Will California Elect a Superhero?:
Schwarzenegger Taps Film Myths

John Shelton Lawrence

Editor's Note: This essay was originally written in 2003, during Arnold Schwazenegger's campaign to replace then-governor Gray Davis of California in a special recall election. It is presented here in its original, pre-election form.


The candidacy of Arnold Schwarzenegger for California’s governorship raises new questions about the action hero film fantasy and American politics. Jesse Ventura made the leap already in Minnesota, but he brought more experience of public responsibility to the job. What do California voters imagine they will get from an action superhero who has never even run for elective office? President George W. Bush, who had previously distanced himself from California’s strange politics, announced that he thought Arnold would make “a good governor.” But he didn’t say why. Will voters who turn to Arnold be able to?

Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith and Mr. Schwarzenegger

California’s voters are clearly revolting against Sacramento’s professional political class. Even registered Democrats are responding to the charisma of Arnold and his assertion that he wants to represent “all the people, Democrats, Republicans, and independents.” In responding to Arnold, are California’s sympathetic voters saying that they want someone “above politics”—the advertised Arnold—to lift the siege that has punished the innocent citizens whose needs are ignored by their corrupt, ineffectual representatives in Sacramento? This reads like a vintage Hollywood heroic script.

One is tempted to say, as my mentor Peter Rollins does, that the script for the current California scene was laid out in Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). In that populist classic, Mr. Smith (Jimmy Stewart) takes an appointment in the U.S. Senate to fill the term of someone who suddenly died. He brings to the senate the idealism of his role as the leader of the Boy Rangers. His naïve public spirit does not prepare him for Washington’s cynical pork barrel politics, yet the goodness of his civic spiritedness eventually prevails. Character defeats a corrupt system.

Arnold’s “Boy Ranger” credential is the child-friendly Proposition 49, which provides funding for after-school programs in California. But this principal achievement of public life—his character badge so to speak—is far overshadowed by his world celebrity as a superbody/superhero/superstar. Capra’s Mr. Smith comes to office as an Everyman who is utterly ordinary except in his tenacious integrity.

Arnold’s Screen Persona and His Alienation Toward Politics

Arnold launched his screen persona with little more than a speechless, iron-pumped body, as in Hercules in New York (1970/aka Hercules Goes Bananas). He then used his Mr. Olympia/Mr. Universe body in superhero stories with startling action sequences. Destroying hundreds of bad guys during his screen career, Arnold’s character confronts (and outwits) Satan himself in the millennial action film End of Days (1999).

Arnold’s films have occasionally dropped hints of boredom with the comic book violence of the Conan films (1982/1984), Commando (1985), Predator (1987) and the smashing chase and battle sequences that marked the films that built his personal franchise. Twins (1988) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) revealed a taste and talent for comedy--surely an asset in explaining the California legislature to the state’s hapless voters. During the Bush I presidency, he served as Chair of the Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Then came The Last Action Hero (1993), for which violence-addicted pop critics furiously berated Arnold. They wanted their mayhem straight up without any postmodern dilutions. He had deliberately broken the superhero frame with a self-derisory plot that invited skepticism about Hollywood’s machinery of illusion.

The intimation of a thoughtful person inside the hulkish body, a public citizen or policy leader struggling for expression and service, was consummated in 2002. Arnold eloquently sponsored and promoted Proposition 49, a California ballot initiative that provided $400 million for childrens’ after-school activities. The pundits sagely speculated about this initiative as a proxy run for governor. So we do now have Arnold Candidate. How does the Arnold persona fit the political discourse of our time? Has the movement of Hollywood mythic frames to center stage made Arnold more credible?

Mythic Frames for Politics

Since George W. Bush made it clear that the U.S. would liberate/invade Iraq, supporters and critics of that war have jockeyed to frame the invasion through preferred historical analogies or metaphors ranging over Munich, Vietnam, Somalia, and the late British empire. Part of those interpretations has been “the movie frame game”—the invocation of frames provided by popular films as instructive. Apparently both sides thought that Black Hawk Down (2002) was instructive. For Saddam, it was a story of how to survive; for the U.S. Army, it was a cautionary story of what to avoid.

