Arnold Schwarzenegger in 1974, six years before his breakthrough film role in Conan the Barbarian. Photo: George Long /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images
“Hasta la vista” is a commonplace Spanish phrase that means “See you later”. But add the word “baby” on the end and it becomes what USA Today recently called – with little explanation necessary – an “Ah-nuld-ism”. It demands to be intoned in a robotic, metronomic monotone, with each syllable apportioned the same measure of emphasis. And don’t say it in a Spanish accent. An Ah-nuld-ism should sound unapologetically Austrian, regardless of phonetic rules. Hasta la vista, baby.
For a catchphrase circulating in the 21st-century anglophone world (a quick online search reveals several newspaper headlines riffing on it and even a set of fireworks called the “Hasta la Vista, Baby Fountain”), it’s a curious one. It’s mostly in a foreign language, it entered pop culture 24 years ago and it’s not particularly funny. To a generation raised on the films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, however, the phrase is as resonant as “Here’s looking at you, kid” must have been to moviegoers who caught Humphrey Bogart on his first go-round. It’s an in-joke shared by the millions who saw and loved Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron’s 1991 blockbuster that, like Blade Runner, Alien and Star Wars, epitomises the kind of mega-spectacle that only Hollywood can deliver. Despite the film’s path-breaking use of computer-generated special effects, its biggest spectacle – for me, at least – was always its star, Schwarzenegger, the stern-faced and muscle-bound superman.
The mention of that particular Ah-nuld-ism transports me back to the early 1990s, to a tenth birthday party at the home of an American school friend whose parents sat us boys down in front of a boxy, wood-panelled TV to watch our first 15-certificate movie (a serious rite of passage for young film obsessives, like a secular Bar Mitzvah). Exhausted from a long session of baseball in the rain, we struggled to keep our eyes open – until the carnage began. Guns were fired; cities were nuked; flesh was pulled from an arm as if it were a long glove, exposing the metallic bones of Schwarzenegger’s T-800 cyborg. Terminator 2 was a cinematic revelation that, to our ten-year-old minds, almost possessed the gravity of scripture (it occurred to me much later that the best-known line in the film – “I’ll be back” – is a paraphrase of Christ’s “I will come again”). The credits rolled, accompanied by the former Hall & Oates keyboardist Brad Fiedel’s futuristic score. Arnie had entered our lives. And he was a giant.
Schwarzenegger had worked hard to become a giant. “I always wanted to be an inspiration for people,” he writes in his 2012 autobiography, Total Recall – an ambition he willed into reality by becoming first a bodybuilder (he was the youngest ever Mr Universe at the age of 20), then one of the highest-paid Hollywood film stars of the 1980s and 1990s, before being elected as the governor of California in 2003 (the most powerful political post he deemed it possible to win as an immigrant). Yet nothing about the circumstances of his upbringing suggested quite how much of a giant he would become, both physically and as an international cultural figure.
Born in 1947 into an Austria humbled by the Second World War, Schwarzenegger spent his childhood in relative poverty in a house with no phone and no plumbing. In the year of his birth, food shortages had led to riots in Vienna and the situation got so bad in Styria Province, where his family lived, that his mother, the wife of a disciplinarian police officer, was compelled to go from farm to farm, foraging for butter, sugar and grain. A highlight of these years was when the Schwarzeneggers finally got hold of a refrigerator.
The cold war had begun in earnest. “We all lived in fear that the Russian tanks would roll in and we’d be swallowed up into the Soviet empire,” Schwarzenegger writes in his memoir. The roots of his well-known suspicion of socialism seem to lie here: his championing of the neoliberal economist Milton Friedman (“one of my heroes”) throughout the 1980s was framed in terms of a perceived opposition between a supine, collectivist Europe and a red-blooded, macho United States. He praised Ronald Reagan for reminding Americans “of their strength” and considers Richard Nixon a “terrific president”; he was a personal friend and “admiring protégé” of George H W Bush.
In line with this Republican world-view, Schwarzenegger’s most successful film roles celebrate strength and individual agency as inherent virtues, from Colonel John Matrix in the 1985 movie Commando (who single-handedly wages “World War III” on a group of South American mercenaries) to Major Alan Schaeffer in 1987’s Predator (who single-handedly wages a war of the worlds on a rubber-faced alien in South America). When not single-handedly waging some sort of war on behalf of the US government, the on-screen Schwarzenegger seeks to destroy an evil wizard (Conan the Barbarian, 1982), all of humanity (The Terminator, 1984) and Satan (End of Days, 1999), among others. So far, he has killed almost 400 people, 88 in Commando alone.
