This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Did you know Donald Trump’s successor on The Celebrity Apprentice was once one of the biggest box-office draws in the world? Trippy, right? Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger became famous for his unique style and his fluctuating dialect, but he was picked for stardom for another reason entirely: he was a rippling, bulging slab of primeval, otherworldly manhood. The man was a titan, casting a shadow as wide as it was high. His fresh, smiling face and booming Austrian lungs were the perfect extras, but Arnold was thrust into the limelight because of his physique.
It was his earliest, formative years in which we saw Arnold’s greatest flexes, when he relied on his jaw-dropping size for impact. In 1990 he would dominate both science-fiction and family genres, but it was in the years preceding this that his chest was most greased, skin most tanned and muscles most inflated. So let’s think back, relive the carnage, and appreciate the “King of Kings” in all his glittering majesty.
Hercules In New York (1970)
Seven long years before he starred in a breakout bodybuilding documentary, Arnie’s 22-inch arms were breaking onto small screens in Hercules In New York. In Schwarzenegger’s first real acting role, his unease is palpable. His thick Austrian accent (dubbed over in the film’s original release) hasn’t a spot of charisma and his performance is comparable to that of a re-animated corpse.
Schwarzenegger is Hercules, a demi-god sent to Earth. On his trip, he does all the things an everyday tourist does in the Big Apple: finds love, begins a career, flees pursuers in a chariot and chokes out a (man in a) bear (suit). He also finds time to fight off group of six men, using only a ridiculously long plank of wood, and best an Olympic-quality team of athletes at various track and field events. The film may have had a budget tighter than Arnold’s shirt, but there is scant excuse for the lack of dimension or invention.
We are treated to Arnold’s first show of size when his date shows him a poster for an upcoming Hercules picture. Our travelling deity is offended, claiming the actor looks nothing like him. Doing what any rational demigod would do, he strips off his cream turtleneck, revealing his chiselled torso. His audience-of-one loses her mind as he begins posing, before she realizes what an insanely ludicrous thing has occurred. It’s only the hindsight novelty factor that keeps Hercules In New York relevant.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Arnold was a star long before Pumping Iron. He was at the peak of his craft. At 28 years old, he stood at 6’2, weighed 240lbs and was a six-time Mr Olympia winner. He retired on top.
The most alpha of males, Arnold sashays through the documentary. While some of his fellow competitors look like circus strongmen, Arnold is a walking sculpture, the perfect blend of symmetry and balance. Even starring alongside a real-life superhero, the Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno, he looks ginormous. The gap between his front teeth is the only chink in his man-made armor, but somehow he even turns that to his advantage.
The moment in which Schwarzenegger pops the loudest is in a moment of silence. As the documentary takes focus on the reigning champion, we are given a look behind the camera. A photo-shoot sets Arnold alight, as he poses and flexes in complete tranquillity. The only noise we are offered is that of the shutter, focusing our attention to the spectacle before us. In a film where some scenes feel uncomfortable to observe, at one point Arnold refers to Jesus as an inspiration for his legacy, this quiet moment of appreciation is a refreshing pause.
Conan The Barbarian (1982)
Refreshing pauses were seldom offered to us in the following years. Conan’s story begins as “a tale of sorrow” before the barely-dressed warrior embarks on a tale of revenge and retribution. Schwarzenegger’s seductive ex-slave possesses superior sword skills, spinning, slashing, and slaying a plethora of barbaric nasties.
At the film’s most glorious, Conan and his collaborator take a stand against the villainous cavalry. With axe in hand and horns on head, Conan cleaves and slices. Though his weapon looks to be made out of foam and the enemies put up less effort than a pre-relegation Aston Villa, we are treated to a whirlwind of visual and verbal masculine aggression.
What’s more, we are given one of Arnold’s earliest one-liners. In his first prayer, Conan asks his god to “grant me revenge, and if you do not listen, then to hell with you!” It’s much better heard than read. This classic scene contained all the components that made his next breakout, muscle-bound feature such an enduring success.
The Terminator (1984)
It only took until 2029 for Arnold to hit the big time. James Cameron’s “blazing, cinematic comic-book” (Variety‘s words) was the perfect vehicle for an emerging Schwarzenegger, as his role would rely on his frame rather than his command of the English language. The Terminator’s unmoving grimace removes the need to portray emotion or reaction, but it is a skill few could pull off with such menace. Schwarzenegger is perfect casting: when he loses his eyebrows, he cuts the figure of a stone-cold killing machine.
