I will never forget the first time I saw him. It was a Thursday evening in early autumn and I was a fresh-faced nine-year-old boy. This was a simpler, more innocent time. It was before the Internet and smart phones and the Kardashians. A time when most of Great Britain only had access to four television channels, and to be considered a ‘celebrity’ you had to do more than have a camera crew film you getting shitfaced drunk and shagging Geordie strangers in a holiday villa. I was digesting a hearty meal of overdone toast and spaghetti hoops, and was considering my after dinner playtime options, when an advert popped up on ITV for that evening’s late movie. An enormous, shimmering hulk of a man stepped out of some jungle mist, clad in military paint and an ill fitting vest, and sporting the most obscene gun you could possibly imagine. I had no idea what ‘Schwarzenegger Season’ was, but I instantly knew that I had to be part of it.
The 1980s are, without question, an unheralded golden age of cinema. From John Hughes’ library of teen angst studies to instant Sci-Fi classics like Ghostbusters or Back to the Future, the decade played host to some truly original filmmaking. The spate of remakes, reimaginings and belated sequels we currently see being churned out is no coincidence, given that many of Hollywood’s current power players grew up during this period. Despite the glory of this decade taking many forms, there is one genre that defined the era like no other. In the 80s the action movie reigned supreme.
For today’s generation action movie stars are something of a foreign concept. The idea that an actor could be catapulted onto the A-list on the basis of B-movie fare seems alien nowadays, and the genre has been somewhat relegated to the straight to DVD market. In fact until Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson started to diversify his portfolio to become the biggest star in the world, there was only really him and Jason Statham flying the action movie flag in cinemas, and neither was doing so to anywhere near the level of their 80s predecessors. In more recent times Liam Neeson became an unlikely spearhead for an action movie revival, but he had long been established as a ‘proper actor’.
It was a significantly different story thirty years ago – in the 1980s excess was king and trigger happy, ultra violent action movies were in constant demand. Regardless of the critical reception or awards committee snobbery, these movies were a whole heap of fun, promised big box office returns and made instant stars of their muscle bound leading men. Stallone. Willis. Van Damme. The list of physiques that owe their careers to the genre is almost as long as the Commando body count. However, there was one man that did it better than any of them.
I would later discover that Schwarzenegger Season was ITV showing an Arnold movie every Thursday for four weeks. I would also discover that, via the magic of blank Scotch VHS tapes and some lax weekend adult supervision, my 8:00pm bedtime would not be an obstacle to me devouring them. Despite the 40-minute interval for the News at Ten, that my parents always managed to tape as well, I have never enjoyed a set of films as much since. Those four movies – Conan the Barbarian, The Running Man, Predator and even Red Heat – sealed my fate. It was then I became, and remain to this day, an unashamed advocate of Arnie.
He is, quite simply, the greatest movie star of all time. As the man turned 70 this year, and has now even extended his repertoire helping us Brits make a decision on that pesky PPI, it is about damn time the world agreed with me.
Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger was born in 1947 in the small Austrian village of Thal. His father was a member of the Nazi party and later a cop. Unsurprisingly, Schwarzenegger has often spoken of having a strict upbringing and always had a desire to break out of small town life. It was aged just 15 that he found his way into a gym and quickly discovered he had a natural talent for bodybuilding.
In 1965, while serving his obligatory one-year national service in the Austrian army, Arnold entered and won the junior Mr Europe competition. In order to compete he went AWOL and, despite his success, had to serve a week in a military prison for the privilege. Having caught the flexing bug he entered the 1966 amateur Mr Universe contest, aged 19, and came second. The following year, he won the title outright – the youngest person ever to do so. He went on to win the pro title for the next three years.
It was the Mr Universe crown that took Arnold to Los Angeles in 1968, and with it, came a degree of fame and notoriety. He followed up Mr Universe with his first Mr Olympia title in 1970 and his famously bad movie debut ‘Hercules in New York’.
With his performance credited as ‘Arnold Strong’ and his ludicrously thick accent dubbed over in postproduction, it was not the strongest of acting debuts for the future Terminator. More Mr Olympia titles followed – he would take 7 altogether, his last coming after a 5-year hiatus from the competition – as did more acting work. In 1973 he played a mute hitman in The Long Goodbye and even won a Golden Globe for his role as weightlifter Joe Santo in 1976’s Stay Hungry. The Globe – his only acting gong of any significance – was awarded for ‘best acting debut in a motion picture’, so wasn’t even technically accurate. Then, in 1977 Arnold featured in the acclaimed bodybuilding docudrama Pumping Iron. The film focused on the competition between Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno for the 1975 Mr Olympia title. Although the piece did focus on real life events and characters, sections of it were played up for the cameras and Schwarzenegger hammed up his personality to emphasise his role as the ‘villain’. The movie was a box office hit and made an instant star of its antagonist.
