Hollywood nostalgia has a narrative that typically involves a state of being which seems Edenic from the vantage of the present. Through the passage of time, this Edenic state is lost. Such loss initiates mourning, longing and attempts to retrieve or recreate the desired prelapsarian condition. Milius’ nostalgia can therefore be interpreted as a self-conscious nostalgia of nostalgia. Like many other exponents of the New Hollywood movement, Milius had an extensive knowledge of film history. He often explicitly acknowledged his debt towards classical Hollywood and particularly to the cinema of John Ford: “John Ford was my ultimate hero. He was it”. Milius was particularly obsessed with The Searchers (1956), one of Ford’s best known films which he regularly referenced in the movies he directed. In Dillinger, for example, Milius reproduces the first scene of The Searchers. Similarly, in The Wind and the Lion, a soldier plays a part of the score from The Searchers on a harmonica.
The style and themes of Milius’ cinematic oeuvre, particularly a nostalgic yearning for anti-modern purity, a celebration of physical strength, individualism and heroism, a certain fascination for violence and barbarism may be read as a reflection of hyper conservative ethic and beliefs. The close analysis of his cinematic oeuvre, however, reveals that the mobilization of certain themes in Milius’ work often produces ideologically ambiguous results. As Matthew Continetti pointed out films such as Conan the Barbarian or Red Dawn are not partisan movies:
“It is not political scenarios that attract Milius but pre-political ones. He is drawn to landscapes where there is no law, no sovereign, no state, to the desolate places where men must make their own way. His characters are renegades. They either oppose the dominant order (…) or they exist outside it entirely.”
The relationships that most interest Milius are not political. His solitary protagonists enter into attachments not out of biological or ideological loyalties, but out of sentiment, memory and place. Similarly, the foregrounding of violence and nostalgia in Milius’ films is not deployed to advocate for specific political positions, but rather it is ‘meta-political’, transcending the ideological allegiance of the characters. The celebration of heroism and violence in films such as Red Dawn or Farewell to the King is undermined by the lack of happy ending and an implicit anti-war message. In the final sequences of Red Dawn some of the remaining teen warriors are killed and the fate of the two protagonists, Jed and Matt, is uncertain as the narrator claims that she never saw them again. Douglas Kellner suggests that Red Dawn’s finale portrays as an ode to death and destruction opposed to the pleasures and joys of life. Col. Bella, whose love of life had led him to resign from his position when he realized that he was becoming a police official rather than a revolutionary emancipator, decides not to shoot Jed who is carrying the mutilated body of his brother Matt. In his final appearance Bella rejects violence and war by throwing his rifle down and walking away.
Despite their seeming machismo, many Milius’ films revolve around strong and active female characters. Conan the Barbarian broke new ground in terms of the depiction of female roles in adventure movies. In the film Conan’s lover, Valeria (the precursor of Xena Warrior Princess), is both the most active character and the real driving force of the narrative. In Red Dawn the small group of resistance fighters includes two women, Ericka and Toni. At the end of the film, the legacy of the anti-communist resistance is carried on by Ericka. The metapolitical nature of Milius’ films might explain the fact that they resonate with large audiences who include both liberals and conservatives. Milius himself entertained close personal and professional relationships with liberal filmmakers such as Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and Oliver Stone. Some of them paid homage to Milius by using him as a source of inspiration for some of their cinematic characters, for example, John Milner in American Graffiti (Lucas, 1973) or Walter Sobchak, the gun-toting Jew in The Big Lebowski (Cohen brothers, 1998).
At the stylistic level Milius’ fascism is self-consciously confined to the world of fantasy and offers audiences the possibility of a ‘safe’ return to simplistic, adolescent understandings of violence and war. Milius himself, for example, described Red Dawn and its implausible premise as a comic book adventure. Milius’ cinema is not anchored to reality but rather to the traditions of classical studio genres. In his films Milius manipulates and radicalizes certain tropes of classical Hollywood with revolutionary, ‘excessive’ consequences. In this way, for example Ford’s solitary, virile hero becomes hyper masculine and hyper violent. Likewise, Ford’s conservatism becomes Milius’ fascism.
Rather than rejecting the critics’ scornful accusations of fascism, Milius often publically embraced them. This mobilization of controversial political discourses, however, has less to do with advancing specific political agendas than constructing for himself a colorful persona associated with extreme, provocative stances, what Paul Schrader defined as the ‘Art of Flash’: the flamboyant gesture or the deft hyperbole. Milius, thus described his political beliefs:
“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.”
Similarly, when an interviewer asked him whether he would position himself to the right of Louis XV, Milius exclaimed:
“Louis XV my ass! Attila the Hun! Rape and plunder, plunder and rape! That’s what I believe in!”
Milius has consciously attempted to link his cinematic aesthetic of excess with his own excessive artistic persona to position himself as a rebel, as an outsider within Hollywood. In interviews Milius often situated himself outside the establishment by claiming that Hollywood executives had blacklisted him because of his politics. Recently, two documentaries featuring Milius—Rated ‘R’: Republicans in Hollywood (Moss, 2004) and Milius (Knutson and Figueroa, 2013)—suggested that conservative actors and filmmakers tend to be marginalized within contemporary Hollywood. Similar discourses are regularly articulated in Big Hollywood, a right-wing news website dedicated to the U.S. film industry founded by conservative journalist and entrepreneur Andrew Breitbart. While the successful careers of prominent republicans such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood seem to suggest otherwise, Milius embraced his role as simultaneously enemy and victim of the system. Throughout his career Milius entertained a complex, problematic relationship with Hollywood:
“We were very much concerned with making the Hollywood film, not to make a lot of money, but as artists”.
The intense conflicts between Milius and studio bureaucrats (e.g, one fight concluding with the former allegedly pointing a gun at a studio executive) have become the stuff of Hollywood legend. However, colorful anecdotes aside, these tensions reflect an essential characteristic of Milius’ career: a radical opposition to the Hollywood profit-driven establishment. Milius often regarded himself as one of the barbarians that populate his films: a threat to both the Hollywood system and Western Civilization more broadly. Milius has proven to be an auteur with a distinctive stylistic signature and a successful screenwriter/director who has the merit of challenging the Hollywood establishment both at the thematic and aesthetic level. However, at the same time Milius has consciously used his position of outsider to build himself as a marketable brand with significant currency in the mass media system.
Scholars such as Timothy Corrigan have noted how the film industry has appropriated the notion of auteur for economic purposes by producing marketable packages that capitalize on the popularity of the director’s name. According to Corrigan, the function of the auteur “has rematerialised in the eighties and nineties as a commercial performance of the business of being an auteur”. Milius is no exception to this rule. Since the 1990s his name has become a synonym of radical right-wing politics, extreme violence, and brutal machismo. From the early 2000s onwards Milius’ brand has been used to market a profitable pay-per-view martial arts competition (UFC ) and also TV shows, books and videogames. From this point of view, the trajectory of Milius’ career seems to suggest that although he portrayed himself as a ‘rebel’, an enemy of the studio system, he gradually became an integral part of the very establishment he was trying to overthrow.
|Milius as a successful commercial brand.|