Heavy metal: Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2
Perhaps his most iconic role is that of the T-800, which he reprises in Terminator Genysis, released on 2 July. “You can’t stop him!” exclaims one character in the 1984 film and the same can be said of Schwarzenegger himself. In December 2006, shortly after his re-election for a second term as Governator, he broke a thigh bone while on a skiing trip. As the holiday season ended, he was recovering from complex surgery, wearing a brace and doped up on painkillers. His wife watched him preparing for the inauguration speech he was scheduled to give and despaired. “This is not going to happen,” she said. Yet he decided to go forward as planned, “even if I had to crawl on all fours up the steps of the capitol”. There was no restraining him. “I was in machine mode,” he writes in Total Recall.
Like a Horatio Alger hero, Schwarzenegger is an uncritical proponent of the belief that hard work and focus can deliver anyone the American dream. When, as state governor, he was challenged by a University of California student who had been forced to work part-time alongside attending classes as a result of spiralling tuition fees, he responded with a lecture on how “the day has 24 hours” and, with six hours set aside for sleep, that left 18 for productive labour. “Have you ever thought about working more?” Schwarzenegger asked. “Maybe even taking more classes, rather than wasting your life away?”
It’s an attitude that has served him well. In his own terms, Schwarzenegger has always been a success. He has lived up to the Ah-nuld-ism “Do it!”, a catchphrase he first uttered with cartoonish intensity in Predator. Craving freedom as a teenager in Austria, he talked himself into a job at a sawmill and used the money to buy a bicycle, releasing him from the boredom of home. After he discovered the world of bodybuilding while researching for a school essay, he immediately infiltrated a gym crowd and, within a few years, was winning the sport’s top competitions. He wanted to become a film star: by the age of 22, he’d landed his first starring role in the low-budget but, crucially, American movie Hercules in New York.
Crucial because, since childhood, Schwarzenegger had longed to become a US citizen. (He would tell his incredulous schoolmates, “I’m going to America.”) He eventually managed this with the same maximalism that he brought to every other aspect of his life, becoming Hollywood’s most bankable star, marrying into political royalty (his ex-wife, Maria Shriver, is a niece of John F Kennedy) and winning the governorship of the country’s most populous state.
Schwarzenegger’s ability to visualise and achieve his goals was honed in rusty gyms across the world, as he worked to become the greatest bodybuilder on a fiercely competitive circuit. Among the most significant episodes of his life as a muscleman was a period in the 1960s spent in London’s East End, training under the guidance of a British father of six called Wag Bennett, the owner of a gym in Forest Gate. Bennett all but adopted the then 19-year-old Austrian and sculpted him into Mr Universe, a title Schwarzenegger won in 1967.
“Most bodybuilders take up the sport to make themselves better people,” says the stuntman and former Royal Artillery commando Steve Truglia, who pumped iron in Bennett’s gym in the 1970s and 1980s. “That culture is definitely about having a goal and going for it and getting involved.” Describing the London bodybuilding community that took Schwarzenegger under its wing, Truglia, who I call at his office, is evidently moved by his recollections of a vanished world of outsiders engaged in an activity most considered “weird”. “Bodybuilding wasn’t mainstream at all,” he tells me – but within the sport, Schwarzenegger was the ultimate celebrity.
“One day in the Eighties, Wag walked into the gym and said Arnold was coming down to give a seminar,” he says. “So the whole gym came, as well as everyone in bodybuilding.” I ask him how they could all fit into the room, imagining a tangle of biceps. “We sat on the equipment! I was on one of the benches when Arnold arrived. He had this incredible charisma and confidence. And in all of his conversation, everything was about focus and positivity.” It was a life-changing encounter for Truglia. Beneath the motto of the American footballer Vince Lombardi that was screwed to the gym’s wall – “Winners never quit and quitters never win” – he watched Schwarzenegger speak and was “transfixed” by his message. “I wouldn’t be doing stunts today if it wasn’t for all that,” he says.
Yet it can be hard for those who identify as progressives to love Arnold Schwarzenegger. Most of his movies are violent. He’s a committed Republican, even if his in-laws were Kennedys. His scandals have been as outsized as his achievements (in 2011, it emerged that he had secretly fathered a son with his maid of two decades, Mildred “Patty” Baena).
Simply to dismiss him as a horrible, cigar-chomping right-winger, however, would be to disregard that rare phenomenon – a true star, an embodiment of the dominant aspirations of his time. (It’s perhaps no coincidence that his pulling power at the box office declined with the rise of social liberalism in the Clinton era.) And there is something affirmative of the human will in his determination to meet his full potential and act on his beliefs, a determination that made him an action star who starred in comedies (such as the 1988 hit Twins), an immigrant who became governor, a Republican who signed through the first US bill capping greenhouse gas emissions and proposed universal health-care coverage in 2007, more than a year before Barack Obama entered the White House. Terminator Genysis may turn out to be a disappointment, like much of Schwarzenegger’s film work since he returned to Hollywood from politics – but I’m glad he’s back.
Now listen to Yo Zushi on Arnold Schwarzenegger on SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the NS:
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