Action movies don’t come much larger than life than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s shoot-’em-up extravaganza Commando. Centred on a retired special forces soldier who’s unwillingly forced back into action when his daughter is kidnapped, the colourful, bullet-ridden movie gave Schwarzenegger his first real hit after The Terminator, and helped establish him as the dominant big screen tough guy of the era.
But did you know the following facts about the 1985 action extravaganza from producer Joel Silver and director Mark L. Lester?
20. Nick Nolte was the first choice for the film’s lead
Believe it or not, Arnold Schwarzenegger was not the first choice to take the leading role in Commando. The actor who was in line for the role before the Austrian Oak might seem an unlikely candidate today: Nick Nolte, who had not long since played the tough guy lead in 48 Hrs. alongside Eddie Murphy (also produced by Commando producer Joel Silver).
Considering what an extremely cartoonish and over-the-top movie Commando became, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Schwarzenegger playing the lead. Nolte missed out on other big roles over the years, including Han Solo in Star Wars; however, he did have a stroke of luck in 1992 when he was voted People’s Sexiest Man Alive.
19. The original script was very different
The original screenplay for what became Commando was very far removed from the film that eventually reached screens. The first draft, by screenwriters Matthew Weissman and Joseph Loeb III, was far more grounded and reflective. Loeb says the script “was about an Israeli soldier who has turned his back on violence. Not the movie they made!”
When Schwarzenegger signed on to appear instead, pretty much all that went straight out of the window. Steven E. de Souza then wrote the final draft of the script, “[revamping] the story to suit Arnold’s bigger-than-life persona.”
18. Arnie helped Alyssa Milano with her homework on his breaks
In the key role of John Matrix’s abducted daughter Jenny, the Commando filmmakers cast Alyssa Milano. Aged 12 at the time, Commando was only the second acting credit on the young actress’s resume. By all accounts, Arnold Schwarzenegger was very protective of his screen daughter throughout production. It was even reported that the legendary action hero helped out his co-star with her homework on a few occasions.
Milano said Schwarzenegger had a particular flair for algebra, and spoke of his kind and caring nature, and how patient he was whilst working with her. By the time Commando was released, Milano had risen to small screen fame on sitcom Who’s the Boss? and she’s enjoyed a long and successful career since.
17. Schwarzenegger carries a visible injury from a co-star through the film
Schwarzenegger’s Commando character John Matrix is about as close to superhuman as standard action heroes get, yet he’s not invulnerable, as we do often see him get hurt and bleed. You might not have known, however, that not all of this is the result of movie make-up.
If you have a keen eye, then you may have noticed that in some scenes Schwarzenegger has a cut on his forehead. This was a bona fide wound, which the actor got when a co-star accidentally cut him whilst shooting a fight sequence. Rather than hide this, the filmmakers decided to incorporate it into the movie.
16. Arnie isn’t quite as strong as he looks
We all remember the iconic scene when John Matrix holds Sully (David Patrick Kelly) over the edge of a cliff. Given his Mr Universe record and legendary musculature, it’s easy to imagine Arnie really pulling off such a feat. However, we’re sorry to disappoint you, but it is not actually Arnie doing the heavy lifting.
The filmmakers quickly realised that even the mighty Schwarzenegger wouldn’t be able to effortlessly hold up his 160-pound co-star Kelly. Instead, Kelly was suspended by his ankle on a carefully concealed wire attached to an overhead crane.
15. The film takes place in the same fictitious country as two other action classics
Back in the 80s, the concept of a ‘cinematic universe’ was nowhere near as prevalent as it is today. However, Commando has some interesting links with a number of other films of the era. It’s partially set in the fictional South American nation of Val Verde – which is also featured in Die Hard 2. Screenwriter Steven E. de Souza wrote both films – and de Souza has also claimed that Val Verde is also the setting of Schwarzenegger’s 1987 movie Predator.
Thanks to the Alien vs. Predator movies, this means by extension that Commando and the Die Hard, Predator and Alien movies are all set in the same universe! (There’s also a link to less well-remembered 1991 thriller Ricochet, in which Mary Ellen Trainor reprises the role of Die Hard TV newsreader Gail Wallens.)
