copyright 2016, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut
, No. 57, summer 2016

“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.
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]

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.

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).

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."[21] 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.[22] 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. 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.[23] 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.”[24]

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.[25] 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.”[26]

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.’”[27]

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).[28]   

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.[29] 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.[30]

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”.[31] 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.[32] 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”.[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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”.[36] 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.”[37]

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.[38] 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.[39] 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.[40] 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.”[41]

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!”[42]

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”.[43]

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.[44] 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.[45] 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”.[46] 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. 


1. Milius cited in David D’Arcy, “Go Ahead, Pinko Liberals, Make My Day,” The Guardian, November 8, 2001, sec. Film, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2001/nov/08/artsfeatures. [return to text]

2. Pauline Kael, 5001 Nights at the Movies (New York: Macmillan, 2011), 841.

3. Paul Schrader, “John Milius: Master of Flash,” Los Angeles Weekly News, August 17, 1973.

4. Some notable exceptions include Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, John Milius (Torino: Torino Film Festival, 2002); Tag Gallagher, “John Milius,” Foco - Revista de Cinema Agosto-Setembro (2013), http://focorevistadecinema.com.br/FOCO5/miliustageng.htm; Toni D’Angela, “L’Anabasi Di John Milius,” Foco - Revista de Cinema Agosto-Setembro (2013), http://focorevistadecinema.com.br/FOCO5/anabasiit.htm.

5. Matthew Continetti, “Hollywood Barbarian,” Washington Free Beacon, 2014, http://freebeacon.com/columns/hollywood-barbarian/.

6. Richard Thompson, “Stoked,” Film Comment 12, no. 4 (1976): 10–21.

7. David James, The Most Typical Avant-Garde: History and Geography of Minor Cinemas in Los Angeles (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 209.

8. Continetti, “Hollywood Barbarian.”

9. Milius cited in Fred Topel, “Exclusive Interview: John Milius on ‘Milius,’” CraveOnline, January 6, 2014, http://www.craveonline.com/site/625751-exclusive-interview-john-milius-on-milius.

10. Michael D. Dwyer, Back to the Fifties: Nostalgia, Hollywood Film, and Popular Music of the Seventies and Eighties (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Susan Jeffords, Hard Bodies : Hollywood Masculinity in the Reagan Era (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

11. Jeffords, Hard Bodies; Douglas Kellner, “Film, Politics, and Ideology: Reflections on Hollywood Film in the Age of Reagan,” Velvet Light Trap, 1991, 9–25.

12. Julius Evola, Revolt Against the Modern World: Politics, Religion, and Social Order in the Kali Yuga (Rochester: Inner Traditions/Bear, 1995).

13. Milius cited in Allen White, “Joy in the Struggle: A Look at John Milius,” Film Threat, 2002, http://web.archive.org/web/20021107154534/http://www.filmthreat.com/

14. Michele Tetro, Conan il barbaro: l’epica di John Milius (Alessandria: Falsopiano, 2004).

15. Ibid., 66–67.

16. Richard Slotkin, Regeneration Through Violence (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 556.

17. United Press International, “‘RED DAWN’ CONDEMNED AS RIFE WITH VIOLENCE,” The New York Times, September 4, 1984, sec. Arts, http://www.nytimes.com/1984/09/04/arts/red-dawn-condemned-as-rife-with-violence.html.

18. The initial plan had been to surround the cage with a moat full of alligators or to electrify the chain-link fence. Boxing Insider, “The Octagon, A Man Named Milius, and His Imprint on The UFC,” BoxingInsider.com, February 15, 2011, http://www.boxinginsider.com/mma/the-octagon-a-man-named-milius-and-his-imprint-on-the-ufc/.

19. Milius cited in Susan Compo, Warren Oates: A Wild Life (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009), 269.

20. Abhimanyu Das, “Everything You Never Knew About The Making of Conan The Barbarian,” io9, accessed March 15, 2016, http://io9.gizmodo.com/everything-you-never-knew-about-the-making-of-conan-the-1686337892.

21. Roger Ebert, “Conan the Barbarian Movie Review (1982),” 1982, http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/conan-the-barbarian-1982.

22. Kellner, “Film, Politics, and Ideology.”

23. Ibid., 19.

24. Andrew Kopkind, “Red Dawn,” The Nation, September 15, 1984.

25. Ernst Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism: Action Française, Italian Fascism, National Socialism (New York: New American Library, 1969).

26. Milius cited in Thompson, “Stoked,” 19.

27. Milius cited in ibid., 15.

28. Milius cited in ibid., 19.

29. Kellner, “Film, Politics, and Ideology,” 20.

30. Topel, “Jon Milius on ‘Milius.’”

31. Milius cited in Bill Kauffman, “John Milius: A Real Wolverine,” The American Conservative, 2014, http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/john-milius-a-real-wolverine/.

32. Oswald Spengler, The Decline of the West, Vol. 1: Form and Actuality, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson (New York: Knopf, 1945).

33. Anne Friedberg, Window Shopping: Cinema and the Postmodern (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 189.

34. Linda Hutcheon and Mario J. Valdés, “Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern: A Dialogue,” Poligrafías. Revista de Teoría Literaria Y Literatura Comparada 0, no. 3 (2012), http://www.journals.unam.mx/index.php/poligrafias/article/view/31312.

35. Christine Sprengler, Screening Nostalgia: Populuxe Props and Technicolor Aesthetics in Contemporary American Film (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009), 72–73.

36. Milius cited in Ken Plume, “An Interview with John Milius,” IGN, 2003, http://www.ign.com/articles/2003/05/07/an-interview-with-john-milius.

37. Continetti, “Hollywood Barbarian.”

38. Kellner, “Film, Politics, and Ideology,” 20.

39. Tag Gallagher, “John Milius,” Foco - Revista de Cinema Agosto-Setembro (2013), http://focorevistadecinema.com.br/FOCO5/miliustageng.htm.

40. Schrader, “John Milius: Master of Flash.”

41. Milius cited in White, “Joy in the Struggle: A Look at John Milius.”

42. Milius cited in Schrader, “John Milius: Master of Flash.”

43. Milius cited in David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film History: An Introduction, 2nd edition (Boston: McGraw Hill Higher Education, 2002), 572.

44. Kauffman, “John Milius.”

45. Plume, “An Interview with John Milius.”

46. Timothy Corrigan, A Cinema Without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam, First Edition edition (New Brunswick, N.J: Rutgers University Press, 1991), 101.