As Arnold Schwarzenegger turns 73, Tom Jolliffe looks back at the period where the Austrian Oak ruled action cinema, with an eye for quality material…
As Arnold Schwarzenegger turns another year older, now would be a good time to look back to an era of global box office domination, and cult appeal in the action genre. For a time it was a pitched battle between Sylvester Stallone and Schwarzenegger. It could often become a heated playground debate as to who was better (and fence sitters were not allowed in some debates). On the one hand, Stallone has two characters of iconic pop cultural status in Rocky and Rambo. Arnold has his T-800. Sure, Arnie had Conan, but the appeal of the barbarian brawler was never as widespread or relentlessly spoofed as his cyborg character (nor Stallone’s two iconic characters).
On the other however, Schwarzenegger’s eye for hits began to look far more assured than Stallone. Additionally, in forays outside of their comfort genre, Arnold had more joy in comedy, and indeed in anything that had a sci-fi/fantasy element. After all, his real breakouts were within sci-fi/fantasy thanks to Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator. Stallone might have had the Oscar pedigree for his acting thanks to Balboa, but the bigger his career became, the more two dimensional his characters would become, whilst Arnie was largely satisfied to keep it simple and play on his immense charisma. My playground allegiance for the record, was Stallone, but I’m a huge fan of both and retrospect has gifted more cult favourites to Arnold than Sly.
Arnold, a comic book brought to life, of almost inexplicable muscle mass was something of a unique entity on the big screen at the time. Only Lou Ferrigno came close to being so undeniably larger than life. There were others who had Mr Olympia worthy physiques who stepped in front of camera, but often lacked the presence or magnetism of Arnie (see the Paul brothers in The Barbarian Brothers, and a few other low budget B movies). It didn’t happen instantly for Schwarzenegger either. He’d become somewhat known on the bodybuilding circuit and had jobbed as an extra, or supporting artist. His debut in Hercules in New York is in the Plan 9 From Outer Space arena of so bad it’s good (where he was billed as Arnold Strong, opposite Top Cat voice actor Arnold Stang). A few bit parts and walk ons followed before a bigger break playing a bodybuilder in Stay Hungry opposite Jeff Bridges. The role even earned him a Golden Globe win for best newcomer. The film went by largely unnoticed however, and it wasn’t until his appearance in the documentary Pumping Iron, that people (particularly high profile producers) began taking notice. Lou Ferrigno also starred and initially, the affable Brooklynite seemed to come out better from it, landing his iconic role as the Hulk, even though Schwarzenegger’s charisma almost consumed the entire documentary.
Step forward to 1982. Ferrigno’s run as the Hulk ends, and Schwarzenegger dons a loin-cloth for his big leading screen debut. Conan the Barbarian would prove a hit, and was even greeted with solid reviews for a genre deemed dead in the 60’s (and never one for rave responses). I’ve often spoken about my love of the film. It has way more artistic merits than it has often been given credit for, but it remains a cult favourite for many. Whilst there weren’t too many singling Schwarzenegger out as a great thespian, there were plenty whose eyes lit up at his box office potential. He had the sequel for Conan, and then to an extent pulled back slightly. From a couple of rather sprawling epics, to a low budget sci-fi/horror. His Barbarian outings were prime B movie material of course, but he’d surely have had bigger offers (and in all likelihood within the action fantasy realm). Schwarzenegger went for the sci-fi horror directed by a former visual FX artist who had been fired from his first directing gig. Some upstart called James Cameron. Arnold bought into the vision and some 35 years later was appearing as a Terminator for the fifth time, in the sixth film in the franchise last year.
The Terminator was a big hit and greeted with great reviews. Arnie would then have a pretty impressive run from the mid 80’s onward, of firing out a perpetual stream of cult cinema. In 1985 Stallone dominated the box office, but then seemed to lose his Midas touch somewhat. At this point Arnie was becoming deemed a rival and began to eclipse Stallone. Commando wasn’t loved by critics, but fans lapped it up. It was Arnie’s answer to Rambo. By this point he and Stallone were in the same postal code, but in doing Commando, Arnold entered the same arena and threw the gauntlet down. It was at the height of run and gun cinema. The film wasn’t nearly as successful financially as Rambo 2, but it was still an aggressive move by Schwarzenegger. He was going for the crown. People love Commando and its appeal has grown. There’s a certain ironic gaze required to view it perhaps, but at the same time it’s a whole truckload of fun (and explosives). It also cemented Arnie’s association with a wry smirk at himself and a penchant for one liners. He made his films big and his characters bigger.