14. The DVD release cut scenes out of the film by mistake
As anyone who’s seen Commando will doubtless remember, the film has a pretty insane body count. It shouldn’t come as too great a surprise that the level of violence in the film meant that the censors weren’t too keen on Commando. The film was initially censored for its violence for its release in Britain: 12 seconds were cut, removing a severed arm, and a close up of an impaled Bennett.
Unfortunately, when the first UK DVD of Commando was released, they accidentally used a German master which was even more heavily censored, with 56 seconds of cuts. Fans needn’t worry, though, as a fully uncensored director’s cut is available on the Commando Blu-ray, released on the film’s 30th anniversary in 2015.
13. A potential Commando sequel eventually became Die Hard
After making almost $60 million at the box office off the back of a mere $9 million budget, Commando was a surefire hit, so Steven E. de Souza was asked to pen a Commando sequel. The writer was given an existing story to work from, as producer Joel Silver owned the rights to a novel entitled Nothing Lasts Forever, in which an ageing cop must rescue his daughter from a hostage situation in a skyscraper.
This would have been tweaked to see Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix again forced to rescue Alyssa Milano’s Jenny – but the project failed to take off, largely because Schwarzenegger swore off doing any more sequels after Conan the Destroyer. However, the script was reworked into 1988’s Die Hard, which became one of the best-loved action movies ever with Bruce Willis in the lead.
12. There were Commando action figures
Due to the massive success of the ‘G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero’ toy range, a line of Commando action figures was also released in 1986. The toys saw John Matrix leading a new team of elite special forces agents, made up of Spex, Blaster, and Chopper. The toys didn’t sell too well at the time, but vintage figures can fetch a good price today.
It might seem unlikely that such a violent R-rated movie would spawn toys for children, but this was the 80s. The decade also saw toys made based on such non-kid friendly properties as Rambo, RoboCop and A Nightmare on Elm Street.
11. It has the highest body count of any Schwarzenegger movie
A whole lot of people get killed in Commando The first kills occur in the film’s opening pre-credits sequence, and by the end it’s almost impossible to keep track of the body count. Some observant viewers have indeed kept track of exactly how many deaths occur in the movie, but given the relentlessness of the last act, exact figures are hard to confirm.
Most estimates put Arnie’s kill count at somewhere between 80 and 87, in the censored theatrical cut at least. This makes Commando the film with the highest body count of Schwarzenegger’s entire career. (He has an estimated career kill count of 369, making him the deadliest actor ever.)
10. The shopping mall also appeared in Terminator 2
One memorable early sequence in Commando sees Schwarzenegger’s Matrix clash with security guards in a shopping mall. These scenes were shot on location at the Sherman Oakes Galleria in Los Angeles, California. Observant fans of Schwarzenegger movies may recognise this as the same mall featured in Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Nor are these the only notable Hollywood productions to use the shopping mall as a shooting location. Other movies to shoot scenes there include Fast Times at Ridgemont High, InnerSpace, Back to the Future Part II and (more recently) Crazy Stupid Love.
9. Wings Hauser was (allegedly) cast as Bennett before Vernon Wells
Commando boasts a memorable performance from Vernon Wells as Matrix’s old friend-turned-enemy Bennett. However, it has been reported that Wells was a last minute replacement for the actor who was originally given the job: Wings Hauser. It has been claimed that Hauser was hired but then fired after a day of shooting, although Hauser himself has refuted this.
Either way, it has been said that part of the reason Wells’ clothes in the movie look a bit tight is that they were originally intended for the slimmer Hauser. Allegedly, the film’s costume department simply didn’t have the time or money to produce all-new clothes for Wells to wear.
8. Arnie injured himself performing his own stunts
Having such a distinctive leading man as Arnold Schwarzenegger could prove to be a double-edged sword for filmmakers. The bodybuilder-turned-actor’s impressive musclebound frame was a unique selling point, yet his build was so distinctive that it proved hard to find stuntmen who could convincingly double for him, so Schwarzenegger wound up performing many of his own stunts on Commando.
