When it comes to fondly remembered cult 80s action movies, Commando has near-legendary status. In this episode we take a deep dive into Commando’s production history, the development of the script, the role of the Pentagon, and how it became the continuity error classic of its decade. We round off by analysing Commando as an example of cultural fascism.
For pure entertainment value there are few films that top Commando, and it is rightly a cult classic of the 1980s action genre. It is a masterful blend of a story that makes no sense, unintentionally funny dialogue, absurdly hyperbolic villains, and an ending that veers from wildly overdone to bargain basement – quite literally. It also got turned down by the DOD after an extended period of script negotiations. And stars the governator Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Realistically, what more could you ask for? Aside from a well-written script, a lead actor who can actually speak the language the movie is written in, and the absence of fascistic overtones, I mean.
It’s difficult not to be fascinated by a film that succeeds in spite of itself, because they got an awful lot wrong in the making of Commando and the result is a total mess, but it’s intensely watchable. So I felt we’d take this fiery, delicious cinematic plane crash and pick apart its production history, its politics and its place in collective cultural memory.
Let’s start at the beginning – the movie was originally about a former Israeli commando who had renounced violence. You’ll notice, this isn’t a common story in Hollywood, where hardly anyone renounces violence and Israelis are almost exclusively portrayed as spies who cannot be trusted. In this incarnation, both Nick Nolte and Gene Simmons were being considered for the lead role.
As the 1980s progressed, Arnold Schwarzenegger transitioned from body-builder into big screen actor, with both Conan the Barbarian and The Terminator 10x-ing their budgets at the box office. According to Steven De Souza, who wrote the story for Commando, ‘Barry Diller had just become head of 20th Century Fox. His first day on the job, he said, ‘This guy Schwarzenegger is a phenomenon. If you find a movie for him that can be done for under $12 million, I’ll greenlight it immediately.’ We did a marathon reading session of every action script on the lot and decided that Commando, by the guys who’d written Teen Wolf, was the one.’
De Souza rewrote the story to fit Arnie’s profile, then pitched the story to him at his home. Schwarzenegger’s response was, ‘I like this part. I’m not a robot from the future or caveman from the past. I’m in clothes and having a family. It’s a part John Wayne could play. I do this picture.’ He is, of course, overlooking his breakthrough in Hercules in New York (spoiler, he plays Hercules) but I take his point, I can see why this story appealed to him. He also had the right background – he served in the Austrian army as a tank driver, and read a lot of books and articles about commandos and ‘soldiers of fortune’.
For the female lead they chose Rae Dawn Chong, even though they wrote the part as a white woman. She plays Cindy, a flight attendant who gets caught up in the drama after Commando’s daughter gets kidnapped. She recounted, ‘My first reading with Arnold was this weird scene where he pulls a dildo out of my handbag. I knew other actresses were stumbling, because the character was supposed to shrug and say, ‘It gets lonely on the road.’ I thought that was so lame, so when my turn came I screamed and said, ‘That’s not mine!’ It got me the part. Was Arnold embarrassed about the dildo? Not even slightly. He didn’t break a sweat running a state, and he didn’t break a sweat handling a dildo.’
Among the various antagonists is Freddie Mercury lookalike Vernon Wells, who was brought in late in the day after half a day of shooting with the guy they’d originally cast. He was thrown straight into a knife fight scene with Schwarzenegger. During the shooting of these scenes both Vernon and Arnie suffered fairly serious injuries – Wells dislocated his elbow, Arnie chipped a bone in his shoulder. Indeed, injuries were common – the 11 year old Alyssa Milano, playing Commando’s daughter Jenny, got fallen on by Arnie in one scene and broke a rib.
Arnie insisted on doing most of his own stunts, saying they couldn’t find someone to replicate his physique. This is laughable on two counts – one, he’s only 6’ 2”, there are muscly stuntmen of that height, and two, this film is riddled with continuity errors and bad editing, the notion that in a few shots the stuntman might not match perfectly was the least of their worries. The upshot of this is that for the shot where he jams a large knife into a sheath, he insisted on doing it himself because no one else’s hands would look like his. Arnie then proceeded to slash himself on the other hand, and had to go to hospital to get his hand stitched up.
I imagine this is giving you an impression of just how fly-by-night, improvisational and reckless the production of this film was. It isn’t quite Roar, the one with the lions and the elephant where Tippie Hedren got her leg broken, Melanie Griffiths had her face mauled and the assistant director Jan de Bont was scalped. But that was an independent film using live, wild animals, it was always going to be crazy. This was a big star, big studio movie.
The ‘Plot’ of Commando
Just in case you haven’t seen or for some strange reason can’t remember Commando, the plot is that Arnie plays John Matrix, a retired US military commando. Former members of his unit start getting assassinated, so his former boss turns up in a helicopter at Matrix’s mountain home, where he lives with his young daughter. Shortly afterwards, armed goons turn up, kidnap Matrix and his daughter and take him to meet the former president of Val Verde, a fictional Latin American country.
