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The Normal Arcs Have Never Applied to Arnold Schwarzenegger

Arnold’s been many things: a comically muscular Conan, an unstoppable Terminator, an unlikely governor, and an even unlikelier Never-Trump Republican. None of it has made much sense, but it’s never needed to.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This week, The Rewatchables is featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger’s biggest movie, Terminator 2. Listen on Spotify and check out last week’s episode on The Terminator here.

“Now you see this sword? This is the Conan sword.” Arnold Schwarzenegger, international icon, unfadable action hero, and semi-distinguished former Republican governor of California, sits behind a massive desk, framed by both the U.S. and California flags, sternly addressing a fractured nation via Twitter and, indeed, brandishing the very blade he used to decapitate Thulsa Doom in 1982’s Conan the Barbarian. And why not, at this point. Fuck it.

It is January 10, four days after an unruly mob spurred by outgoing president Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol, killing five and further fracturing the nation perhaps beyond repair. Or perhaps not. “Now here’s the thing about swords,” Conan continues. Not Conan—Arnold. Sorry. “The more you temper a sword,” he says, “the stronger it becomes.”

Why not. Fuck it. He describes how to temper a sword in some detail; he explicitly intends this as a metaphor for American democracy. He lambastes Trump as “the worst president ever.” He pledges his support for incoming president Joe Biden. Stirring political-address music hums in the background. “To those who think they can overturn the United States Constitution, know this,” concludes Arnold Schwarzenegger. Slight pause. Here we go. He has roughly 500 famous action-movie catchphrases he could fire off in this moment, and it’s almost disappointing when he resists this temptation for the first time in his whole entire life and opts instead for the relatively staid “You will never win.” God bless America and so forth. The Governator has spoken.

What is most striking about Schwarzenegger’s Twitter address is not the Conan sword, nor his explicit likening of the Capitol riot to the galvanizing 1938 Nazi rampage known as Kristallnacht, nor his genuinely moving recollection of his childhood in Austria in the early 1950s. “Growing up, I was surrounded by broken men drinking away the guilt over their participation in the most evil regime in history,” he says, before alluding to the abuse he and his mother suffered at the hands of his own father. “Not all of them were rabid anti-Semites or Nazis. Many just went along, step by step, down the road.”

No, what is most striking is that all of this blends seamlessly together: the Nazis, the Proud Boys, Schwarzenegger’s wrenching personal history, the hokey B-movie sword. Past and present, fact and fiction, grave history and macho farce, Arnold the human and Arnold the semi-distinguished politician and Arnold the unfadable action hero. He’s been blurring these lines for 40-plus years; he long ago blurred them entirely out of existence. Ten days later, another Twitter video: Schwarzenegger getting the COVID-19 vaccine and very much back to business catchphrase-wise, reeling off two in quick succession. For the young lady wielding the syringe: “Put that needle down!” (I didn’t get this one right away.) And post-vaccine, for the rest of us: “Come with me if you want to live.” (Duh.)

In 2021, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a relatively serene 73-year-old occasional movie star (he last appeared in 2019’s Terminator: Dark Fate) and extremely chaotic political commentator. His reign as California governor (from 2003 to 2011) was tumultuous and ideologically convoluted; he replaced Trump as host of NBC’s The Celebrity Apprentice in 2017 but bailed after one season and sparred with Trump thereafter over various ratings. He now conducts himself as an avatar of sword-tempering bipartisan decency, though his 31-year marriage to Maria Shriver collapsed in 2011 amid ignominious tabloid scandal, and during his initial 2003 governor campaign, multiple women said he touched them in a sexual manner without consent. (In 2018, with #MeToo ascendant, he conceded that he’d “stepped over the line several times.”) Multiplex heroism, shaky George W. Bush–era conservatism, uneasy reality-TV pragmatism, harassment, abysmal sexism, and a late-period turn toward vehement anti-Trumpism. It’s all him. It’s all inextricable.

