Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies

| March 4, 2011

The exponential growth in contemporary film studies of the interest in and the prestige of the action genre is a welcome development to its loyal fans. Gone are the days when being ignorant of “mindless” action movies was proof you were a serious film fan, unquestionably to the betterment of the field. Studying the sociopolitical and narratological elements of action films can often yield probative insights for film theorists interested in cultural and/or genre studies, as Dr. Dave Saunders proved with Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies, not only the first comprehensive theoretical study of the Schwarzenegger oeuvre but also a salient contribution to the growing éclat of the action genre. When it comes to action cinema, no name is more monolithic than Arnold Schwarzenegger, and by the same token, no action star filmography is of greater interest.
The central aim of the book, as Saunders himself notes, is “two-pronged.” Saunders’ primary concern is to offer “close textual readings” of Arnold’s films—and I have to say that his analyses of The Terminator and Predator are easily among the very best individual examinations of any films offered by any critic/theorist I have ever read—while also accounting for “the nature and historical significance of [Arnold’s] extraordinary appeal,” in so doing imparting “overarching political context” onto the filmography of the muscle-bound auteur. On this front, the book becomes not only an excellent filter through which to (re)examine Arnold’s career but also an insightful tour through American political history from the Reagan/Bush/Clinton eras to the post-9/11 context in which Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, the final film analyzed in the text, was made.
The first two chapters of the book deal with Arnold’s initial breakthrough in the 1970s and his steady success into his prime (the “Arnie” era) in the 1980s and into the 1990s. The first chapter starts us off with an introduction to Arnold and a chronicle of his fascination with bodybuilding, which was then replaced by a fascination with acting. The focus in this chapter is on Hercules in New York, Stay Hungry, and Pumping Iron. In discussing these three seminal films, Saunders offers astute filmic/political observations, the most germane, as it relates to Arnold’s developing screen persona, being their promulgating a mythic image that would follow the real-life Herculean star throughout his career. The reading of Stay Hungry is especially remarkable when one considers that it has neither the novelty appeal of being Arnold’s big-screen debut nor the cult appeal of the classic bodybuilding documentary. Operating in the oft-ignored, pre-Conan the Barbarian dead zone of his early career, Stay Hungry is one of the least-known and least-seen films in the Arnold canon, but Saunders makes an immediate viewing mandatory after he posits an intriguing political subtext, shrewdly highlighting the film’s dichotomous sociopolitical discourse and likening it to an “incoherent text” in the tradition of Robin Wood.
Moving forward into the Arnie era, the second chapter is where Saunders’ mastery of his thesis shines the brightest. A positive or negative opinion of Arnold and/or his films is of no consequence when it comes to how engrossing it is to experience the deftness of the language, the expertise of American political history and its applicability to Arnold’s career, and the profundity of the various exegeses on display. The links made by Saunders between Conan the Barbarian and the “hard body” Reagan era, between The Terminator and the apocalyptic “Doomsday Decade” of the 1980s, and between Predator and “the terrain [of] America’s hearts and minds” as the country was attempting to recover and learn from Vietnam showcase the brilliance of the book better than any blurb, synopsis, or review.
The only place where Saunders falters is in his discussion of the “dark years” of critical and financial failure Arnold endured from 1996 to 2002. In those six years, Arnold made as many films (Eraser, Jingle All the Way, Batman & Robin, End of Days, The 6th Day, and Collateral Damage) and Saunders devotes no more than as many pages to this portion. Due to his preoccupation with extrapolating the sociopolitical elements of Arnold’s films, the above listed films fall outside of Saunders’ concerns. While it must be conceded that Saunders’ perfunctory coverage of this cold streak is entirely justified, it is nevertheless disheartening when one considers their significance (indeed, their importance) to Arnold’s position as an auteur. Arnold undeniably dialed down the political subtext, but it was in favor of an increase in self-reflexivity and intertextuality, elements Saunders himself acknowledges as being inherent in the iconography. To his credit, however, Saunders gives the reader very little time to be angry, for his analysis of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines provides a powerful finale to his study.
Regardless of whether you are a huge fan excited to bask in the glory of a film theorist finally giving serious consideration to an action icon like Arnold or whether you are a skeptic unable to imagine the ways in which such an analysis of someone like Arnold Schwarzenegger could offer any insights of merit, it doesn’t make any difference: This is a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in film studies. And for those of you that are just plain fans of the action king, it is still a must-read since, at the end of the day, Dr. Saunders is just a huge Arnie fan himself, and it is that love and passion that anchors this perceptive exploration.
About the author
Dr. Dave Saunders is a lecturer in film-based media at the South Essex College of Further & Higher Education in the United Kingdom. In addition to Arnold: Schwarzenegger and the Movies, Dr. Saunders is the author of Direct Cinema: Observational Documentary and the Politics of the Sixties (Wallflower Press, 2007) and, most recently, Documentary (Routledge, 2010). He is currently working on a project focusing on the history of rock musicians acting in film.

About the Author:

Kyle Barrowman is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at Columbia College in Chicago. In addition to his work for Film Monthly, he has previously published essays for Cashiers du Cinemart, Offscreen, and The International Journal of Žižek Studies, on subjects ranging from film noir to Alfred Hitchcock, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee.
Filed in: Books on Film

Comments are closed.