One of the first film heroic frames for Iraq policy was James Woolsey’s witty essay, “Where’s the Posse?” (Wall Street Journal, 2/25/02, A20). He invoked High Noon (1952) as a salient allegory justifying the president’s policies on Iraq. Bush’s United States, we were to understand, is Marshall Will Kane of Hadleyville. And those French with their venal oil companies—they are “the real life version of the film’s hotel clerk who is fixated on how good the saloon business will be once the gang is back in town.” For the “timorous Europeans,” Woolsey advised that they “go on home to your kids. And then start praying that when it’s over we won’t drop our badge in the dirt.” A few months later, Professor Donald Kagan of Yale, an elite pedagogue, simplified the identification further: “We’re Gary Cooper." (“Invasion Would Mark the Next Step Toward An American Empire," The Atlanta Journal and Constitution, 9/29/2002.) An interesting revelation of Bravo Channel’s All the Presidents Films broadcast (8/08/2003) is that High Noon (1952) was the most frequently screened film at the White House between 1953-1986.

Another critic, James Pinkerton, framed U.S. policy with the words and wisdom of 2002’s blockbuster Spider-Man, suggesting that Spidey and the U.S. both have difficulties with recognizing their own strength (“Like Spider-Man, U.S.’s Gift Is Also Its Curse,” Newsday, 5/2/02). And he invokes Uncle Ben’s admonition that “just because you can beat someone up doesn’t mean that you have to.” Pinkerton also picked up America’s hope of being loved while recognizing its destiny to be scorned by conventional institutions of law. “This is my gift, this is my curse,” he sadly comments after breaking his romantic bond with the woman who finds him so attractive.

Another set of film heroic frames was invoked when Bush flew the plane and landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln to announce “the end of major combat operations” in Iraq, the Fox commentator Newt Gingrich immediately placed the president within the frame of Independence Day (1996). In that blockbuster success, fighter-pilot-turned-president Bill Pullman insists on putting on his gear to shoot down alien invaders. “I’m a combat pilot, I belong in the air,” he says to a startled general. While Gingrich saw the clanking flight gear as cleverly staged mythic resonance, the grumpy Paul Krugman at the New York Times calculated the taxpayer cost of the spectacle and chose another blockbuster frame from Top Gun (1986). Reminding his readers that Bush’s Vietnam War service occurred in the stateside Air Guard, Krugman detected a phony pretense in the “top gun” posture. (“Man on Horseback, 5/06/03)

While the Bush team may have schemed at subliminal superheroic allusions for the landing on the Lincoln, Arnold walks freely in and out of the frame as his shtick, just as he charmingly winks at audiences during his films. He sprinkles his tag lines “Hasta la vista baby," and “I’ll be back” as confidently as Reagan stepped into the Dirty Harry frame when he snarled “Go ahead, make my day.” If Arnold seems credible to President Bush as the chief executive of the nation’s largest state, it may suggest that Arnold’s mythic persona has become a powerful credential in national politics. What are the implications of that?

Looking at the recent history of film and politics, one should notice additional developments beyond the sorts of “framings” listed here. Until the films Independence Day and Air Force One (1997), American presidents were not represented as having larger than life powers. In both of these films however, the presidents abandon their constitutional role as commander-in-chief to directly engage the foe. President James Marshall of Air Force One fights in hand to hand combat with terrorists, calls a missile strike against his own plane, flies the plane to save it after he has killed the terrorist pilot. In box office earnings, these films have surpassed all other films ever made about the American presidency.

Although some older adults talk knowingly about the content of movies, their audiences are skewed in the direction of younger adults—a group that has been notoriously indifferent to voting in the past decades. In the fall of 2000, youthful voting age audiences on the World Wrestling Federation’s “Smackdown” program called for Bush and Gore to stop talking and get in the ring.

Arnold may be the breakthrough candidate in American politics, the figure who can take his mythic aura as an intimidating physical and moral presence into the governing arena. Some scorned Reagan as a mere cowboy dressed up for politics, but this assessment underrated the political career that supplemented his screen craft. He had engaged in decades of Hollywood politics through the Screen Actors Guild and other organizations. He had given several years to traveling and speaking politically on behalf of General Electric as well. Arnold lacks such credentials as a public citizen. But perhaps California has reached a critical mass of voters--only a small one will be sufficient in the October 7th recall election—to confer the governship on the basis of his screen image.

The Schwarzenegger candidacy offers amoment to think about the interplay between the heroic myths from the film world and the expectations they may be cultivating for political leaders. Will California validate the selfless superhero of Hollywood fantasy, a man who so cleanly uses violence to destroy the community’s enemies? And what kind of government will come out of that?


For Further Reading

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