Note: everyone in this film is an ex-something, whether a military veteran or otherwise. Also, Val Verde is a catch-all made-up Latin American country that appears in several De Souza movies, Commando being the first, as well as other movies and books who’ve caught onto the name.
In essence, el Presidente tells Matrix that he has to assassinate the new president of Val Verde, who Matrix had previously helped install. The implication, though this isn’t properly teased out in the film, is that el Presidente is training his own private army so he can stage a coup following the new president’s assassination. If Matrix does this, he’ll release the daughter. If he doesn’t, the daughter dies. Naturally, Matrix agrees to go along with it, escapes and tracks down el Presidente’s mansion, and there’s a massive showdown with hundreds of goons being chopped down left and right.
As such, this is the same plot as in many subsequent films including Taken, Don’t Say a Word, Stolen, Nick of Time and Trapped. The whole ‘daughter is kidnapped to force parent to do something so parent goes on a tear to take down the kidnappers’ narrative is straightforward, has obvious stakes, and is supposedly relatable. Though as I’ve said before, in the post-nuclear-family society this stuff has less and less emotional purchase. Also, a surprising proportion of these films star either Bruce Willis or Denzel Washington.
In Commando, it’s treated exactly as it should be – as useful pretext and nothing more. They never really set up the relationship between Matrix and his daughter before the kidnapping. The opening of the film is three brief sequences portraying the assassinations of three of Matrix’s former unit buddies, each one more ridiculous than the last. The first one involve a plot to get one of them out of his home by turning up for the rubbish collection on the wrong day. What if he’d just said fuck it and stayed in bed? Who are these clowns, trying to assassinate former special forces guys with such elementary tactics?
The second is run over in a car showroom, by a guy driving a large, heavy car with only about 15 feet worth of run up. Difficult to kill someone while driving that slowly, even if you hit them head on. And the third guy, whose death they actually fake, has his boat blow up just as its drawing away from the dock. They don’t wait for it to get out to sea, they just blow it up in full view of everyone and then somehow sneak the guy on board off to play his role in el Presidente’s conspiracy. None of this makes any sense.
Then, we get a daddy-daughter montage between Milano and Schwarzenegger, respectively, which is tonally out of place and is a bit off-putting because they superimposed the opening credit roll. This film is really badly edited but I appreciate that, because they’re doing just enough to establish what they need to establish – some guys are dead, some other guy has a daughter. In some ways this is first rate visual storytelling.
Also, the ineptitude of the various mercenaries, thugs and hired goons working for el Presidente is established right off the bat, which is important for the remainder of the plot. Otherwise it’d simply be implausible that one man – even a retired commando – could take down an entire private army financed by a former brutal dictator.
However, and this is where all the knock off stories get it wrong, if the enemy is competent then the entire plot collapses. If your movie is going to boil down to a showreel of your protagonist massacring his way through a couple of hundred people so he can get to the big boss and take his revenge then you have to establish that those couple of hundred people are feckless idiots. And in this movie, all the bad guys are feckless idiots.
Bringing us neatly back to Bennett, the former member of Matrix’s unit who faked his death but is part of the kidnap-assassination-coup d’etat conspiracy. He is dressed in a leather and chainmail ensemble that a lot of people have subsequently interpreted as being a sign he’s gay, he’s a leatherman.
This was apparently not the intention – the director Mark Lester said he was going for a kind of punk rocker look, and there was never any implication that Bennett had a homosexual fascination with Matrix.
To be fair, the dialogue doesn’t help. Lines like:
How much they paying you, Bennett?
They offered me a hundred grand.
You want to know something?
When I found it was you, I said I’d do it for nothing.
John, I’m not going to shoot you between the eyes. I’m going to shoot you between the balls!
Do have a macho, ‘closeted gay covering it with a tough guy exterior’ feel to them. That being said, I do feel that this is part of a general trend of gay-spotting and gay-outing which is cruel and voyeuristic and adolescent. It’s also part of the trend of interpreting every male emotion as sexual – a man cannot have strong feelings, either positive or negative, about another man without there being a sexual component.
Nonetheless, prancing about in leather and chains, obsessing over another man and screaming at him about his balls is perhaps a justification for interpreting the Matrix-Bennett relationship in this way. I did find myself thinking that while watching Commando, I cannot deny that.
How the Pentagon Rewrote Commando – Despite not Supporting It
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the producers of Commando wanted help from the Pentagon, wanting Navy stock footage, National Guard soldiers as extras, access to a base for filming and half a dozen Army helicopters. Despite the director’s statements in the making of featurette above, the movie was not especially original or groundbreaking, it is often compared with Rambo: First Blood from three years earlier.
