Where would Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career be without these three simple words: “I’ll be back”? Taken from The Terminator it’s as simple a phrase as was ever uttered in the movies, but became a pop culture catchphrase, and came to define Arnold’s career on screen and off.
He’s used the line—or a slight variation on it—in two other Terminator movies and eight other films. In 1993’s Last Action Hero he says it three times!
“I’ll be back,” he says. “Ha! Bet you didn’t expect me to say that!”
Later Danny Madigan (Austin O’Brien), after Arnold uses his signature line, says “You always say that.”
“Everybody waits for you to say it. It is like your calling card.”
Few actors have done so much with so little. But the perfectly crafted phrase almost didn’t happen.
“In the treatment it was ‘I’ll come back,’” says The Terminator director and co-writer James Cameron. “In the script it was ‘I’ll be back.’ I don’t remember why I changed it. It just sounded better.”
The line certainly played no small part in establishing Schwarzenegger larger-than-life action hero image even though Arnold has said he didn’t give the line a second thought when making the movie.
“There is something about the way the line plays,” says Cameron, “not just Arnold’s delivery, but the fact that you’ve seen enough of him in action up to that point to know that when he says ‘I’ll be back’ something really bad is going to happen. There is a counterpoint between the innocence of the words and the threat that is a wink to the audience. And the audience likes to be in the position of knowing what is going to happen next. They may not know the details but they know something bad is going to happen and then it pays off. He just comes flying through the window in a car and takes out the whole place. So there is something kind of delicious about the anticipation that it produces.”
In his new autobiography, Total Recall, Schwarzenegger recalls, “Our biggest disagreement was about ‘I’ll be back’. I was arguing for ‘I will be back’. I felt that the line would sound more machine-like and menacing without the contraction.
“It’s feminine when you say the I’ll, I complained, repeating it for Jim so he could hear the problem. ‘I’ll I’ll I’ll. It doesn’t feel rugged to me.’ He looked at me like I’d lost my mind. ‘Let’s stick with I’ll,’ he said. But I wasn’t ready to let it go, and we went back and forth. Finally Jim yelled, ‘Look, just trust me, OK? I don’t tell you how to act, and you don’t tell me how to write.’
“And we shot it as written in the script. The truth was that, even after all these years of speaking English, I still didn’t understand contractions.”
The line’s popularity wasn’t planned. Cameron, who has three lines on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movie Quotes list—“I’ll be back,” “Hasta la vista, baby” from T2 and Titanic’s “I’m king of the world!—says it is a bad idea to try and write catchphrases.
“I think it is a very hard thing to try and do that,” he says. “I think I was somewhat self conscious about it when I did Terminator 2 and he says ‘Hasta le vista baby.’ That I knew I was doing a line, an Arnold line. I think it is a very dangerous area because it can so easily blow up on you and I tend not to do that.
“I really realized how fragile that was when I had written True Lies. I didn’t think it was funny enough so I hired a comedy team to come in and punch up the dialogue.
“I wanted it to be an action comedy. All they did was write about twenty Arnold one-liners. It really reminded me of bad James Bond. The James Bond films have evolved as well, they don’t do that anymore but there was always that kind of wink and a nod to the audience. A stupid line, a cap line to the scene and they wrote about twenty of those and I threw them all out. I hated them. I realized tonally it was going to screw up the movie. Then I decided maybe this movie isn’t funny enough, but I’m gong to shoot it as it is and it was still funny.”
Arnold has been associated with dozens of one-liners. So many, in fact that a you tube video titled 160 Greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes had over two million hits at press time, but as widely imitated as “Hasta la vista, baby” was—even Chilean president Michelle Bachelet aped Arnold’s famous delivery of the line—“I’ll be back” remains his most iconic line.