When I was a kid, I thought Arnold Schwarzenegger movies were the pinnacle of cinematic achievement. When Arnold rattled off one-liners, I cheered his wittiness. When he mowed down one goon after the next with automatic weapons, I exalted his aim and called for more carnage (thankfully, his guns were always endlessly loaded). When he preposterously drove the brakeless jeep down the mountainside at the start of “Commando,” I understood that was part joyride for him as well.
Schwarzenegger was the epitome of everything cool and powerful as a kid, 1985’s “Commando” and 1987’s “Predator” being his apex. He had that flattop, he could outsmart anyone or anything – terrestrial or otherwise, and he was always current or ex-special forces, the best of the best (AND he had a penchant for going rogue, making his own rules, just like all cool guys). And those muscles! He could move and lift parked cars, pick enemies up by the neck with one hand, and toss phone booths like they were empty beer cans. I can remember watching these movies in complete earnestness, thinking Arnold Schwarzenegger was the greatest human ever made: Strong, powerful, smart, savvy, and respected.
I recently re-watched my favorite Schwarzenegger films, and shortly into “Commando,” I saw something I’d never seen. During the opening scenes filled with all of Arnold’s wood chopping and carrying of logs (in a tank-top no less!), with all the pure, gratuitous muscles, I had to ask the question: Did they intentionally set out to make such a homoerotic movie?
The homoeroticism in “Commando” didn’t end there. Let me list just a few more:
The scene where Arnie paddles a raft in his efforts to get to the enemy compound. Unfathomable to get his clothes wet, the movie strips him down to a Speedo – because why – and we get him rowing from every angle (it’s a common trope in Schwarzenegger films to get him in water wearing next to nothing and sometimes rowing a la “Twins.”)
Two bad guys at the enemy compound shown apparently – and there’s no other way to say this – polishing a massive cannon.
The main bad guy, Bennett, is dressed throughout the movie like a Russian S&M prostitute, from his killer mustache, to his black-sleeveless T and silver-mesh tank, and club-dancing gloves.
The way Arnold is always shooting his guns from just above the crotch, as if the phallic extension needed to be made any clearer.
The final fight scene – partially a knife fight, no less – in which Arnie impales Bennett with a pipe that shoots white steam, followed with the line, “Let off some steam, Bennett.”
You get the idea.
It’s funny the examples of masculinity young males get in popular culture. For me growing up in the ’80s, that was always muscles and dominance, either through guns and violence or through the admiration and clinginess of women.
Other instances of homoeroticism were pervasive throughout the ’80s: Hair bands where hyper-sexualized rock stars donned makeup and apparent pirate costumes; greased-up professional wrestlers grappled in their laced-up knee-highs and undies. Aspects of gay subculture had unwittingly made their way to mainstream America.
The thing all these had in common was that they were marketed directly to straight, adolescent boys. While some homophobe or hetero-normative parents may have worried of raising sissies by letting their boys play with Cabbage Patch Kids and My Little Pony, they unwittingly left their kids alone with muscle-bound action figures and a greased-up Arnold Schwarzenegger and thought nothing of it.
There’s no way to know how much this homoeroticism was on the minds of the filmmakers – my guess is that it was nowhere near. I like the idea of all of it going over the head of a little straight boy like myself. I also like the idea that the muscles, dominance, and sexual power may have landed on a gay boy differently. But I really like the delicious irony of a movie like “Commando” luring in the most hyper-masculine, macho, shoot-em-up-loving dude and giving him a little tingle that he’s not sure what to do with.