"When you do something the way someone else wants you to, you take your life in your own hands," says "Dirty Harry" Callahan in Magnum Force. If John Milius, co-writer of that script, takes his life in his hands, it isn't by doing things somebody else's way.
Milius attended film school at the University of Southern California in the early 1960s and took to script writing, a field in which his youth would not be a demerit. If a scene or backdrop was occasionally inspired by his past as a champion surfer, then a point of view was provided by his developing political outlook—one quite at variance with the liberal Hollywood mainstream.
"Generally in life," suggests Milius, "one tends to choose as an ideal either freedom or justice, if by justice you mean complete security and protection under the laws of society." He identifies the latter as the goal of the political left, a group that his films—right down to the dialogue—seem almost designed to infuriate.
One of his first, which took a dozen years to reach the screen, was Apocalypse Now ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning"). Other scripts include The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean ("The only lynching done around here will be done according to the law!"). He wrote and directed The Wind and the Lion ("Why spoil the beauty of a thing with legality?") and Conan the Barbarian. Most recently, he adapted and directed Red Dawn (1984), whose theme, he said, is, "War is hell, and don't tread on me."
Red Dawn has American teenage guerrillas defending the country against a Communist invasion, and when it appeared, the right rallied around Milius as one of their own. For his part, however, Milius says he "steers more toward the libertarian than toward the hard right. I find it very offensive to hear, 'How do you feel about prayer in public school?' and 'You must be against abortion.' I am definitely against the enforcement of any form of religion, whether it be Christianity or anything else."
As for sexual mores, "People can go out and do whatever they want. It's fine, as long as it doesn't affect me." On a moment's reflection, he wants to clarify: "Let's put it even further. I love sex. I think sex is one of the best things in the world. You can't get enough of it." What about erotic magazines and movies? "You don't want to see it, don't pay your money. It's as simple as that." Maybe Hollywood liberals don't have so much to loathe as they thought.
But then…He applauds Bernhard Goetz's actions on the New York subway and goes further: "If he hunted them down and stalked them and shot them from a hundred yards with a rifle, it'd be fine with me. I'm all for citizens solving these problems."
He adds, "The Second Amendment isn't there so that we can all rise up and fight the Russians together, as in Red Dawn. The Second Amendment is there so we can shoot the police if they become too oppressive."
Milius puffs on a cigar, answering questions thoughtfully, sometimes humorously. He often draws examples from military history, one of his favorite subjects.
What about antimercenary laws preventing US citizens from privately fighting in "friendly" foreign countries? "A friend of mine was recruiting people to go to Rhodesia," he recounts, "and he was questioned by the FBI. They said, 'Name some mercenaries for us, and we'll be easy on you.' So he got a history book and came back with a list of everyone who was at the Alamo: 'David W. Crockett,' 'James Bowie,'…The FBI said, 'Do you know where this James Bowie can be located?' I think if Americans want to go off and fight in foreign wars, they should go out and do it."
Government restrictions on the economy? "I can understand the reasons for some of them. There should probably be minimum-wage laws, but I don't like the idea. When you start limiting laissez-faire capitalism, you're starting to touch the very fabric which makes this country different from anything else."
The anomalies continue. Milius is flat out "against taxation." Yet he's in favor of a draft into a national service. "People should be forced to uproot their lives and go to work in some way for the betterment of the country. If they're pacifists they can grow food, they can help with the Red Cross."
As to soldiering itself, he'd like to see a "warrior class." Why? "I respect our democratic institutions, but if Douglas MacArthur had returned in 1951 and crossed the Mississippi like Caesar crossed the Rubicon and proclaimed himself Emperor Douglas the First, it might not have been bad for this country. We might be living in a Pax Americana right now."
He suggests that America's foreign meddling has been more foolish than reprehensible. "We should have guaranteed free elections in Vietnam. Whether Ho Chi Minh would have been Communist or not is not really important. The point is whether he'd be an ally to the United States." He suggests that—anticommunist though he is, and little as he would care to live under such a regime—even a Communist regime (soft-line, Tito-style) may be preferable to the chaos that prevails in areas like El Salvador just "because it isn't the type of government we want." Working against Castro rather than with him did not rid America's neighborhood of Communism, he notes, but gave us "the Soviet Union, 90 miles from our shores."
Milius says he is mellowing out with time. "I'm not as intolerant or as harsh to the other side as I always was—whether or not there is an 'other side.'" And that is perhaps more than the "other side" can say.
John Dentinger is a free-lance writer and a columnist for the LA Daily News.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Spotlight: Hollywood Heretic".