Rambo was rejected outright by the DOD, as an Army memo records:
Subject motion picture depicts the Army in a totally negative manner and has factual inaccuracies such as portraying the National Guard performing a mission that would be performed by state police.
Support to a film of such overwhelming violence with a character portrayed as a killer only because of Army training would not be in the best interest of the Department of the Army.
However, they were at least willing to enter into negotiations with the makers of Commando but eventually ended up turning it down.
What were the problems? After all, Matrix isn’t a traumatised veteran and the military aren’t really portrayed in a negative way. Well, it mostly has to do with the background of el Presidente, General Arius. The film doesn’t make this especially clear but he is training his own private army on an island off the coast of California so he can stage a coup in Val Verde.
The DOD didn’t like how the military were portrayed collaborating with Matrix’s efforts to destroy the private army and take out Arius. In their view, the Coast Guard and the FBI would have jurisdiction, though I do wonder what the hell Mulder and Scully would be able to do about the situation. Anyone who has their own private army is unlikely to simply surrender to the Bureau.
The documents on Commando are sparse – just a few pages, but they do show some of the negotiations over the script, and the Navy ELO’s input on some of the dialogue. For example, when Kirby first turns up at Matrix’s mountain home the DOD asked that he not pilot the helicopter himself – and in the finished film, he doesn’t.
Then there’s the line where Matrix asks Kirby who is assassinating former members of his unit. In the script they were negotiating over, the line is ‘You‘ve made enemies all over the world, John. It could be the Syrians, the South Africans, the Russians…or a terrorist group.’ The DOD wanted the reference to the Russians removed, but it’s there in the final film. We’ll come back to this.
They wanted scenes set in a Gun Club – content unclear – deleted, and sure enough they were. They also wanted other changes to the countries referenced in the dialogue – one line was changed to ‘I survived Iran without you’, presumably Bennett says this to Matrix. They also wanted a reference to Vietnam changed to Uganda, when Bennett and Matrix are discussing their past work together in black operations. They also wanted Matrix’s background to be in something called European Intelligence Command, though this doesn’t appear in the film or in the draft script that I’ve read.
However, this wasn’t enough. The DOD also requested:
The visualization of PROPER FEDERAL PROCEDURE in the approach to the problem of dealing with a group of armed para-military personnel, training within US territorial waters to cause the overthrow of the leader of a foreign nation.
50 Shades of the School of the Americas?
In essence, they wanted dialogue and scenes to be changed to include the Coast Guard and FBI, working in some sort of inter-agency taskforce alongside the US Army.
Changes were made to the script but the ending remained, and it was totally batshit. After Matrix’s assault on the armed compound – which in the script is much more militarised, including anti-aircraft bunkers and the like, and the Army take part in the attack – he confronts Bennett, who has a knife to Jenny’s throat. Bennett flees on a speedboat, so Cindy turns up in the seaplane and they give chase across the ocean.
Matrix jumps from the wing of the plane onto the boat which then crashes onto an island in the middle of a US Navy artillery exercise. As Matrix and Bennett continue the fight, shells land around them and it all goes full Saving Private Ryan. The Navy then notice the civilians on the range and call a halt, Matrix ultimately overcomes Bennett and stabs him through the throat, pinning him to the speedboat’s hull ‘like a thumb tack’. The boat then explodes, setting fire to Bennett’s body. Army helicopters turn up and rescue Matrix, Cindy and Jenny.
This was all problematic for various reasons for the DOD. The final rejection letter says:
When you asked us to withhold sending the negative reply to your original request while you revised the script, I stated the belief that the only possible way to overcome the objections would be to delete the military completely, except perhaps for the last sequence. We suggested for that sequence to check with the FBI for a recommendation on how the government might arrest the foreign force about to depart the US to take over the fictional country.
The last changes still included military or implied military connection with the Commando group. As for the Navy, we felt certain that they would not consider it in their interest to participate in the sequence showing target firing on the California island.
In the event, the director saw an early cut of Rambo II and decided ‘We’ve got to have a bigger dick than Rambo. We’ve got to slay more people’ and so they reworked the assault on the compound to include a much higher bodycount. Then, they ran out of money and had to scrap the entire speedboat chase sequence and shot the final fight between Matrix and Bennett in a basement. Literally, a bargain basement.
The upshot of all this is that many of the things the DOD objected to were left out of the film, or changes were made that stayed in the script even after the rejection. The Army turns up at the end to rescue Matrix, Cindy and Jenny but play no role in the assault. The suggested dialogue for when Cindy calls in a message for Kirby to tell him what’s going on was used in the finished movie.
Admittedly, the whole Coast Guard-FBI storyline didn’t happen, and a few other bits of dialogue remained that they didn’t like. But ultimately, they got most of what they wanted without giving up anything in return.