Given what an intensively physical role it was, the Austrian Oak wound up suffering a few minor injuries along the way. He dislocated a shoulder, and also required stitches after accidentally cutting himself during the knife fight scene.
7. Arnie was a martial arts expert by the time filming was over
No one needed to teach seven-time Mr Olympia champion Schwarzenegger anything about getting into shape for Commando, but the action man did need a little instruction on his fighting moves. Schwarzenegger worked with martial arts expert and fight choreographer Michael M. Vendrell to perfect his fight scenes.
Vendrell was hugely impressed by the progress Schwarzenegger made throughout the course of filming. The fight choreographer estimated that by the end of Commando’s shoot, Schwarzenegger had achieved the equivalent of a second degree black belt.
6. Director Mark L. Lester took inspiration from Nazi propaganda movies
Having been born in Austria in the aftermath of the Second World War, Schwarzenegger is naturally sensitive to his country’s troubled past. It may be a bit of a surprise to learn, then, that certain scenes in Commando were inspired by Nazi propaganda films.
Director Mark L. Lester has admitted to modelling some montages on the work of the acclaimed but controversial director Leni Riefenstahl, whose films were noted for presenting the male body in a similar fashion. Lester remarked in 2014, “I decided to have [Schwarzenegger] like an Aryan hero, come out with this giant log that no human could possibly carry.”
5. It went head to head with Rambo at the box office
When Commando opened in 1985, it arrived back to back with another, similarly gung-ho action extravaganza: Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo: First Blood Part II, which opened several months before Commando in May 1985, and wound up by far the bigger hit with box office earnings of over $300 million.
This kicked off an intense rivalry between the two musclebound action stars which lasted well into the 1990s. Eventually, Stallone and Schwarzenegger became good friends and remain so to this day. In recent years, they’ve co-starred in action franchises The Expendables and Escape Plan.
4. A sex scene was cut from the film for being so unconvincing
Rae Dawn Chong co-stars in Commando as Cindy, the flight attendant and pilot-in-training who winds up helping Schwarzenegger’s John Matrix in rescuing his daughter. There isn’t really much sexual tension between Matrix and Cindy – but even so, they originally had a love scene. However, this was cut from the final film as it was unconvincing, and made little sense.
As Chong reflects, the love scene originally happened “when we’re flying to the dictator’s island. But I thought it was gratuitous, because in a time-sensitive situation you’re not feeling frisky. Plus, who would be flying the plane?”
3. The director of Die Hard turned down the chance to direct the film
As we’ve discussed already, Commando has a few key connections with 1§988 action smash Die Hard. The films could have had another thing in common, as Die Hard director John McTiernan was originally offered the chance to call the shots on Commando as well.
For reasons unknown McTiernan declined Commando, but later directed Schwarzenegger’s 1987 blockbuster Predator. After Die Hard, McTiernan called the shots on such hits as The Hunt for Red October, Last Action Hero and Die Hard with a Vengeance.
2. Arnie wasn’t a fan of Vernon Wells to start with
When Vernon Wells was hired to Bennett, the actor recalls, “[Schwarzenegger] was not impressed [with me]. He thought I was way too laidback for the role.” However, Wells says this all changed as soon as the actors shot their first scene together, “the one where I have the knife to his throat.”
“When the director yelled, ‘Action!’ I just went straight into it… When the scene was over, Arnold said, ‘Keep that guy away from me.’ And apparently he requested that in any scene with me that had a knife in it, the knife had to be plastic.” By the end of the shoot, the pair were reportedly getting on famously, and have remained friendly in the years since.
1. The final showdown was originally going to be even bigger
Commando’s final fight between Matrix and Bennett takes place in a boiler room basement, and famously ends with our hero telling the villain to “let off some steam” – but if they’d stuck to the script, things would have been very different. Writer Steven E. de Souza explains, “the movie was supposed to end with Bennett fleeing in a speedboat and Matrix chasing him in another boat.”
“They’d land on this island where the Marines do their training, and fight with knives on the beach, with barbed wire everywhere, landmines going off and Naval gunnery ships firing artillery shells at them. It would have been crazy, like Saving Private Ryan.” There simply wasn’t the money left in the budget to do this, so the final showdown was rewritten accordingly.