I'm actually nervous writing this. During my most impressionable years, you were the hero that loomed largest in my imagination. A diligently glued together Terminator 2 poster-sized puzzle hung proudly on my wall for years. Arnold-themed action figures, trading cards, and books filled my room while I excitedly worked my way through your back-catalogue of R-rated adventures. I never understood how my parents seemed to give any VHS tape with your face on it a free pass, even though so few of your films were suitable for a child. Maybe they somehow only saw The Villain, and forever associated you with harmless, over-the-top slapstick humour, and misguided attempts at bringing cartoon sensibilities to real-life.
It's very unlikely. Most people - and many fans - have never seen or even heard of this film. By the time your stardom hit my personal orbit, your authorized biographies gleefully started your career (and myth) with Conan the Barbarian. In fact, that's what inspired the Early Arnold series on Dear Cast and Crew - my selfish desire to finally, truly, see all your films. I remember some early films being mentioned in those books without significant information or images, like Hercules in New York (which at least sounds macho and on-brand) and the documentary Pumping Iron. In the past weeks, I've learned why the first film is better remembered for its funny title, and why the latter is a cult classic and critical success. Stay Hungry was lost in the middle, even though it allowed you to play a laid-back version of yourself and co-starred both Jeff Bridges and Sally Fields.
Then came The Villain.
This film is the last time you could ever survive a huge flop or career misstep without any real consequence. After all, when Kirk Douglas - Spartacus himself! - is the lead, you had someone to hide behind. He plays Cactus Jack, a Wile E. Coyote-inspired villain trying to catch Charming Jones (Ann-Margaret). It's a Western in look, but owes more to Looney Toons, where Jones's tactics include dressing up as silly characters, pushing paper-mache boulders down hills and painting a black hole in the side of a mountain (which Jones, of course, nonsensically rides right through). You play her companion on the journey, literally named Handsome Stranger. And at this point, you still were a stranger to most of America (not sure about the handsome part).
The reasons the film doesn't work are probably also why you seemed so uncomfortable every time the camera was pointed at you - nothing seems to fit. The sets are large and impressive, but never exploited for their full potential (the opening shots are worthy of a John Ford film). You have Oscar-nominated actors going through the motions of a serious film while taking whiskey shots through their eye balls. In fact, nothing can save the film's lazy commitment to genre. I kept mirroring that pained look you have on your face every time you needed to be "act" without dialogue or in reaction to someone.
The other actors all seem game to create a live-action Saturday morning cartoon, but Hal Needham's direction is just too slow and lethargic (when he's not speeding up the footage for 'comedic' effect). Even your own movements never feel natural in that super human body, constricted by a tight cowboy shirts and ten-gallon hat. You clearly do your best work in a Speedo or loincloth. Glad you figured that out sooner than later.
None of these early films we've reviewed fit the one-note character mold that would define your phenomenal success and pave the way for your two terms as the Governor of California. But they do reveal another, more vulnerable and mistake-prone side to you that has come out in other ways over the past year. But now that's it, there are officially no films left - at least until January 2013 when you attempt a career comeback with The Last Stand. So will I still passionately pursue your film career? Let me put it this way:
When I was 8 years old and saw T-1000 stabbing a man through-a-milk-carton-through-the-mouth, I actually puked. But like a true Arnold-holic, I wiped my chin and came back for more. It only tested my resolve and pushed my personal limits. Seeing The Villain as a younger viewer might have helped me kick the habit of you but at this point, it's too late. I'm in it for the long haul.