The opening moments in the present day focus on a trash collector. Electric bolts awaken the workman from his boredom-induced coma, fizzing and zapping around him. They rally to a crescendo of light, producing a figure curled up in a foetal position. This figure is the T-800, a stark-naked Arnold; we see his arse before his face. He rises like the phoenix, striding into the light without a flicker of disorientation or embarrassment. We are slapped with a shady silhouette of his flapping member as he approaches a gang of ruffians, led by a young Bill Paxton, before he utters the now immortal phrase: “Your clothes: give them to me.”
The T-800 swats one lackie away, before his jacked right arm lifts another overhead. This loiterer comes down without his heart, Cameron’s camera hovering on Arnold’s deep red, clutching hand. The T-800 is an instant threat, legitimately scary throughout, but it is in this brutal opening that he feels most deadly. It’s not just Orwell who made 1984 special…
After playing a travelling god, a rugged caveman and a killer robot, Arnold was refreshed as a loving and devoted father. As John Martix, Schwarzenegger is a family man and a killing machine. These would come to represent the two sides of Schwarzenegger’s coin: his films often worked best when the two went hand-in-hand. On screen he would mow down enemies with bullets and grenades, and later help his fictional daughter with her algebra homework. What a sweetheart.
And yet, in a film where hundreds of henchmen bite the dust, it is in his role as “dedicated father” where he is the most impressive. Matrix had left his commando days behind, now taking care of his daughter, living a reclusive existence. Almost immediately, Schwarzenegger ripples; close-ups of his veined arms and chest are all too close, but remind the audience that Stallone is a boy scout in comparison.
Arnold saunters toward the camera, carrying a huge tree on his shoulder like it’s a week’s laundry. Schwarzenegger doesn’t finish there. Not only does he handle the log like it’s a twirling baton, he finishes the testosterone fest by turning it into kindling. A guy’s got to keep that fire burning.
While Commando would eventually snowball into a cult classic, Schwarzenegger’s following feature would prove the key to stardom. Even before Schwarzenegger stepped foot in the jungle, he met a fellow goliath. As Arnold’s pumped-up mercenary Dutch is being briefed on his mission, a lone figure, sitting at a distant table, interjects. That figure is Apollo Cre… Carl Weathers; a man whose size and wit will match Schwarzenegger’s all the way.
“Dillon!” Dutch gasps with childlike glee, before grounding his joy with the deprecating: “You son of a bitch.” As Dutch and Dillon stride toward one another, their formidable forearms recoil before colliding into the most powerful handshake in cinematic history. The camera shifts focus from their gleaming smirks to the strained embrace. One second turns into five, the embrace morphing into competition, each man fighting in this mid-air arm wrestle. Five seconds turns to ten – the tension grows thick as Arnold toys with his rival. This contest lasts a full twenty seconds – twenty long, facial-hair-inducing seconds.
We may never recover from a scene that powerful.
The film soon hurtles into contact with the titular chameleon with barely chance to catch its breath. This laser-toting, extra-terrestrial assassin is Arnold’s ultimate nemesis, even down to the maniacal cackle. But, not even a foe this deadly could create a scene with the power of that handshake. Even in the film that popularized the full body mud-pack, the ass-kicking action and tension-mounting drama relies on the introduction Weathers and Schwarzenegger offer.
This theme would follow our Austrian actor. His greatest muscle-bound moments would come early, as an introduction, setting the tone and character in motion. As his career developed, Arnold proved he was much more than just unisex eye-candy, developing his aesthetic allure into real Hollywood charisma. Arnold would come to blossom in attracting a younger market, mixing action roles in Terminator 2 and Total Recall with Kindergarten Cop and Junior. Not only did Kindergarten Cop have no right to be as good as it is, but Arnold had no right to be so enjoyable to watch.
His size became a point of contrast rather than one of awe, towering over others without menace but humor. He became his own character, a phenomenon for a reason beyond his look. He became the epitome of the American Dream, persevering and succeeding more than anyone thought he could. The ex-army tank driver would go on to ask in Junior, “Does my body disgust you?” and later become the Governor of California.
We’ve had some shallow fun, picking through Arnold’s early years for his most outrageous muscle flexes. But it’s worth remembering that Schwarzenegger’s story is one of success through a lot of hard work and perseverence.
I’m just going to leave this here in case you feel motivated; I know I do…