Arnold Schwarzenegger is arguably the most recognizable action star in the world of cinema. His long and surprisingly varied career has spanned nearly three decades. It’s time to settle once and for all, which Arnold movie is the best.
Harrison will be defending Predator. Josh will be arguing for Conan the Barbarian.
In my mind there’s two chief reasons why Arnold Schwarzenegger was the quintessential action star in the 80s.
1) His other-worldly physique. Before he entered the world of cinema, there really wasn’t a leading star with the body shape of Schwarzenegger. In fact, his first feature film, Hercules in New York, is more or less just an excuse to show off his body. It’s a novelty of his that never wore out its welcome to audiences. Sylvester Stallone and Dolph Lundgren come close, but let’s be honest. Neither of them were/are in the same league of action star as Schwarzenegger. Much of the 80s/90s action cinema revolved around everyday people like Bruce Willis’ John McClane. The appeal of Schwarzenegger is that he’s basically a comic book character in real life.
2) His willingness to make very high concept movies. Not only was there an action bubble in the late 80s and early 90s, but there was also an influx of high concept movies. A high concept movie is one that can be described in a single sentence. A rebel fighter from the future comes back in time to protect a woman from a relentless robot. A wrongly convicted man must survive a deadly game show. A man adventures throughout Mars to discover his true identity. While action stars like Steven Segal would routinely starred as generic cop characters, Schwarzenegger gravitated towards movies with more exotic plots and characters. No matter what the climate of the cinema world is, audiences want innovation. Admittedly, a high concept movie is kind of like a short cut to innovation. That is to say, just because a movie is high concept, it does not mean it will be good. However, Schwarzenegger’s star power allowed him to take on projects that were both high concept and high quality.
No movie in Schwarzenegger’s filmography better exemplifies those two points than Predator.
Released in 1987, the movie is about an elite squad of soldiers who are stalked through the jungle by a deadly alien warrior.
The movie does a great job of toying with audience’s familiarity of genre tropes. Everyone’s seen the elite group of soldiers who are routinely able to conquer their enemies. Generally these soldiers are American. Same goes for Predator. The first part of the movie lays out a clear picture these soldiers are the best of the best. They overtake an enemy compound with little to no resistance. At one point, former pro-wrestler Jesse Ventura is shot. He famously quips, “I ain’t got time to bleed.” These soldiers aren’t fucking around
The very first time we see Schwarzenegger he greets Carl Weathers with a standing arm wrestling match. There’s a Native American soldier who cuts himself with a machete as a battle cry. Again, these soldiers aren’t fucking around.
That’s why, the best antagonist you could possibly give a group of soldiers like this is an alien with futuristic weaponry. The titular predator has advanced weapons and tactics that befuddle the normally capable and intelligent soldiers. Throughout the course of the movie, the alien warrior picks off each of these elite soldiers one by one. I can’t reiterate enough: the soldiers in this movie are presented as being the best of the best, the most hardcore, the baddest soldiers around. And yet, the alien makes killing them look like child’s play.
And then we come to the ending. What better way to showcase Schwarzenegger as an action star than to have him go toe-to-toe with a deadly alien. Not only was it a mano a mano fight, but Schwarzenegger didn’t have any proper weapons to go up against the alien’s futuristic laser gun and heat-seeking visor. Nothing says “this character is the ultimate badass” better than having him defeat an alien with a couple of sharpened sticks.
Which brings me to Conan the Barbarian. It’s a great movie for point #1 (Schwarzenegger’s physique) but does not come close to hitting the mark for point #2 (high concept). A barbarian warrior is higher concept than a generic cop character, but the neither the character nor the plot of Conan the Barbarian is high enough concept to be compared to the likes of Predator, The Running Man, or Total Recall.
Conversely, movies like The Running Man and Total Recall don’t emphasize his physique enough (but are very high concept). Obviously Schwarzenegger is a big, muscular guy, but The Running Man and Total Recall try to cast Arnold as a regular Joe.
Sidenote: The Terminator movies, in my opinion, don’t qualify for this debate. While those movies emphasize both points #1 and 2, Schwarzenegger’s character is not the main character. Those movies are about the Connor family (Sarah and John) and how they either escape or team up with the Terminator robot.
Not only is Predator a great action movie (it’s regularly cited as being one of the best of all time) but it is the perfect vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger. It showcases his strengths as an action star and is the epitome of his reverence for high concept plots.
Conan the Barbarian
Arnold Schwarzenegger is a bit of a conundrum for film snobs such as myself. I grew up as a teenager (and occasionally as a youth when mom wasn’t home and dad was in charge) watching violent action and horror films loving every minute of their appeal: blood, sex, and violence and not necessarily in that order. As I entered film school and saw groundbreaking and truly excellent films by those canonical American and international filmmakers and experimental filmmakers it became clear to me that many of the movies that I loved as a youth can’t hold up against classics of cinema.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t still love them.
This is the case with John Milius’ Conan the Barbarian, which is the greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger film of all time. Don’t know John Milius? You may recognize a plethora of his work. Maybe you saw Apocalypse Now? or Dirty Harry. Yep he wrote that. He also wrote this:
No. Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb wrote Jaws, but John Milius wrote this amazing monologue given expertly by Robert Shaw. Milius is a strange beast. He is a conservative and jingoistic and conservative themes pervade his films. I can’t fault him for writing films that convey his political beliefs, but at times they can be detrimental to the films. Conan is not one of those films. Conan, based on the character created by Robert E. Howard, toes the line between an interesting examination of the “man of action” and a bloody, violent, skimpy clothed fight between barbaric warriors. Are there times when the action and the visual composition of the frame (which mostly includes Schwarzenegger, Sven Ole-Thorsen and Colombu’s biceps) override any inkling of the dramatic plot? Yes, but we don’t mind because it’s never too much.
Which brings me to my main point; let’s admit it, Arnold is not a great actor. There, I said it. He’s never going to give you an Oscar winning performance. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong on screen. He falls into a particular style of acting where the actor isn’t really an actor but rather a movie star. Arnold is a movie star; let’s face it, he’s Arnold in every film he’s in. Either you think he’s great and buy his natural charisma or you don’t. For me it’s essential that he doesn’t too much speaking. Too much of Arnold Speaking gets us into trouble. This is why the Terminator is also an excellent film. If you keep his lines to a minimum his presence means more than what he says and therefore gives you a more solid performance.
An example of the short and sweet Schwarzenegger dialogue.
I know many of you want to know why I didn’t pick the Terminator. Personal Preference? Maybe, but I think Arnold fits this role better than he does the Terminator. You get to see him laugh, which is I think Schwarzenegger’s best attribute. When he laughs on screen, everyone laughs with him. With him mind you, not at him. Well maybe some laugh at him but they’re stupid. The Conan character is er, well, more human than the Terminator. I know I said “keep his lines to a minimum,” but the way Milius allows Schwarzenegger to have a tongue in cheek banter with the characters around him, gives the movie that needed release from a seriousness that would ruin it.
All in all, Conan the Barbarian is an excellent example of how spectacle, and a genuine movie star can make a movie enjoyable. To this day I turn on my two disc special edition DVD of Conan just to bring myself back to the days of my uninhibited appreciation of a film for it’s raw skull bashing. I think it’s something that all of us film snobs need every once in a while.
Tell us, which do you think is the best Arnold movie? Vote below or comment! We love hearing your opinions.