By Steven Travers:
While Hollywood is undoubtedly liberal to the extreme, it is nevertheless subject to a certain inconvenient truth, which is that most really excellent things are usually conservative or run by conservatives. The history of the South might be just one, in that when the place was dumb and racist, it was Democrat. When it became educated and knowledgeable it became Republican.
Then there was John Milius. Truth be told, Milius may be the greatest and most prolific screenwriter of all time. He is also not merely conservative, but downright right wing. He has enjoyed success as a director, but mainly because of his politics was shut out of that position after Red Dawn in 1984.
During a trip to Hawaii, Milius became depressed because he could not land a girl friend, so he spent a week watching an Akira Kurosawa film festival. At first he wanted to join the Marine Corp and fly jets, probably dying like one of Kurosawa’s Samurai, but he had asthma and was denied. Down in the dumps, the Kurosawa films made him realize that if he could not be a general in the military, the next best thing would be to direct movies. So he entered the University of Southern California film school.
“USC is the West Point of Hollywood,” he said.
The film schools at USC and UCLA were backwaters in those days; a refuge for losers and slackers. But among those “losers and slackers” were the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Carroll Ballard at UCLA; at USC there was George Lucas, Walter Murch, Caleb Deschanel, Haskell Wexler, and Willard Huyck. Another film student of the era who was constantly around these guys was Stephen Spielberg.
John Milius was the first of the film school wunderkinds to make it big. “Francis couldn’t tell a story like John,” recalled Spielberg. “George couldn’t, I couldn’t. Nobody could.”
At USC Milius and George Lucas made student films that captured everybody’s attention. Milius, already a right-wing hawk, was appalled at the hippies and anti-war protestors carrying signs that read “Nirvana Now.”
“So I fashioned a button that said ‘Apocalypse Now,’ “ he recalled. “Let’s just get it over with, full nuclear . . .
He and Lucas became “connoisseurs of the Vietnam War,” he added, and came up with an idea for a movie about the war, based on Conrad’s novel, which they thought very exciting because of all the technology and jet air craft. The two discussed different concepts, one of which literally entailed sending actors and a crew to Vietnamm where they would mix documentary footage with real scenes and dialogue, not
unlike Medium Cool, directed by Haskell Wexler. “People who would do anything to avoid the draft, even things as drastic as getting married, were perfectly willing to carry equipment around,” recalled Milius.
“I mean, this was right during Tet.”
Francis Ford Coppolo had formed Zoetrope in San Francisco and brought Lucas, Milius & others in. But their first big project, George Lucas’s THX 1138, was a collosal flop. It seemed to be the end of Zoetrope, Coppola, Lucas, maybe Milius, and the rest of the gang. But Coppolo landed the Godfather gig, and Milius also landed on his feet, writing Dirty Harry and Magnum Force, then directing Sean Connery in The Wind and the Lion. He was doing it his way, writing manly, conservative dialogue being mouthed by such stalwarts as Clint Eastwood and Connery.
When The Godfather and The Godfather II hit it big, Francis Ford Coppola and Zoetrope were flush with cash. Steven Spielberg made Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lucas made American Graffiti and Star Wars. Suddenly the guys who were several rungs below him at film school surpassed Milius.
When Coppola re-opened Zoetrope for a second time, the first film he wanted to make was Apocalypse Now. By 1975, Milius had written several re-writes of the screenplay, and in 1976 Coppola took a cast and crew to the Philippines to shoot Milius’s Vietnam epic.
It took over four years for that film to make it from page to screen. Everything went wrong. Martin Sheen had a heart attack. Marlon Brando practically refused to work despite being paid $1 million. Coppola was hemorrhaging his own money. A typhoon wiped out the sets. Coppola practically went insane, as did his main character from the novel it was based on, Walter Kurtz (Brando) from Heart of Darkness.
At some point Milius was called in to “save” the film. “Everybody cheered and told me, ‘You have to talk sense to him,’ “ he recalled. “But it was like Von Rundstedt going in to see Hitler, and being convinced, ‘Ve don’t need gazoleen. Ve can vin.’ Coppola had me convinced this was the first film that would the Nobel Prize. I’d have done anything.”
One of the reasons it took so long to complete the shoot was because despite brilliant writing, Coppola refused to shoot Milius’s ending, which was very jingoistic and somewhat resembled the Rambo movies of the Reagan ‘80s. Coppola wanted a profound statement on the inherent meaning of war and man’s sinful nature.