More minor television and film roles followed, along with a degree and the publication of his first book ‘Arnold: The Education of a Body Builder’. He worked hard taking English classes to take the edge off of his obstructive accent. Then, in 1982, the ‘Austrian Oak’ took his first step on the path to mega stardom and world domination – he was cast as the lead in Conan the Barbarian.
Conan, an enjoyable swords and sandal romp co-starring James Earl Jones, was a box office hit. Despite his heavy accent impairing his delivery and leading to the rehearsing of lines some 40 plus times, Arnold’s performance was widely praised in a role that he, physically at least, was perfect for. This led to a less successful (but still profitable) sequel, Conan the Destroyer, in 1984 before James Cameron cast Arnold in his defining role. Released in October 1984, The Terminator, was an edgy sci-fi thrill ride that provided Arnie with his signature catchphrase and his most enduring franchise. As a stand-alone movie it is also one of his best, with Arnie’s cold and stiff delivery of lines perfectly suited to the character of a leather jacket clad murderbot from the future. It also continued the hot streak, with the T-800 raking in over $78 million worldwide from a budget of just $6.4 million. Unfortunately this momentum was followed up with Red Sonja in 1985. A return, of sorts, to the Conan canon. This is easily Arnie’s worst non-Christmas themed movie. In fact it is so bad that the man himself refers to it as “the worst film I have ever made” and claims to have used it as a way of punishing misbehaving children. It bombed horribly and was slaughtered by the critics.
The next release saw a return to box office success. Commando, a fantastically daft action film, featured Arnold as John Matrix, an ex special forces soldier wreaking havoc upon the criminal militia that had dared to kidnap his daughter. It is absolutely peak Schwarzenegger – all genius level quips and cartoon-sized guns – and set the blueprint for his career. Commando features more firearms than an NRA rally, a young Alyssa Milano and the most quotable script in cinema history. I am unashamed to say it is easily my favourite Arnold movie and if you haven’t seen it we can never be friends.
Although 1986’s Raw Deal was seen as a bit of a blip, it still turned a profit and featured the man in an incredible white vest. After that Arnold solidified himself as a hit machine. He spent the next 9 years churning out a run of movies that are, Red Heat notwithstanding, hard to question in terms of both quality and box office. From Predator to Kindergarten Cop by way of Twins, where he played against type alongside Danny DeVito, he simply couldn’t put a foot wrong. It was, of course, in 1991’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day where he reached the height of his powers. It was a critical and commercial success, taking an absolutely monster $519.8 million across the world. The movie cemented Arnie’s place as a global pop culture icon
After reaching his absolute zenith with T2 by the time True Lies, a huge financial and critical hit, was released in 1994 the first cracks had already started to show. The interim release, Last Action Hero, was a disappointment. Although in retrospect the film itself is enjoyable enough – it’s critical reception at the time would have you believe it is much worse than it is – it didn’t manage to recoup its massive budget in the domestic US market. It was a self-spoofing satire on the action genre, and seen as confusing and contrived by many of its detractors. Being released the same time as box office behemoth Jurassic Park probably didn’t help either. True Lies, however, was a fantastic action comedy and a welcome return to form. It took a massive $378 million worldwide and showed that there was still life in the old Oak yet. It would turn out to be Arnold’s last real hurrah.
Both Junior and Jingle All the Way tinkered with Arnie’s usual hero template and were rejected by audiences. Eraser was a charmless return to Arnie’s proven formula, but US audiences no longer seemed that interested. Then came the unspeakable Batman and Robin and a hat trick of disappointing box office failures that were designed to return Arnie to his action movie throne: End of Days, the 6th Day and Collateral Damage.
A return to the Terminator franchise inevitably broke the downturn, with Rise of the Machines taking over $433 million worldwide and becoming Schwarzenegger’s second highest grossing film ever. Barring a couple of cameo appearances, it would also signal the end of his movie career for 9 years. A much publicised but unexpected move into politics followed, with Arnold becoming the 38th Governor of California. He had hung up his M16, albeit temporarily.
After returning to acting in 2011, following his hiatus in politics, Schwarzenegger has struggled to recapture his 80s magic. Although enjoyable cameos in the Expendables franchise have been a profitable tongue in cheek nostalgia trip, Arnold is yet to have a real breakout hit. Even the return of the T-800 in the god awful Terminator: Genisys failed to capture the public’s imagination. The world has moved on and, as fun as the Expendables has been, nowadays audiences tend to demand more from their action films than great one liners and impeccable gun play. Not that this seems to be stopping him. Thank Skynet.