And so once again we take a quick spin through Schwarzenegger’s filmography and bibliography, because doing that is always fun, and it behooves us in this moment of maximum American self-antagonism to further ruminate on how this particular sword was tempered. It turns out “put that needle down” is a paraphrased deep cut from 1996’s wacky comedy Jingle All the Way, in which he yells, “Put that cookie down, now!” at Phil Hartman. It makes no sense, and doesn’t particularly help anybody, to dredge that one-liner back up now, in the middle of a raging global pandemic and burgeoning American cold civil war. Then again, it makes exactly as much sense as anything or anyone else does.

I can offer you no summary of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s origin story more poetic or instructive than the Wheel of Pain montage from Conan the Barbarian, his pro-bodybuilder physique slowly swelling to cartoonish (and real-world) Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia proportions, his murderous action-hero resolve slowly hardening, the stirring music forever swelling in the background. The remarkably gnarly Conan gave him his first true breakout role, his first unworthy adversaries (including the camel), and his first catchy campaign slogan: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women.” Ridiculous. Uncouth. Indelible. A fiction so bizarre in its specificity that it instantly morphed into unassailable fact.

In 1984 he served up both his first diminished-returns sequel (Conan the Destroyer costarred Grace Jones and Wilt Chamberlain!) and his second iconic role: The Terminator. And already he’s both unstuck in time and a quite literally larger-than-life figure with no boundaries between his on- and off-screen selves. In October 2020, in yet another Twitter video answering right-wing critics who’d accused him of promoting socialism, Schwarzenegger somehow likened his open-minded political beliefs to his decision to play the murder-bot-from-the-future villain in The Terminator, albeit a villain that James Cameron’s unkillable sci-fi franchise quickly refashioned into a hero. “And the same goes when I was in government!” he hopefully adds, pivoting yet again to his bipartisan valor, and California liberals would likely disagree, but probably not to his face whether he’s holding a giant sword or not.

The Terminator movies are a baffling enterprise spanning six installments and 35 years, loud and brutal and incoherently plotted and mostly disposable the less Schwarzenegger himself participates. Several films in his early-superstar years figured out how to maximize his appeal: For an absurdly muscle-bound lunkhead with an accent thicker than the mantle of the earth, this guy was alarmingly soulful, an everyman amid unimaginable midnight-movie carnage in 1985’s brainless hoot Commando and 1987’s likewise ultra-trashy The Running Man. Also in ’87: The original Predator, yet another baffling six-movie enterprise, although Schwarzenegger abandoned it immediately and never looked back. I won’t argue if you still consider the original movie’s climactic Arnold vs. Predator brawl to be his single greatest on-screen fight, ludicrous but legitimately balletic, too. Soon he’d come up with better catchphrases than “DO IT! DO IT! COME ON! KILL ME! I’M HERE!” But he’d arguably never face a worthier adversary.

If we’re debating Schwarzenegger’s single greatest movie, full stop, the two most plausible contenders are 1990’s Total Recallvisionary and grotesque in the extreme, with my personal favorite Arnold one-liner—and 1991’s T2: Judgment Day, which made 10 gazillion dollars, blew up 10 gazillion tons of raw metal, and contains my personal favorite Arnold image. Shotgun. Roses. “Get down.” Simple. Pure. Timeless. Bipartisan. It’s not quite that they don’t make movie stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger anymore: Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson is a fine modern analog, from his early fame-making gig (pro wrestling and pro bodybuilding share just enough DNA) to his mega-beefcake charm to his world-conquering ambition to leap from action to comedy to family fare and back again. It’s that nobody ever again made every single syllable count like this. “I’ll be back” and “Hasta la vista, baby” are just such stupid utterances on the page, as punch lines, as mere phonetic speech. But every single word is a Shakespeare play to the future governor of California, every breath a bomb.

