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The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

How did Arnold Schwarzenegger come to represent the masculine ideal? Because he's actually been the everyman all along…

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

 

Welcome back to The Myth of Macho! I hope that you enjoyed the previous installment of this series about society’s influence on masculinity and its portrayal in modern cinema. Last time we tackled some of the more serious elements of the male psyche but this time we will be working through what I have termed the “Action Obstacle.” This expression is meant to refer to certain factors without which or whom discussion on modern action cinema simply cannot occur. While some may disagree, and I readily admit that I am only speaking from personal experience, what I have found is that much of this genre has been catalyzed by one of the most hyper-masculine figures ever committed to celluloid: Arnold Schwarzenegger. While some have found his identity within action film culture to be typified as the “generic” action persona, I would argue that it has actually been his participation in defiantly mixed genres that has made him stand out and has managed to create his own significantly singular iconography that we are so familiar with today. Whatever your take may be, I would invite you to join me on our next adventure in The Myth of Macho to see exactly what it is that makes Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger “The Austrian In the Room.”

It is virtually impossible to discuss American cinema and masculinity without taking on action films. With that in mind, it is completely hopeless to have the very same conversation without the mention of one, Arnold Schwarzenegger. In his almost-50 film career, his impact on the way that we view masculine identity, physical character and the heroic narrative has been so great that, while many other actors have attempted similar feats, they never quite produced the same cultural results. Action stars like Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lundgren or even Steven Seagal have made successful careers within the action film genre, many running in tandem with Schwarzenegger’s, but none of them seemed to make the leap from “action figure” to “action icon” in quite the same manner that our Austrian bodybuilder did. As an actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger may not have held much significance. But as the physical embodiment of what is held to be the masculine ideal? His importance is incalculable. Now the real question is, was it simply this aesthetic that gave him the indelibility that he has maintained over the years or was it something more?

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

Without Arnold Schwarzenegger, our conception of the science fiction male would be quite different. While there have certainly been a plethora of male-centric science fiction films that dipped into the action-adventure genre before Arnold showed up, there is a difference in the way that “action” and “science fiction” are displayed in 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). Those older films, while genre-flexing, never really genre-bent. While there was action, it was never held to be quite on the same level as the science fiction itself: it was always a little more one than the other. The presence of Arnold in a picture made it so that all genres could be brought to the forefront and presented at once, for the benefit of the platformed masculine identity. No longer was a film simply a science-fiction film, it was a science-fiction-action film, and no longer was it simply that but it was a sci-fi-action film with muscle.

These genre-bending narratives serve as the ideal vehicles for us to see how Arnold-the-actor became Arnold-the-figure. As films like Predator, Total Recall, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day (James Cameron, 1984 and 1991) and Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987) show us, cinema of the 1980’s and ‘90s was more than just slightly 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. While another actor could have been chosen for this job, it was extremely significant that they chose the young man from Austria. His previous work had led him directly to this position; he was, in effect, a perfect fit.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

The action cinema circuit was booming and Arnold’s success in related areas made him an ideal candidate for the world of the mixed genre feature. He had garnered popularity in the fantasy genre, a cadre of films very closely aligned with science fiction, having starred in Conan The Barbarian (John Milius, 1982) and Conan the Destroyer (Richard Fleischer, 1984), and was recognized as one of the top bodybuilders on an international level, named Mr. Universe five times and Mr. Olympia no less than seventimes. There was no mistaking that the world found him to be the perfectphysical specimen and wonderfully configured for the world of the fantastic. His impeccable form lent a greater sense of the imaginary to these films (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 fantastic 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 to this day, assisting in the creation of the “Arnold” persona, they are not as striking or as unique, image-wise, as what he built from the characters 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” are put in unexpected circumstances (Total Recall), he 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.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

Total Recall recounts a tale of one of those “regular guys,” Douglas Quaid. His desire to relive the dreams that he keeps having takes him on an adventure that not only reveals the inadequacies present in his everyday existence but also rips apart his fantasy world as well. Within the film, Quaid’s interest in visiting his fantasy domain ends up involving him in real-life danger and intrigue, and ripping what he sees as “reality” apart at the seams.

