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The writer- director behind Conan has been portrayed as a fire-breathing, liberal-baiting reactionary. It’s an
The writer- director behind Conan has been portrayed as a fire-breathing, liberal-baiting reactionary. It’s an

The writer- director behind Conan has been portrayed as a fire-breathing, liberal-baiting reactionary. It’s an image he relishes.

Kirk Honeycutt

John Milius had a dream not long ago in which he was on trial for war crimes. Meryl Streep was the prosecuting attorney and the jury consisted of film critics Pauline Kael and Stephen Farber. Genghis Khan, one of Milius’s idols, appeared as a character witness, as did Milius’s’ friend Steven Spielberg. However, the jury didn’t believe Spielberg; it felt he had been paid off.

A six-foot bearlike man of thirty-eight with a dark, trim beard and shy smile,

Milius relishes telling stories as much as he does making movies. The war crimes trial,

which now occupies a permanent place in the Milius storytelling canon, is particularly revealing. It reflects his amusement with his press image as a gun-toting reactionary. Milius’s first brush with the press came nine years ago, when he began adding directing credits to his small but impressive output of screenplays. Newsweek dubbed him “The Macho Kid,” and Esquire called him “Mr. Macho” and carried a picture of him dressed in a bush jacket, scowling and cradling a gun big enough to take down

a bull elephant. In those and subsequent interviews, Milius seemed to enjoy spouting

the kind of right-wing rhetoric that’s as rare in today’s Hollywood as a B Western. “My politics are strange,” he says. “I don’t think anyone takes them seriously.”

He can blame himself for a lot of his image problesms. As he sits in an office done over as a command post—cane furniture; position maps on one wall; books on

military history lining another; guns, swords, and hunting trophies for decoration—tales of war and antiliberal one-liners start to flow. Milius calls himself a “Zen Fascist.” His motorcycle gang, Mobile Strike Force Paranoia, is small but growing, he says. “There aren’t enough of us yet to sweep down and terroize small towns.” Aides come and go with clicking heels and mock Nazi salutes. His production company’s name, A-Team, is a combat designation borrowed from the Green Berets. So it’s really no surpise when interviewers dub him “General Milius,” “a road company Hemingway,” or “an American samurai.” Milius simply shrugs: “Genghis Khan had bad press, too.”

If Millius seems at times unconcerned about the bad press, it may be because he

knows that Hollywood is more sanguine about it all. “After a flop, the press treats you like you’re an enemy of humanity,” he says. “But in the industry they like to hire you after

a failure because they know you’ll be more conscientious about bringing the movie in on
a
failure because they know you’ll be more conscientious about bringing the movie in on
time. Hollywood isn’t as bad as everybody thinks. The industry looks at the movie. They
don’t look at Heaven’s Gate and say it’s an unqualified disaster. They say, ‘There’s nicely
©1982 Maureen Lambray

done stuff here. Cimino’s a good director if held down. He’s going to make a very good film—maybe the next one or the one after that.’” For Milius, the battlefield is the stage for man’s greastest melodrama; in this theater of carnage, he finds a moral ambivalence. Milius says that when the U.S. Marines charge to the rescue in The Wind and the Lion, the viewer should momentarily take pride in the forceful Amercian military pres- ence, and then question that pride and the

military pres- ence, and then question that pride and the “John wants to bring reality to

“John wants to bring reality to the screen,” says Schwarzenegger. “His line was, ‘Pain is temporary, but the film is permanent.’ ”

©1981 Dino De Laurentiis Corp.
©1981 Dino De Laurentiis Corp.

Conan (Arnold Schwarzenegger) does battle with the evil Rexor (Ben Davidson).

brutality of the action. Apocalypse Now, which he co-wrote with Francis Coppola, vividly illustrates the lunacy of war, yet also evokes the compelling and seductive nature of its horrors. “There’s something unspeak- ably attractive about war,” says Milius. “People enjoy intensity. The human animal seems to be drawn to it like a moth to a flame.” As a counterpart to the Jane Fonda school of filmmaking—the well-intentioned liberal dramas dealing with social problems—Milius offers his own brand of romantic, escapist high adventure. But it’s not the comic book world of Star Wars, in which villains are bloodlessly dispatched with beams of light. Violence in Milius’s films is explicit and intense. In his new film, Conan the Barbarian scheduled for release this month, that inten- sity explodes into a blood-soaked cartoon of barbarity. Swords pierce, heads fall, bones crunch, axes hack, and, in the heat of sexual passion, a woman turns into a wolf-witch. “I think Conan is a very sensitive film, myself,” says Milius dryly. The $19 million Universal Picutres-Dino De Laurentiis epic re-creates the adventures of a brawny super- stud invented for thirties pulp magazines by a moody, reclusive writer named Robert E.