Among a couple of more conventional action films (again, perhaps in a prod at the kind of things Sly was doing) in Red Heat and Raw Deal, Schwarzenegger made Predator, Running Man and Total Recall. His blending of sci-fi with action, one-liners and over the top machismo would become a staple. Predator and Total Recall in particular are great and showed Arnie’s eye for a hit. They weren’t sure fire by any means either. A jungle set creature feature with a fairly inexperienced director wasn’t a guaranteed success. Thankfully that director would end up being the guy who made Die Hard. Predator is the perfect B movie. It’s also beautifully segmented into three parts, beginning as a guns blazing action film, turning into a taut mystery horror, plagued by an unseen enemy, before going straight up creature feature at the end, and the creature itself was beautifully realised (on second attempt, following a disastrous first stab at the titular monster).
Paul Verhoeven’s uber violent follow up to RoboCop was also a big budget gamble. Arnold was deemed box office dynamite by this point, but his biggest hit to date had been his first dive into comedy with Twins. Such was the success of that, perhaps a few studios wondered if his ultimate appeal may lie there. He made Total Recall however (though pumped out Kindergarten Cop at the same time, perhaps to cover himself, and that film indeed made bank). Verhoeven was highly sought after thanks to RoboCop but a Philip K. Dick adaptation might have had the haunting spectre of famed flop Blade Runner looming in a dark corner somewhere. It was Arnold’s biggest budget to date, a lot was riding on it. Of course we all know Total Recall turned out to be awesome. It’s everything you want in a cult film and it’s visually spectacular. The beauty of all of Arnie’s cult work, is that the attain their own segment of ardent fans. Many will attest Terminator 1 or 2 as his best, others will proclaim Total Recall, Predator or Conan The Barbarian, and I know some who will vehemently maintain it is Commando (nay, that Commando is the greatest action film ever made). Conversely, during that period, Stallone made Cobra, Lock Up, Over The Top, Tango and Cash, Rambo III and Rocky V. Arnold wins by TKO (as much as I love some of those Sly films, particularly Tango).
Arnold then donned his shades and leather for Terminator 2: Judgment Day. This would be his biggest film to date. He’d just roasted 1990 with two smash hits and consequently, though James Cameron was coming from a financial disaster with The Abyss, a massive amount of money was thrown at T2 (reputedly the biggest budget film of the time from some sources). It then ended up as Schwarzenegger’s biggest hit. Accounting for inflation it still remains his most successful film too. By today’s standards it’s Marvel level money. It was also probably the best action film of the decade (and only a select few in the 21st century have come up to its level). The high bar both commercially and in terms of popularity that Arnold set with T2 would be difficult to match. He tried, but never quite found the formula again, with Last Action Hero a financial and critical disappointment, and whilst True Lies was a big financial success, it’s been a little forgotten in time.
The end of the 90’s saw a progressive decline for most of the action guys. Schwarzenegger then had his infamous political break. His return didn’t bring with it much in the way of expectation or baited breath sadly, and his choices and output have been largely disappointing. His first film back, The Last Stand was very routine and by the numbers but actually I felt very underrated by his fans. It’s still his best post-politics film and marked the kind of character that could have been more age appropriate and grounded, allowing him to develop into a new kind of cinema. What really hasn’t worked sadly, has been Arnold’s attempts to reboot his Terminator franchise. Terminator Megadrive (or Genisys, or whatever it was called) and Terminator: Dark Fate both bombed. Where he takes his career now remains to be seen (though the streaming/Netflix route would be sensible, particularly for any aspirations to reboot something like Conan) but during his peak, did any of his contemporaries do it better than Schwarzenegger?
Tom Jolliffe is an award winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out on DVD/VOD around the world and several releases due in 2020/21, including The Witches Of Amityville Academy (starring Emmy winner, Kira Reed Lorsch), Tooth Fairy: The Root of Evil and the star studded action film, Renegades. Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see…https://www.instagram.com/jolliffeproductions/