As for the comedy and family fare aspects of Schwarzenegger’s career, with apologies to Twins, I’ve never needed anything beyond the “It’s not a tumor!” scene in 1990’s Kindergarten Cop, and I’m not about to go back to Jingle All the Way now just because I’ve been reminded that Phil Hartman was involved. The usual movie-star arcs and pivots and rises and falls and redemptions never quite seemed to apply here—1993’s too-clever The Last Action Hero was a reviled flop, but it was washed away the very next year by True Lies, which I vastly prefer to any ‘90s James Bond movie, in that it is gaudier and dumber and bloodier and sillier and louder and yes, even sexier. Catchphrase: “You’re fired.” Lasting contribution to world cinema: the Jamie Lee Curtis pole-dancing scene, which has fascinating plot implications (seriously) and a high-comedic JLC pratfall (Arnold’s little startled jolt in the chair is masterful, too) and a fundamental understanding (by James Cameron again!) that Schwarzenegger is at his most magnetic just sitting in a chair, in the dark, saying nothing and looking like Rodin’s “The Thinker” except scarier and muscleier and hornier.

Even Arnold’s very worst movies are compulsively watchable: His many puns as Mr. Freeze in 1997’s Batman & Robin are somehow both intolerable (“STAY COOL, BIRD BOY”) and the best thing about the movie, even if it’s still the nadir of ’90s superhero flicks. Maybe the reason the usual movie-star arcs don’t apply is that at the turn of the 21st century, just as his movies had grown helplessly reductive and stale—the only thing I remember about seeing 1999’s End of Days in the theater is that it opens in Vatican City and my buddy Mike turned to me and said, “If Arnold Schwarzenegger is the pope, then I’m leaving”—Arnold turned, inexplicably, to politics.

Schwarzenegger’s triumph in the 2003 California gubernatorial election is a singularly bizarre moment in American history (at the time, I worked at a leftist Bay Area alt-weekly that put Gary Coleman on the ballot, attempting at least to lean into the buffoonery of it all). But from the Apprentice connection on down, it’s a clear precursor to Trump’s rise, to pure celebrity overpowering any notion of plausibility, to American politics entering a dystopian B-movie era that may in fact never end. In any event, the surprise new governor of the most populous state in the union starred in a movie the same year as his swearing in: 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. Why not. Fuck it.

The movie holds up better than the administration. Which is another way of saying that this is around the time that American fiction became, by and large, vastly preferable to American fact.

He came, he governed, he flop-sweated, he got reelected, he served his two terms, he got the hell out of there, and California survived. Life’s rich pageant. The options available to Schwarzenegger upon his return to civilian life were good-natured self-parody or prestige-chasing reinvention. He chose well, which is to say he chose self-parody, which is to say that Sylvester Stallone’s doofy action-hero-pileup Expendables franchise showed up right on time. I don’t want an Arnold Schwarzenegger Oscar-bait movie, and neither do you. For one thing, the lucrative biopic route is totally unavailable to him, as you would not for one second buy this person as any other character but Arnold Schwarzenegger Kicking Ass. More importantly, he has too much self-respect to grovel for your respect. The closest he’s coming to ostentatiously subverting your expectations is 2015’s Maggie, a muted zombie movie (Abigail Breslin, playing his daughter, is infected) that finds our hero foregoing the ass-kicking in favor of some semi-macho brooding. Not too much brooding, though. No self-pity. Just a mourning-in-advance father figure making every syllable count.

Schwarzenegger’s emergence, in the past few years, as the ultra-rare Never Trump Republican with a boldface public profile equal to Trump’s own is a fitting, almost poetic punishment for the whole Governator thing. He isn’t bipartisan politically—just emotionally. You know his voice, even if you’re no longer willing to listen to it. If you don’t forgive him, that’s understandable: There is much to not forgive him for. But enough people are theoretically still listening. “Come with me if you want to live” is a super-dorky thing to say seconds after receiving your COVID-19 vaccine on camera, but coming from him there’s a certain poignance, a resignation within our current nightmare celebrity-industrial complex to fight Dumb with Dumber. If this is what, and who, it takes to convince people to get vaccinated, then so be it.

He’s quite good in Terminator: Dark Fate, for the record. He introduces himself as Carl, a woodsy family man. I believe him as Carl, actually. “Our relationship is not physical. She appreciated that I could change diapers efficiently and without any complaints. I’m reliable, I’m a very good listener, and I’m extremely funny.” You rarely hear Arnold Schwarzenegger string that many words together on camera these days unless he’s holding up a 40-year-old movie-prop sword while denouncing a coup attempt. May his darkest fates remain purely imaginary.