Howard. Conan lives in the Hybrorian Age of twelve thousand years ago, a mythical time of black magic, pneumatic-breasted women, and thick-skulled warriors who kill according to a personal code. Conan is con- cerned only with the naked fundamentals of life and is, according to his credator, con- stantly “afire with the urge to kill, to drive his knife deep into the flesh and bone, and twist the blade in blood and entrails.” To visualize conan’s savage world, Milius commissioned research papers on medieval snake and assassination cults, reviewed Mongol history, and investigated ancient warfare and weaponry. He and pro- duction designer Ron Cobb attempted to cre- ate a prehistoric screen world so believable that, according to Milius, “an anthropologist can look at this film’s culture and say, ‘This is consistent.’”. He insisted his actors train for six months in broadsword fighting, kendo (a Japanese martial art using bamboo swords), horseback riding, and stunt work before shooting began in Spain early last year. “John wants to bring to the screen as much reality as possible,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, the world-champion body builder-turned-actor who plays Conan. “If you’re attacked by a vulture, he wants a real

vulture. If you fight with broadswords, he wants real swords that weigh ten pounds. Which, of course, puts you in danger as an actor. But John’s line always was, ‘Pain is only temporary, but the film is going to be permanent.’” Milius, who shares the screenplay credit with Oliver Stone, says “Kurosawa talks about making a movie that’s composed of motion—motion and emotion. In this film I tried to tell a story without dialogue and nar- ration, but through mood and nuance and color and editorial motion. What I really like about Conan is that it achieves a sense of the surreal—a dreamlike, separate reality.” Milius is more in tune with the “sepa- rate” realities he imagines on the screen than with contemporary society and its values. Ill at ease with his own culture, he has studied others for insight into alternatvie concepts of morality. He claims he lives by the Japanese warrior code of Bushido; a strict sense of honor and of loyalty to friends and beliefs. “I guess you could say I’m an anachronism,” he once said. “We grow up in a society where morali- ty is coming to you on a plate and never real- ly tested,” Milius says. “You either accept it or cheat on it, but you never really deal with your own morality. What we call barbaric or pagan cultures are simply non-Christian. They often have certain truths and freedoms that are much more acceptable to me than our own.” A historical fantasy like Conan allows Milius to escape from complex problems that refuse to yield to easy solutions. “John would like to be the heroic people he makes movies about,” Spielberg observes. As Milius says, “I’m so far to the right, I’m probably an anarchist.”

orn in St. Louis in 1944, the son of a prosperous shoe manufactur- er, Milius moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was seven. He took up surfing as a teenager. It’s a loner’s sport, he admits, where you learn to rely not on teamwork but on your- self. “Surfing really was a central experience in my life,” he says. “I was very lucky to have something like that, like the kid in Breaking Away who loves to ride a bike. Unlike the other three, he has something that drives him, and that’s why he becomes the leader of that group.” Then he discovered Japanese culture—the literature, kendo, but most of all the movies. He studied the films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, and now he’s using what he learned. He points to the samurai-like concept

studied the films of Kurosawa and Kobayashi, and now he’s using what he learned. He points
The warriors of Conan’s archenemy Thulsa Doom brandish the emblem for the snake-worshipping Cult of

The warriors of Conan’s archenemy Thulsa Doom brandish the emblem for the snake-worshipping Cult of Set

of the warrior and his sword in Conan. A group of horsemen rides through a forest from shadow to shadow, causing sunlight to flicker and giving viewers a sense of speed, a trick picked up from Kurosawa. He entered the University of Southern California, intending only “to take some English and history and then go into the mil- itary and die.” He explains, “No surfer in my era wanted to live past twenty-five. You were supposed to burn out, to go down in flames—or risk going down in flames.” But the military rejected him because of his weak lungs and chronic asthma. (“I felt guilty about that for years,” he ways.) He began taking art courses at USC, entertain- ing vague aspirations of becoming a serious painter or commercial artist. Eventually he drifted into the film school—as did so many other filmmaking contemporaries of his, at USC and elsewhere. For Milius and others, the film school camaraderie continues. He sent out reels of Conan to Spielberg for suggestions. On Jaws, Spelberg asked Milius to write the Robert Shaw speech about the sinking of the

