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 three other Terminator movies and eight other films. In 1993’s Last Action Hero he says it three times! He utters it one more time as he jumps from one helicopter to another in this weekend’s Terminator Genisys.
Few actors have done so much with so little. But the perfectly crafted saying almost didn’t happen.
“In the treatment it was ‘I’ll come back,’” The Terminator director and co-writer James Cameron told me. “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 had problems with it when they were shooting the film.
In his 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.
“[But] 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.”
“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.”
The line’s popularity wasn’t planned. Cameron, who has three quips 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.”
Schwarzenegger has been associated with dozens of one-liners. So many, in fact that a youtube video titled 160 Greatest Arnold Schwarzenegger Quotes has over twenty million hits, 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.