While Douglas Quaid exists in the futuristic 2084, he is still depicted as a standard construction worker with an urgent need for a vacation. Gauging from his dream sequence, he is also somehow dissatisfied with his home situation: his “getaway” involves an incredibly beautiful woman (Rachel Ticotin) who is not his ultra-hot wife sleeping next to him (Sharon Stone). To be quite honest, it seems that the dreams of the working stiff in 2084 could’ve been lifted from the working stiff in 1994 or 1944, give or take a Mars or interplanetary reference. What we are given in this sequence is pure: it is a working man’s fantasy, no more, no less, and no amount of future accouterment is going to change that.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

The very idea that Arnold Schwarzenegger could be unhappy in this futuristic “domesticated life” exposes the cracks and fissures in society that a film like Total Recall is meant to expose. But what it means for the Arnold-persona (and for our discussion) is that what seems to be “perfect” becomes imperfect, endearing him more to the audience, making him more beloved both as a character and as an icon. While retaining the Grecian god-aesthetic, he is revealed to be simply a man and, as such, flawed. Schwarzenegger’s character, in a film like Total Recall,is meant to reflect the internal aspects of what modern masculinity in the action film is about: natural human imperfection, working class ethics/background, and the innate drive to survive any and all obstacles. The one point that cannot be driven home too many times is this: at no point is Arnold relieved of any of the visual or ethical factors that create the mass appeal that makes him the unquestioned “Hero.” He is the very model of a Modern Major Masculinity figure. Muscle-bound, survival-oriented, determined, with that certain edge: you know his character is one you like.

Ben Richards, policeman protagonist of Running Man, has the same qualities of flawed perfection as Douglas Quaid. While Richards is considerably more hardened than Quaid (cops, especially wrongly accused and jailed ones, are more likely to be hard-boiled and grumpy than the average, everyday construction worker), he still maintains his innocence. Not unlike Quaid’s journey to discover what his dreams mean through the assistance of the Rekall agency, Richards’ experience within the world that is the film’s futuristic landscape and entertainment programming climate/game show (The Running Man) informs his realizations about corruption, survival and exploitation.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

Like Total Recall, the narrative of The Running Man is meant as social critique and commentary (something that, historically, is part and parcel of the science fiction genre), and shares with its sister film concepts of the average man under more-than-average circumstances. This Hitchcock-ian ideology assists in our affiliation with Richards as a strongly defined audience-supported protagonist and, again, with Schwarzenegger as a figure eliciting empathetic response. Ben Richards’ innocence plays well against the evils that he is subjected to by the “Running Man” game show and the media discourse conducted by the film itself, allowing him to act out in ways that he would otherwise not be allowed to act. Richards’ forceful behavior with Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso) becomes constructed as a non-issue due to science fiction circumstances and, regardless of this element, in his role as the “wrong man,” we automatically side with Arnold.

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.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

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 sub-standard sequels to perfectly good sci-fi action films (*ahem* RoboCop 2 *ahem*) 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 the previously mentioned 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.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

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.

From the complex cultural values exhibited within the Native American masculinity of Billy (Sonny Landham)’s character to the ethical capriciousness and evolution of Dillon (Carl Weathers), this film is jam-packed with content. However, by the end, it all boils down to one thing: Arnold. When it comes down to it, there is only him and he manages to do the impossible: the earthbound, earth-spawned man takes on the alien being, the predator. As the finale unfolds and the audience watches in rapt attention, we come to realize that it is not simply Dutch’s military training that gives him at least somewhat equal ground as the beast but it is his pure vulturine tendencies that make him a worthy foe. It is also this factor that makes the transition for the audience from “Arnold Schwarzenegger” the action guy to “ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER.” There are many battles that Arnold has fought in his cinema career, but there is only one Predator. After this film, it became ultimately clear: here was an actor and a character that could take on anything. And we were impressed.

The Myth of Macho: The Austrian in the Room

As self-reflexive vehicles like Last Action Hero (John McTiernan, 1993) or True Lies (James Cameron, 1994) have exhibited, Schwarzenegger’s influence on the action world was given a nod almost from the get-go. His presence in the last two Expendables (Sylvester Stallone, 2010 and 2012) films not withstanding, his import on the genre and the reason he is a mainstay in discussion has less to do with his media regularity than the fact that he set up many of the things that we consider desirable in our action films. 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. While it could be argued that this was simply the films that he was cast in and not Arnold himself, this does not make him any less a crucial piece of the structure of the Myth of Macho.

I hope that you have enjoyed this week’s expedition through the Myth of Macho. Please join me again next week, where we will discuss even more fantastic tales of the action-packed set!