“This is the place where I come out and drive the tank,” says Arnold Schwarzenegger, striding towards me across dirt with a cigar in his mouth - as though driving 101,787 lbs of war machinery was a perfectly normal thing to do. For him, it is. When Schwarzenegger was 18, he spent a mandatory year in the Austrian Army, where he was entrusted with his very own M47 Patton, a monster with 14 wheels and a 7-foot machine gun.
These days, on weekends, he takes inner city kids up to the ranch for a tank ride, “instead of roaming around the streets and getting involved with gangs and drugs.” But today, I'm the overgrown kid getting a tank ride from the Terminator as part of his promotion for his gory shoot-em-up The Last Stand—and boy, am I giddy.
Schwarzenegger wasn't the best soldier. He once spent a week in military prison after going AWOL to compete in the Jr. Mr. Europe Contest. (At least he won.) But he loved his tank. During maneuvers, he'd drive it every day until dusk, then assemble the make-shift weight bench he stored in the tank's tool kit and work out until dark. At bedtime, he'd dig a coffin-shaped hole in the ground, drive his M47 over it, and then crawl underneath to sleep. “To protect from wild boars,” he explains.
In 1992, the year after Terminator 2: Judgment Day crowned him the king of the box office (and 27 years after his stint in the Army), Schwarzenegger decided it was time to reunite with his tank. He had his beloved M47 shipped from Europe to Las Vegas where he planned to display it at a Planet Hollywood, but when the restaurant fell through, he rerouted it to California and eventually to the Melody Ranch Motion Picture Studio 45 minutes north of Los Angeles, which is where we are today.
“This is where we made steaks and fried eggs,” says Schwarzenegger, pointing to a rust-colored patch on the tank's left flank. “We didn't pay much attention to cleaning, obviously.” During his year in the military, Schwarzenegger gained 25 pounds of muscle, the result of both his intensive exercise regime and the fact that the military fed him meat every day. Until then, he was so poor he only ate meat once a week. Two months after his service ended, he entered the Mr. Universe competition and placed second. The next year, he placed first. And so, Schwarzenegger the soldier became Schwarzenegger the superstar.
Arnold is wearing khakis and shiny dress shoes with rubber sneaker soles. He's got a silver pen in his shirt pocket, but compensates for that geeky touch with a bracelet made of ten small silver skulls on his right wrist, the same one he uses to shift the tank's joystick controls. Has he forgotten how to handle this thing? Not a chance. In some ways, he's never stopped. Schwarzenegger was the first person to buy a Hummer for civilian use—and the second, as he bought two. When the Hummer became the preferred vehicle of nervous soccer moms, he upgraded to the even bigger Mercedes Benz Unimog, a beast that weighs more than four Honda Civics and can drive over a three-foot tall boulder.
The M47 can fit five people if they aren't claustrophobic. We make it fit seven, but instead of cramming everyone inside, one person slips next to Arnold at the wheel and the other five stand on top of the tank and hold on for dear life. His head pops out of the out of the hull like a cigar-smoking groundhog, and when the tank starts its engine, it sounds like the world's loudest lawnmower.
“If you want, you can lie underneath and I'll drive over you,” offers Schwarzenegger. No takers, even after he explains that he used to do that for fun in the Austrian Army. So instead, he shifts gears and the tank bolts forward like an eager pony, its weight tearing into the dirt and leaving treadmarks a full yard across. The M47's top speed is 37mph, and the former governor must be doing close to that as the tank whizzes under tree branches, forcing us riders on top to duck like we're playing a dangerous game of Super Mario 3.
It's too noisy to ask Arnold any questions, but even behind his sunglasses, his face says plenty. His jaw is firm and his hand is steady as he swings the tank in smooth figure eights around the ranch with the ease of a man handling a Camry. Between laps, his friend Ralf Moeller—a former Mr. Universe himself who has a part in Schwarzenegger's next movie, Ten, with David Ayer and Sam Worthington— hands him back his cigar, which forces his mouth into a toothy smile.
Sure, this afternoon is a promotional photo op for The Last Stand, a fun action flick directed by South Korean filmmaker Jee-woon Kim (The Good The Bad, and the Weird) that's so violent, it's like the former governor is writing, “I said I'd be back” in blood. Schwarzenegger's role as a headstrong Arizonan sheriff is his first starring gig since taking office (“The Expendables, I worked four hours. Expendables 2, four days. Maybe the next one, I'll work four weeks,” he jokes), and he's pulling out all the stops to make sure audiences know that the box office king of 1992 is ready to reclaim 2012.
But to Arnold, driving me and my fellow journalists around in a tank clearly doesn't feel like work. He's so happy behind the wheel that when he ends the afternoon by crushing an old Mercedes Benz, he loops around to run over it two, three, four more times, until there's nothing recognizable left on it except a hippie bumper sticker that reads, “Food Not Bombs.”
Besides the surprise of learning that Schwarzenegger's M47 demonstration was taking place just 200 yards away from where Tarantino shot parts of Django Unchained, the biggest shock of the day came a few hours later when I watched The Last Stand and realized that his new movie doesn't have a single tank. However, it does have a killer car chase in a cornfield that pits a brand new Camaro against the Corvette ZR1. The ZR1 has a top speed of 205mph and a price tag of $120,395. Hey, Arnold—can we drive one of those next?
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The Last Stand will be in theaters on January 18, 2013.
Photo credit: Eric Charbonneau
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