Were he to debut now it is difficult to imagine Arnie obtaining the same level of stardom. His success seems very much of it’s time, with the fast talking ‘Governator’ being the very personification of 80s excess. He is comically huge, Pinocchio wooden in his delivery and inexplicably foreign which, given the American paranoia towards Europe at the time of his rise, is amazing in retrospect. However for me, and millions like me, it was easy to see past these barriers. You were not so much a fan of his movies, but of the man himself. Growing up I wasn’t aware that he wasn’t taken seriously as an actor, or that his films were considered as utter shite by the Hollywood elite. I didn’t care. To my 9-year-old self he was simply the most charismatic human being I had ever seen.
That is, for my money, the basis of his appeal. Yes, he could be considered one dimensional, but that is exactly what the audience, his audience, wanted. It was a simpler time, when the fans of an actor knew what to expect when they bought a ticket. They were paying to see the ass kicking, trigger-happy, inexplicably European ex cop/soldier/spy/cyborg wisecrack his way through a movie. In fact, other than in the utterly charming Twins, anytime he stepped away from that formula the audience balked. Even in Kindergarten Cop the joke was that he was playing the same badass cop character, just in a different environment.
Part of the fun was seeing how each film would play with Arnold’s familiar tropes. How could they shoehorn in his famous catchphrase? When will he give his ice-cold thousand-yard death stare? How would they explain away his wacky accent? For the latter, some movies went all out. Kindergarten Cop gave his character an Austrian backstory. In Red Heat they just made him Russian. Mostly though, they just ignored it. Even though he was saddled with uber-American alpha male names, like Doug Quaid or Ben Richards, no reference was made to the fact that he spoke like a German military Commander.
It is also worth pointing out that he had a wider variety of movies than even his fans gave him credit for. Comedy. Twins. Check. Period drama. Conan. Check. Romance – look, versatility is not the point. Any man that can credibly knock out a camel does not need something as touchy feely as ‘range’. That wasn’t the point of the man.
He was easily the greatest movie star of his generation. Of any generation. Note, I am refraining from using the term actor – Arnold certainly wasn’t renowned for his theatrical chops. However, in terms of being a box office attraction, a household name and an all round top of the A-list celebrity, he was unparalleled. Although others have been more acclaimed performers, have made bigger box office takings and been an attraction over a longer period, it is hard to think of anyone else that has ever achieved such mythical status in such a short space of time, or done so within such a limited genre. For a certain generation growing up between 1982 and 1997 Arnold, quite simply, was Hollywood.
Much of Arnold’s back catalogue is seen as critically shameful but, as with so many pop culture icons, the opinions of critics and movie snobs matter not a jot to his legion of fans. Plus, it is worth noting that some of his movies are genuinely excellent. The first two Terminator movies are nothing short of iconic. Total Recall and Predator were intelligent sci-fi romps and True Lies, which was the last genuinely good entry in his library, is a fantastic popcorn fuelled thrill ride. Not only that, but his figures don’t lie – to date his movies have amassed over $4.5 billion dollars worldwide
Even the most ardent Schwarzenegger critic has to admire the drive and determination of the man. That is not to mention his undeniable charm, charisma and commitment to his chosen genre. Plus, he is genuinely funny. He is hilarious in interviews or when addressing the public, and no one can deliver an action movie post murder zinger like Arnie. He redefined the movie pun. From ‘stick around’ in Predator to the entire script of Commando, his mid gunfight comedy timing is unparalleled. Not a single incarnation of James Bond comes close. Even the pun-laden performance from the god-awful Batman and Robin is delivered in such a knowing manner it brings you in on the gag. In fact, Arnie’s performance is pretty much the only good thing in that whole movie and he knows it.
This year is the 20th anniversary of Arnold’s first Mr Universe victory and saw him hit his seventies. Despite this he is showing no signs of hanging up his assault rifle. Despite a questionable run on the US version of The Apprentice (stock catchphrase; “you’re terminated”) and those downright strange PPI adverts he is still going strong. He does copious amounts of charity work, is in better shape than most people 40 years his junior and still makes an annual trip to Oktoberfest. Of course, he is still making movies. Original projects like Killing Gunther and Blanco are intertwined with returns to familiar territory in Triplets and The Legend of Conan. Being able to recapture his glory days seems improbable in the 21st century, but it is comforting to know that the man is still out there kicking ass and blowing up the bad guys. Most heroically though Arnold is using Twitter to verbally batter the US President in a very public and credible manner at every opportunity. You can’t keep a good killing machine down. And, with it recently being confirmed that Arnold will co-star alongside Linda Hamilton in the upcoming James Cameron Terminator franchise takeover, one thing’s for certain. He’ll be back.