In his almost-60 film career, the impact of Arnold Schwarzenegger can be seen directly on the way that we view masculinity, physical character and the heroic narrative. It completely shifted the way that we view action cinema and male participation within that world. As a dramatist or pure thespian, Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be the first guy who comes to mind, but as every man’s physical ideal of the ’80s / ’90s, his importance is incalculable. Now the real question: was it simply this aesthetic and iconic image that gave him the indelibility that he’s maintained over the years or was it something more?
Without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the science fiction male would be quite different. While a plethora of male-centric science-fiction films have dipped into the action-adventure genre before Arnold showed up, a clear-cut difference exists in the displays of “action” and “science fiction” of films like Zardoz (John Boorman, 1974) or Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973) versus their portrayals in films like Predator (John McTiernan, 1987) or Total Recall (Paul Verhoeven, 1990). These older films, while genre flexing, never really genre bent. While action certain existed in the earlier works, it was never held on the same level as the science fiction itself: the film was always a little more one than the other. Then came Schwarzenegger. His powerful physique and iconic bodybuilder “ness” gave permission for a film to contain far more than just one genre. Arnold’s presence, his body itself, in a picture allowed all genres to be brought to the forefront and presented at once, for the benefit of showcasing his masculine (and heroic) identity. No longer was a film simply a science-fiction film, it was a science-fiction-action film, and not just that but a sci-fi-action film with muscle.
As films like Predator, Total Recall, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1984 and 1991) and The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987) show us, cinema of the 1980’s and ‘90s was more than just a little interested in investigating the link between action and science fiction; it was obsessed. Schwarzenegger’s finely tuned body was utilized as the perfect tool through which to explore this vision. Sure, another actor might have been chosen for this job, but it was quite significant that they chose the young man from Austria. His previous work within the bodybuilding and fantasy fields had led him directly to this position; he was (literally) a perfect fit.
The action cinema circuit was booming and Arnold’s success in related areas made him an ideal candidate for the mixed genre feature. He had garnered popularity in a cadre of films closely aligned with science fiction, having starred in Conan The Barbarian (John Milius, 1982) and Conan the Destroyer (Richard Fleischer, 1984). Schwarzenegger, recognized as one of the top bodybuilders on an international level, was named Mr. Universe five times and Mr. Olympia no less than seven times. The brilliant weight-lifting film he made during this part of his career, Pumping Iron (George Butler, 1977), might be the closest you will ever get to see an intimate side to this man on film. That one is a true classic.
There was no mistaking that the world found him to be the perfect physical specimen and suitably configured for the realm of the fantastic. His impeccable form lent a greater sense of the imaginary (who can realistically have a body like Arnold’s?) and it was exactly that factor that built such an incredible bridge between the genres of fantasy and action cinema. Arnold as a physical quantity made a huge cinematic impact, the desired effect, of course, for any major action film, exemplified best by his limited-dialogue performance in James Cameron’s The Terminator.
While Schwarzenegger’s roles in films like Commando (Mark L. Lester, 1985), Raw Deal (John Irvin, 1986) and Red Heat (Walter Hill, 1988) serve as critical additions to action cinema, assisting in the creation of the “Arnold” persona, many do not recall them as readily as the aesthetically unique characters he built within the Sci-Fi Action films. Continually casting Schwarzenegger in a futuristic landscape where regular men get stuck in “wrong man” situations (Running Man) or Ordinary Joes put in unexpected circumstances (Total Recall), Arnold was built up as the ideal corollary for male audience members: not only was he the kind of guy you could relate to on a narrative level, but he was the kind of guy you wanted to be on an aesthetic and principled one.
Films that endow Arnold’s characters with a heightened sense of reality in a surreal environment also give him something to work with as an icon. His physicality betrays him in its own hyper-masculinity to the extent that playing flawed and average men only makes him seem manlier. While these themes of domesticity and normalcy may seem particularly endemic to a film like Total Recall, it is the use of Schwarzenegger to introduce and platform the sci-fi action film itself that becomes of ultimate importance. Beginning with the combination of sci-fi/action introduced in James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and continuing through his career, these films began a trend out of which came male-centric and male-dominated films all generated by ideas of the perfect blend of science-fiction and action. Films like Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993), Timecop (Peter Hyams, 1994), Judge Dredd (Danny Cannon, 1995), and a slew of sequels to sci-fi action films had a very different feel to them due to the energies that were set-up by Arnold’s career. Substandard or not, these sequels were on everyone’s television and in their videostores and…who didn’t see at least a few Highlander films or Predator 2? C’mon, Danny Glover meets Jamaican drug cartels with a little bit o’ Gary Busey and Maria Conchita Alonso? Sorry. I’ve seen that on the big screen. I had a good time. Whether or not you are on the side of those particular films, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s presence took science fiction cinema to that next level of high machismo and action, combining the genres in a new and altogether different format.
