Arnold Schwarzenegger reminds me of one of my favorite movies, John Huston’s “The Man Who Would Be King.” In the film, Daniel (Sean Connery) and Peachey (Michael Caine) are two 19th-century British grifters and adventurers who set off for Kafiristan to become kings.
Through a combination of bravery, cunning, dumb luck and self-delusion, Daniel ends up being worshipped as a king-god. Of course, when the ruse is discovered, the people kill him. But his death is not the end of the story, for Peachey returns with Daniel’s severed head, still wearing his crown, to tell journalist Rudyard Kipling the story of Daniel’s fall from grace. The significance of the ending is that Daniel’s death is not as important as telling the story of Daniel’s hubris so that we can all learn from his fall to live humbly.
Daniel’s story is the stuff both dreams and tragedies are made of.
So is Arnold’s.
Everyone knows about Arnold’s rise to power and glory, first through his hugely successful movies, and then through his two terms as governor of California. At one time he was the most popular governor in nearly fifty years, with a 65 percent approval rating. He was so popular that there was serious support for changing the U.S. Constitution so foreign-born Arnold might run for president.
But it’s his fall from grace that most fascinates us today. The stories of his infidelities, the lookalike son born from one such affair, the accusations of financial impropriety while governor, flip-flopping on his pledge not to take money from special interests – these were just some of the kindling that melted the wings of our Austrian Icarus.
In the past couple years, Arnold has done what every celebrity caught in the harsh glare of undeniable scandal has done: been contrite, admitted faults and returned to work with the hope that forgiveness will be achieved through box office success. Nothing scrubs away past sins like money. In the past couple years, Arnold has appeared in four movies: “The Expendables 2,” “The Last Stand,” “Escape Plan” and “Sabotage.”
Has our former governor’s comeback returned him to the hearts of Californians? Does he still have relevance to the state he once ruled? Or is he just a severed head, a warning that mortals should not try to be godlike by foolishly and arrogantly exceeding their abilities?
First, forget Arnold’s success or failures as a governor. That’s not his significance. His significance is that he was elected in the first place, because there’s no rational reason he should have been. He had no political experience, no relevant educational background such as law or political science, or even a practical and coherent platform.
Despite that, he was elected. Twice.
The lesson: Arnold symbolized a naive Hollywood-created hope in people that Mr. Smith could go to Washington and, armed with only pluck and a pure heart, beat those conniving bastards at their own game. “Damn, wouldn’t that be something!” Californians cried with each vote cast for Arnold.
But it didn’t happen. Part of the reason is that Arnold had plenty of pluck, but not a pure heart. Turned out he wasn’t the Man of La Mancha righting the unrightable wrong, or the great and powerful Oz. He was just a beefy guy with tons of charisma, money, celebrity and some powerful backers like Warren Buffett.
Still, Arnold inspired a level of blind hope in many Californians usually reserved for religious icons or military leaders. He was like King Leonidas in “300,” inspiring his 300 followers to fight an invading army of 300,000. Arnold’s relevance, his legacy, is that he was able to remind Californians what level of honest commitment they wanted from their government and, despite so much evidence that it is an impossible dream, to dream anyway that it might come about.
As long as we keep that dream in our hearts, we have a chance of achieving the reality. When cynicism and acceptance take over, we will be without hope.
Arnold is still out there inspiring hope in the triumph of pure hearts, but now he does it in the way he does best: through movies. His recent movies have not done as well at the box office as his former blockbusters.
Part of the reason is Arnold’s age; he’s no longer the oily muscled poster boy for young men. Part of the reason is that his image has been tarnished by his past.
The surprise is that each one of his recent movies is good. “The Last Stand” is a “High Noon”-like showdown in which he’s both heroic and humble. In “Escape Plan,” Arnold gives one of his most sly, most intense performances. In “Sabotage,” he displays a dark gravitas that he’d never shown before. As an actor, he’s definitely back. (And who would know good acting better than me, the man who has mastered the Oscar-ignored role of “as himself”?)
So, is Arnold still relevant to Californians? Not so much the man, but rather, like Daniel, it’s his story, his legend, that is relevant. Surely, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp (or what is a heaven for, blah, blah, blah), but Arnold’s story is about choosing the right thing to reach for – and for the right reasons.
Californians, still dreamers at heart, love stories of redemption in which the tarnished character finds his inner hero. Perhaps Arnold’s sequel is “The Man Who Would Be Redeemed-ish.”
And doesn’t that give you hope?
Contact the writer: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's column runs Wednesdays in the Los Angeles Register. Follow Kareem on Twitter @KAJ33 or at Facebook.com/KAJ.