One other thing – during the plane journey to the island, they actually shot a love scene between Cindy and Matrix, which was left out of the movie because they realised how absurd it was. No one would be left flying the plane, they didn’t really have the time, and frankly they hadn’t set up the blossoming romance well enough to earn a D-scene in the cargo hold.
The Fascistic Subtext
While I do love this film, I have a lot of problems with its politics, which could add up to cultural fascism.
Let me explain.
A film about an Aryan ubermench taking down an entire island of brown stuntmen, culminating in the death of a brown political leader has fairly obvious white supremacist overtones. But the director not only cast a man from a family of Nazis, he used shots pioneered by Nazi filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. The opening shot of Matrix carrying the tree and the chainsaw is taken from Riefenstahl’s work, quite consciously.
In Matrix’s first dialogue scene he is sat at the kitchen table, flicking through his daughter’s rock music magazines. In the draft script he says:
When I was a boy and rock and roll came to East Germany, the communists said it was subversive…
…They were right…
In the movie this becomes ‘maybe they were right’ but it’s a curious cultural cold war reference in what is apparently quite a dumb movie.
Shortly afterwards, Kirby shows up to warn Matrix about the assassinations, and Matrix asks him who is doing it. The draft script has Kirby replying, ‘It could be the Syrians, the South Africans, the Russians…or a terrorist group.’ Curiously, the South Africans go missing and are replaced with South Americans. Bear in mind, this is at a time when South Africa was a white supremacist state, but they can’t be depicted as a threat. Communists and brown people, yes, but not white supremacists.
The draft screenplay also provides quite a lot more on both Matrix’s background and his relationship with Bennett, which is reduced to one fairly oblique reference in the finished movie.
There was a scene where Cindy asks about Jenny’s mother, and the dialogue runs:
She died when Jenny was born.
I was in Laos when it happened, so I came home intending to raise her.
But on her third birthday I was in Lebanon. When she went to grade school, I was in Angola. When she had the measles, I was in Pakistan. And now she’s been kidnapped because of me.
Why were you always travelling?
I was on special assignment.
You mean like in the Army or something?
What did you do?
Things you don’t want to know about.
Things I sometimes wish I didn’t know about.
So, we have Laos, Lebanon and Angola, as well as the admission that Matrix was some sort of black ops, military intelligence, maybe CIA type. In particular, we have references to operations and countries that most Americans wouldn’t even be aware that their government is involved in.
All of this disappears, along with the implication that Matrix regrets his time in the unit and some of the things he did. So, ops against a white supremacist government because they’re a threat? They go missing. Ops against governments in black and brown countries that are regrettable and perhaps morally wrong? They also go missing.
There is also a scene during the final fight between Bennett and Matrix where Bennett has a flashback to the coup in Val Verde, where he killed three fleeing children before Matrix knocks him out with a rifle butt. It’s very Platoon or Fields of Fire, just transplanted onto a fictional Latin American country. This scene also disappears, of course, because they’d removed all of the set up for it.
What’s left is simply el Presidente saying that his country needs an iron fisted dictator, and not the (presumably) liberal wetback installed by Matrix and his unit. So, the only regrettable operation, which causes all this blowback with the private army and the island base and the kidnapping and assassinations, is an inversion of what US black ops actually do in Central and South America. While the exposition is quite shallow, they’re basically doing the same thing in Commando that they did in season 2 of Jack Ryan.
Putting it all together, and I think this film is cultural fascism. It is essentially a tale of Aryan supermen walking the earth, using violence to ensure their primacy, without shame or regret of any kind.
There is one good counter-argument to all this. One of the Pentagon’s requests was that the film foreground black and female employees, and the film-makers agreed to make casting choices to reflect this. While it’s only in brief moments, you will notice the presence of what would have otherwise been white male military characters.
So, we’re left with three possible readings of Commando.
- The interpretation I’ve offered here.
- Writer Steven de Souza’s interpretation that the humour in the film was quite deliberate rather than the happy by-product of a chaotic production.
- Co-star Vernon Wells’ version of events, who said ‘What makes Commando so enduring and endearing is, I think, that at no stage did any of us think we were doing anything comedic. We were gung-ho, out there killing each other in fields of battle. No-one tried to be funny — we were all taking it deadly seriously. Even when Arnold is dangling people over cliffs, the dialogue was treated like it was Shakespeare. I don’t think any of us knew any better.’
What I think is that De Souza did not intend for this to be such a funny movie, but because it became a cult classic due to being consistently laughable he had to lean into that. For the people on set I think they were taking it overly seriously and had no idea what they were really doing. But the director, in particular, comes across like a guy with an agenda so if I had to point the finger as to who was the closet Nazi on Commando, I’d be pointing at Mark Lester.