John Milius

John Milius

Milius was born in St. Louis, MO. His father, William, a successful shoe manufacturer, moved the family to southern California when Milius was seven. During his teenaged years, he turned into a surf bum while wanting to also be a writer in the vein of heroes Ernest Hemingway, Joseph Conrad and Herman Melville. But instead, he turned to filmmaking after he was denied entry into the military due to chronic asthma, enrolling at the University of Southern California alongside the likes of George Lucas. While at USC, Milius became the go-to guy for all things written, though he did dabble with being a director, winning a National Student Film Festival award in 1967 for his short, "Marcello, I'm So Bored" - a juxtaposition of Southern California social life with a film negative clip from Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita" (1960). While in one of his screenwriting classes, Milius was inspired to write his take on Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" because his professor claimed no one had ever successfully adapted the novel to the screen.The result was "Apocalypse Now" (1979), a nightmarish descent into madness depicting an Army captain (Martin Sheen) traveling downriver during the Vietnam War to "exterminate with extreme prejudice" an insane colonel (Marlon Brando) who has taken refuge deep in the jungle with a band of armed followers. Milius wrote the script in 1969 when he was freshly graduated from film school, though he encountered resistance from the studios which were all wary of making a film about an unpopular war that was still raging across the Pacific and causing civil strife at home. He wrote and directed his first feature, "The Devil's Eight" (1968) - a "Dirty Dozen"-like action flick about an ATF agent (Christopher George) trying to shut down a moonshine operation that was produced under the aegis of Samuel Arkoff, a low-budge producer in the vein of Roger Corman. He next scripted "Evel Knievel" (1971), an enjoyable, harmless biopic about the famed motorcycle stuntman as played by George Hamilton.With his career on the march, Milius wrote the script for "Dirty Harry" (1971), but did not receive credit because he failed to file his paperwork with the Writer's Guild. He then sparked a bidding war with his screenplay for "The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean" (1972), a western about an imperious self-appointed judge (Paul Newman) who terrorizes the local residents, making Milius the highest-paid screenwriter of his day. He stayed in the western genre, writing the script for "Jeremiah Johnson" (1972), a precursor to "Dances with Wolves" (1990), which depicted a former U.S. soldier (Robert Redford) who disappears into the frontier and bonds with the local Native American tribe, only to be turned into a brutal Indian after his family is murdered. He reunited with producer Arkoff to write and direct "Dillinger" (1973), a biopic on the fast-burning bank robber John Dillinger, who captured the nation's imagination during the Depression-era spree of notorious criminals.Milius continued along the path of directing, churning out "The Wind and The Lion" (1975), a sweeping epic about an American widow (Candice Bergen) taken hostage by a ruthless, but benevolent Arab chief (Sean Connery) wrapped in a cautionary tale about the emergence of American power abroad. After helping friend Steven Spielberg by writing the infamous U.S.S. Indianapolis monologue given by Robert Shaw in "Jaws" (1977), Milius directed "Big Wednesday" (1978), a coming-of-age tale about three surfers who reunite on the beach after 10 years of being apart. Meanwhile, Francis Ford Coppola became interested in directing "Apocalypse Now" after George Lucas' idea of filming guerrilla-style in Vietnam in the middle of a shooting war was deemed insane by the studios. Coppola committed to the project and began work in 1976, running into numerous problems that have since become Hollywood legend, including the near-fatal heart attack of star Martin Sheen. Milius, however, was not allowed on set - perhaps in retrospect, a blessing in disguise given the maniacal control Coppola exhibited. Nonetheless, "Apocalypse Now" won the Palm d'Or for Best Film at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival and became the last great film to be released during Hollywood's last golden era.Just about everyone associated with "Apocalypse Now" suffered from a creative glut from which many never recovered - Coppola most of all. Milius never reached such artistic heights again, himself. He helped develop the story for Spielberg's abysmal World War II comedy "1941" (1979), before directing the comic bookish adventure "Conan the Barbarian" (1982), which turned the unknown muscle head Arnold Schwarzenegger into a star. His next directing effort, the paranoid and jingoistic "Red Dawn" (1984), sparked controversy because of its ludicrous premise - Cuban and Nicaraguan forces, aided by the Soviet Union, invade and occupy America - and the right-wing patriotic fervor that did nothing but cement the image of Milius as Hollywood's resident Nazi.After "Red Dawn," Milius' career faltered considerably, falling into a deep, isolated abyss. Though the work came sporadically, Milius nonetheless never lost touch with his rugged individualism and contrarian nature. His next directing effort, "Farewell to the King" (1989), took Milius and his crew to the jungles of Borneo to shoot an "Apocalypse Now"-like tale about an American POW (Nick Nolte) ruling over a tribe of natives after escaping the Japanese during World War II. Though exquisitely filmed and fast-paced, "Farewell to the King" failed to live up to its artistic forbearer, both in terms of achievement, thematic depth and box office bounty.Milius started the 1990s with what could in the end turn out to be his last feature directing effort, "Flight of the Intruder," a speculative drama set during the Vietnam War about a pair of Navy pilots (Brad Johnson and Christopher Rich) who launch an unauthorized bombing run on Hanoi in an insane bid to help turn the tide of the war. After the dismal critical reception and poor box office showing, Milius focused more on writing, churning out the scripts for "Geronimo: An American Legend" (1993) and "Clear and Present Danger" (1994). Turning to television, Milius directed the remake of the 1957 drag racing drama, "Motorcycle Gang" (1994), for Showtime, before turning to Teddy Roosevelt's charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War into the sweeping miniseries, "Rough Riders" (TNT, 1997). In 1998, Milius and fellow scribe William MacDonald pitched HBO the idea of a miniseries about ancient Rome based on the lives of two soldiers mentioned prominently in Julius Caesar's writings. The cable station had already begun playing with the idea the previous year and had no trouble signing onto the project But instead of a miniseries, Milius helped create the series "Rome" (2005-07), which centered on the chaos following Caesar's conquest of Gaul while focusing on two ordinary soldiers (Kevin McKidd and Ray Stevenson) who deal with both the radical social and political changes of the empire atop their domestic troubles. A combination of extensive research and wild imagination, "Rome" depicted an ancient, amoral society often at odds with a modern, post-Christian moralistic worldview that shocked some with its casually wanton sex and horrifically savage violence. Nonetheless, "Rome" received a thumbs-up from the plebian masses, as well as several Golden Globe and Emmy Award nominations. Despite the adulation, HBO was forced to limit "Rome" to only two seasons after spending nearly $100 million in production costs.