Indianapolis, a scene often cited as the film’s most powerful. To give screenwriter Paul Schrader a chance to direct, Milius’s A- Team agreed to produce Hardcore. (Schrader wound up directing Blue Collar first.) Members of the “SC Mafia” regularly screen rough cuts of their work for each other and ask for advice. “John is first and foremost a screenwriter,” says Spielberg. “He was always the best writer of the group and he still is. Looking at a film, John is the first to point out where there’s a flaw or hole in the story. He loves the old-fashioned three-act structure, those movies written by Frank Nugent or films by John Ford, where everything is in the story- telling.” Milius’s 1967 animated student film, the cynical, psychedelic Marcello, I’m so Bored, earned him a job offer from Hanna-Barbera, but he turned it down. He wanted to try his luck writing screenplays on speculation. When American International Pictures bought The Devil’s 8 (1969), a low-budget biker version of The Dirty Dozen he had written with Williard Huyck and James

Gordon White, Milius’s writing career was launched. In 1969, Francis Coppola hired him to develop with George Lucas a screenplay on Vietnam. the result was called Apocalypse Now. Although nearly everyone in Hollywood praised the screenplay, no one seemed to want to back a production of it. Nevertheless, it did get Milius a lot of writ- ing assignments. George Hamilton persuad- ed Milius to rewrite Evel Knievel. Next he did extensive work on the right-wing police fantasy Dirty Harry (1971), without credit— “I never arbitrated; I thought to arbitrate was dishonorable”—and wrote the original script for its sequel, Magnum Force. After Dirty Harry, Milius cut loose on “Liver-Eating Johnson,” about a mountain man who, legend has it, ate the livers of 250 Crow Indians he killed in revenge for the murder ofhis wife and child by several drunken braves. The screenplay was as the- atrical as it was gory; the film’s director, Sydney Pollack, recalls, “Johnson’s reac- tion when his wife dies is to run out and eat

©Patrick La Bianca/Transworld
©Patrick La Bianca/Transworld

Mr. Universe Conquers a New World

I f I have to do films the rest of my life with John Milius directing,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, “I will be very, very

happy.” Strong words for a man who for six months endured subzero cold in Segovia, oppressive heat and mosquitoes in Almeria, ligament pulls and assorted painful injuries in other locations all over Spain—all while covered with blood and dirt, and all for the sake of playing the title role in Milius’s Conan the Barbarian. “The only time I was clean was when I was sleeping,” he says, laughing. “John is a true leader on the set,” says the champion body builder. “He brings such joy and energy that it really makes you just do anything he tells you to do. He talked me into jumping forty feet into boxes, which I don’t think anybody else could do. You feel that to ask for safety measures would be ‘pussying out.’ “He makes sacrifices, so you feel like also making sacrifices. Even when he got very, very sick, he would not allow the set to close down. He directed sitting in a trailer and watching a video monitor. Everyone on the set went beyond what he’d done any- where else. You’re not working for Universal; you’re working for Milius, and he’ll protect and help you in return.” The rapport between star and director began long before principal photography, says Schwarzenegger. “When we went skeet and trapshooting together, he would talk

about the character continuously. He would watch my facial expressions and memorize them. Then [on the set] he would call for the facial expressions and be able to trigger emotions very easily because he knew me so well. “It sneaks up on you. There is never a time when you feel now he is pulling this trick on you to get you psychologically ready for a scene. He just has you right in this excitement; then all of a sudden a lot of diretion is coming from him. The actors joked that we felt like we were dogs and he the dog trainer. “What he didn’t like was for you to come to work with set ideas. If you got intellectu- al about acting, he would freak out. I saw him do that with the French actress [Valerie Quennessen], who would say, ‘Well, I see the chracter as a bit more insecure.’ He would scream, ‘Don’t think! Just do!’” Schwarzenegger began training for Conan a year before filming. Then he and the other actors arrived in Madrid a month ahead of time for extensive rehearsals, which included working out physical action with stunt coordinator Terry Leonard. “For a scene in which wolves attack me,” Schwarzenegger recalls, “I worked seven days straight every morning with dogs—being attacked by five or ten different dogs—just to get rid of the fear. When it came time for that scene, which was the first one we shot, the animals escaped too early and I was not all the way up on the rocks yet. So they pulled me down and I fell ten feet on my back. All of a sudden I had on top of me four of those animals. John came over and said, ‘Well, now you know what the film is going to be like.’”—K.H.