Looking at a film like Predator, it becomes clear where the cross-section between action, science fiction and the masculine sensibility lies. If you cannot see how intensely these three issues are braided together into one piece of filmmaking within the text of that particular film, I’m not sure I can be of much help. Schwarzenegger’s character, Dutch, serves as the axis of masculinity from which all other characters spring forth, exhibiting different (yet no less virile) examples of homosocial behavior and male strength. Dutch’s position as the Leader of Men also situates him as the triumphant force and the Ultimate Figure of Manhood, able to combat even the most unknown and volatile of forces: a creature from an unknown realm. While this film may have been situated right in the center of his sci-fi action career, it is arguably the film that generated the conception of Arnold Schwarzenegger as Arnold Schwarzenegger. While this film works off of internal principles of modern masculinity in the action film and involves natural human imperfection, working class ethics/background, and at least a valid attempt to survive any and all obstacles, it also works off of a big-ass sci-fi action blow out finale.
Predator boldly features robust male relationships, class and ethnic tensions, and cultural affiliations, making no bones about it. Truly, this film may be one of the few action films you will see where the primary figures for audience identification are strong, fully fleshed out and rich characters of color. While there are white guys in Predator, they are the minority and they most certainly do not receive the best treatment, narrative-wise. While I have heard many people giggle that the relationship between Mac and Blain is “homoerotic” (and perhaps, to an extent, it is), the sentiment and dedication between these Special Forces men could also be read on a deeper level: as a type of bonded-and-ritualized-partnership, developed through extreme circumstances, the kind of relationship that only military men usually share. While Predator does take this to a whole new level, this is also a film that is summarily about a Special Forces troop that thinks they are going to save some downed CIA men in the jungle but end up battling an outer-space creature. Predator takes everything to a whole new level.
There are many battles that Arnold has fought in his cinema career, but there is only one Predator (John McTiernan, 1987). After this film, it became ultimately clear: here was an actor and a character that could take on anything. And we were impressed.
As self-reflexive vehicles like Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) or True Lies (James Cameron, 1994) exhibited, Schwarzenegger’s influence on the action world was given a nod almost from the get-go. His presence in The Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010, 2012, 2014) films not withstanding, his influence on and import in the genre is clear and the reason he is a mainstay in discussion has less to do with his media regularity than the fact that he set up the modern infrastructure for what we consider desirable in modern action cinema. We want a protagonist who is smart and determined like Ben Richardson, “normal” like Douglas Quaid but hardcore like Dutch. And boy, wouldn’t it be nice if he were aesthetically pleasing too? Arnold Schwarzenegger may have won a large amount of bodybuilding prizes, setting him on a pedestal aesthetically, but his career has been spent making an effort to connect to the average audience male in a certain internal manner.
It wouldn’t be fair to leave this piece without discussing Arnold’s comedic career. His work with Ivan Reitman on films like Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) is still imminently re-watchable. I would skip Junior (1994), however.
The success of these comedies is mostly due to Schwarzenegger’s easy-going nature and self-effacing sense of humor. Entirely aware of the awkwardness of putting an action man in the funny landscape, Arnold is fully conscious of the fact that his thick Austrian accent plays a role in making people laugh. As a comedic performer or action star, Schwarzenegger plays off his own iconic image. Arnold makes fun of himself, playing upon his physically dominant frame, cashing in on this persona. Until Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson came along, there was not another actor/action/comedy star that was able to slide so easily into a multitude of different genres and charm audiences so thoroughly. The Rock, admittedly, has better acting skills but the comparison is valid. There is no question that if there were no Arnold, there would be no Rock.
So come out this July and celebrate the 70th birthday of one of the best contributions to American Action Cinema: Arnold Schwarzenegger! The New Beverly has you covered with a variety of opportunities: Total Recall / The Running Man on July 28th, The Villain kiddee matinee on July 29th and the made-for-movie-maniacs Arnold All Night marathon on July 29th. C’mon. Let’s party.