Eventually Coppola edited enough footage of Brando shot in shadows and other pieced-together scenes to create the finished 1979 product, Apocalypse Now. It is considered one of the great films ever made, an absolute masterpiece and war classic rivaled by very few other pictures. Milius was nominated for an Academy Award and ascended to the heights of fame and success in Hollywood.
He followed it up by making Arnold Schwarzenegger a star in Conan the Barbarian, then did the ultimate “screw you” of liberal Hollywood: Red Dawn (1984). This was based on Milius’s experiences as a teenager in Colorado. In the film, two teenagers played by Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen have been raised by a father who taught them how to hunt, fish, shoot and live off the land.
Titles tell the viewer that NATO is dissolved, the Greens have taken over the anti-nuclear movement in Germany, and Europe is “sitting this one out,” when the Soviets and Cuban paratroopers invade the U.S. Later it is revealed that the Soviets nuked Red China, killing half the population.
Swayze plays the charismatic Jed, a former high school football hero in Calumet. Charlie Sheen plays his younger bro, also on the football team. One fine day Soviet and Cuban paratroopers descend from the sky and start blowing up the town and their school, including a teacher telling a story about one of Milius’s favorite historical figures, Genghis Khan.
Swayze, Sheen and a handful of their friends escape the town in Swayze’s truck. They pick up supplies and weapons from a friend who lives on the outskirts of the town, and head to the mountains.
The invaders are lead by an equally charismatic Cuban who previously led rebellions in Angola and Nicaragua. His first orders are to get the list of gun owners from the local sporting goods store, plus member rosters of the Boy Scouts and Eagle Scouts.
It is World War III, behind enemy lines. U.S. fighter jets engage in daily air strikes and the group finds a pilot, played by Powers Boothe who ejected from his plane. He helps the kids orchestrate guerrilla strikes against the Communists, and they leave as their call sign “Wolverines,” after their high school nickname. The Communists organize several elaborate plans to capture them, but largely fail. The Cuban commander eventually realizes he has always been the revolutionary; now he is the occupier and the Americans are the revolutionaries, and as anybody who knows history knows, nobody does revolution like Americans.
Eventually the boys are mostly killed but we learn that the U.S. won the war, freedom was restored. It was an enormous hit in 1984. It made Milius the absolute number one storyteller among the military.
Since then, all American helicopter attacks are accompanied by Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” from Apocalypse Now. When the U.S. captured Saddam Hussein in 2003, it was called Operation Red Dawn.
But Hollywood was furious. It was the last straw. He had written the “fascistic” dialogue from two Dirty Harry films; had practically “won” the Vietnam War the second go around in Apocalypse; and now, just as people thought we had reached détente with the Soviet Union, he had us triumphing over them in a shooting war.
Worse, his heroes were NRA gun-toting white kids. Red Dawn left little room for ambiguity. Several of its stars, especially Swayze and Sheen, launched star turns after the film, but Milius was banned.
“I’ve been Blacklisted as surely as anybody in the ‘50s,” he said.
Occasionally liberals are too truthful for their own good. What is interesting from a political standpoint is that Coppola’s screenplay of Patton was intended as an anti-war screed, portraying Patton the man as mad, war-crazed, bloodthirsty, and obsessed with reincarnation. The Patton family never cooperated with the picture and had a lawsuit ready to serve, but Scott’s charisma so infused the character that he was not portrayed negatively. The movie is seen as the greatest war film ever, Patton as a true hero. The family quietly withdrew the suit; they loved the portrayal.
Coppola’s Apocalypse Now was intended as an anti-war film, but by keeping Milius’s key scenes in there, it is viewed today as a favorite of the war junkie crowd. The same with Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s A Few Good Men, intended as a cautionary tale of why the military needs civilian oversight, but Jack Nicholson’s charisma made Lt. Col. Nathan Jessup a hero at West Point and Marine barracks.
About Steven Travers
Steven Travers is a former screenwriter who has authored 30 books including “Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of Apocalypse Now.” He is a USC graduate and attorney with a PhD who taught at USC, played professional baseball, worked in politics, served in the Army, and was a sports agent before finding his calling as a writer. He has written for the San Francisco Examiner, L.A. Times, StreetZebra, Gentry magazine, and MichaelSavage.com. He can be reached at USCSTEVE1@aol.com or on Twitter @STWRITES.