a tree. That just isn’t my style.” Pollack called in other writers, and on the finished film, Jeremiah Johnson, Milius shared screen cred- it with Edward Anhalt. “Milius wanted to accent the violence and its legendary aspects,” says Pollack. “I felt the story was more of a morality play.

Pollack. “I felt the story was more of a morality play. he screenplay that thrust Milius

he screenplay that thrust Milius further into the lime- light was a Western called The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. Like Jeremiah Johnson,

it grew out of his interest in how men turn

themselves into legends, and Milius “des- perately” wanted to direct it for AIP. Judge Roy Bean was meant to be a cheap, sleazy, funny Western about a crusty old outlaw who sets himself up as the law in a Texas town, not unlike Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. “I know the law,” Bean growls. “I spent my entire life in its flagrant disregard.” Milius had Lee Marvin in mind for the part. But the script fell into the hands of Paul Newman, who wanted to play the judge. When producer John Foreman asked how much the script would cost if Milius didn’t direct, the young writer said $300,000, an amount almost unheard of at the time. He never dreamed Foreman would agree. “If I sell out,” he said not long afterward, “I sell out high.” Director John Huston and Newman turned his reprehensible old man into a whimiscal, blue-eyed charmer and his script into “a Beverly Hills Western.” Milius says he has never been as miserable as when he observed the transformation during shooting. But he did get along with Huston, and learned a lot from him, especially about how to deal with actors. “It would have been interesting to see how my career would have gone had I directed that movie,” he says. “I think people would have a different attitude about me than they did after Dilinger, which was a very harsh and violent film. Judge Roy Bean had a real kind of humor and heart to it that Dilinger lacked.” Dillinger (1973), Milius’s directorial debut, fit a familiar pattern: gangsters (Warren Oates as John Dilinger, Richard Dreyfuss as Baby Face Nelson) and cops (Ben Johnson as G-man Melvin Purvis) all obsessed with their own legends; a chivalric code of hunter and hunted; brutal gun bat- tles. “I was much better as a writer than as a director,” Miliius observes. “Learning the technique of directing—moving cameras and picking lenses—takes a little while.” Not that long, though. His second film, The Wind and the Lion (1975), showed off a much more confident filmmaker. It

represents Milius’s most mature, even-tem- pered, and cinematically expressive film to date. In combining desert romance and action-adventure with cheerfully fabricated history, he created a confrontation between two of his favorite heroes: Teddy Roosevelt and Raisuli—Rough rider and desert chief- tain. Raisuli kidnapped an expatriate American in Morocco (in the Milius version, an American widow) during a civil war, and Roosevelt sent the marines to the rescue. It was a situation rich in cultural contrasts and provided Milius with the opportunity for meditations on the passing of adventurers into a world of increasingly sophisticated weaponry and declining moral codes, a favorite theme. Milius’s reverie for lost glory came a cropper in 1978 with Big Wednesday. His memoir of the Malibu surfing subculture of the sixties borrowed from the Arthurian leg- end; chivalrous knights in search of the Holy Grail are here surfers in search of the big wave. The script by Milius and cowriter Dennis Aaberg dished out heavy doses of macho mysticism, and the dialogue fre- quently tasted of overripe corn; “Back home [in Chicago] being young is something you do while growing up,” says a newcomer to L.A. “Here it’s everything.” Milius now admits that the film’s tone was all wrong. “It was too melodramatic,” he says. “I told a fairy tale in Big Wednesday. The true story is that all those guys turned out as dope addicts and scum. I fantasized them into a group of knights. I’d never do something very per- sonal like that again. It’s better to be one step removed when you write about yourself. “In a way, Big Wednesday was a success, because it forced me to take an enormous risk, to step out on a limb and cut it off. I’m not afraid to take risks any more. It’s made me a better filmmaker. The work I did directly after Big Wednesday, when I rewrote Apocalypse Now, was so much bet- ter because of my having done Big Wednesday. To go through something like that—where you expose yourself and are derided for it—builds character.” Apocalypse Now proved to be another char- acter-building experience. Milius never vis- ited the location in the Philippines. “Francis wouldn’t allow me, because he feared a coup,” he quips. The two friends twice had a falling out over the picture, once over con- tent and the other time over credit. “Francis wanted to change the political intent and force a more liberal view on the movie. I did not write the scene where they machine-gun the people in the boat. I don’t think it entire-

ly belongs in that movie, although it’s very effective.” Apocalypse Now drew inspiration from many sources—Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, The Door’ recording of “The End,” pieces of opera, Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Stranglove, and most obviously, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But Milius has always insisted that the screenplay was an original work. Milius was incensed when, he claims, Coppola wanted the writing credits to indi- cate an adaption of Heart of Darkness. “If it’s based on Heart of Darkness, then Moby Dick is based on the Book of Job,” scoffs Milius. The Writing Guild arbitration com- mittee ruled that the screenplay was original and that Milius and Coppola share the cred- it, with Milius billed first.

and Coppola share the cred- it, with Milius billed first. “I love the Bomb. Like the

“I love the Bomb. Like the plague in the Middle Ages, it’s the hand of God coming out indiscriminately to snatch you.”

hand of God coming out indiscriminately to snatch you.” ilius once spoke of his regret that

ilius once spoke of his regret that he wasn’t part of the golden age of Hollywood, when the grand gesture was a way of life, when flamboyance was not only accepted but expected. It’s possible that he has cultivated his right-wing, macho image out of a need to revive some elements of that era. Generally, those who have worked with him have nothing but kind words. Conan’s production designer, Ron Cobb, whose cartoons appeared for years in leftist underground publications, finds him a “very enthusiastic, kind, and fair person. We spar a bit, but essentially I like John as a human being and storyteller and enthusi- ast about all manner of things. He blusters around strangers, mostly to maintain that public image. If you can’t see through it, you deserve to believe it all.” If Milius seems to enjoy putting high adventure on the screen, perhaps it’s because he’s so enthralled with the high- rolling, seat-of-the-pants concept of Hollywood as a place where anyone can strike it rich. “The film business is like the

Wild West,” Milius says. “People can come out here with no degrees and a phone booth for an office. All of these legends—they’re all true. It’s rampant free enterpise and it doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world.”

Milius once casually palmed off his work by telling an interviewer, “I dont’ take movies very seriously. After all, it isn’t can- cer research.” But he’s also aware of the wide-ranging effects a popular film can have: “Star Wars has made people more interested in space exploration and aero- nautical advancements.” He adds, in typical Milius fashion, “It has brought kids out of a residue of the counterculture and interested them in American technology again. George Lucas couldn’t have done that in any other industry.” There is evidence that Milius is enjoy- ing himself as much as ever, and that he finally feels comforable in the director’s chair. “I especially enjoy the hours. I never shoot before ten. I tell the actors, ‘If you want direction before ten o’clock, get it the night before.’” Although he would like to shoot two more Conan films, he’s not sure that his health will allow him. “My lungs are chronically infected; that’s the reason I’ve done only four movies. Also, the movies I’ve chosen to do are particularly difficult physically. Maybe I should do pornography. As George Lucas says, it’s in

a warm room and the props aren’t impor-

tant.” As for the physical violence in Conan, Milius admits to having second thoughts—not because he shows too much gore, but because he is perhaps too restrained. “I should have made Conan stronger, because obviously you can’t approach people at the ratings board intelli- gently. You have to put more in so you can take it out and trade with them. Then they

can justify their existence as state censors, just like the Soviet Union.”

A large photo on his office wall shows the

detonation of a nuclear bomb. He is asked about it. “Oh, the Bomb!” he exclaims, his face brightening. “I just love the bomb. It’s sort of a religious totem to me. Like the

plague in the Middle Ages or the Mongols, it’s the hand of God coming out indiscrim- inately to snatch you. The threat of nuclear war keeps you in line. Here’s a world filled with hideous, greedy people who cheat their fellow man. But if these people can wake up one night, look out their window, suddenly it’ll be daylight for a second, and they’ll cry, ‘But I had a deal at

Paramount!’”

and they’ll cry, ‘But I had a deal at Paramount!’” Kirk Honeycutt is a film critic

Kirk Honeycutt is a film critic for the Daily News in Los Angeles.