"One Cute Motherf**ker": Homosexuality and the Threat of AIDS in John McTiernan’s Predator
It is common knowledge that the main marketing demographic for action films is the (heterosexual) male moviegoer. Arguably, John McTiernan's 1987 action-filled, sci-fi horror blockbuster, Predator, is one of the most testosterone-driven features in cinematic history. Not only is this retelling of Richard Connell's "The Most Dangerous Game" fraught with many of the genre's trademarks -- hyperkinetic movement and pacing, rampant masochism, violent death, and a plethora of gunfire -- it contains only one female performance. Alongside such works as McTiernan's own Die Hard, Zach Snyder's 300, John Boorman's Deliverance, Don Siegel's Dirty Harry, David Fincher's Fight Club, Ted Kotcheff's First Blood, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, and James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Predator is often considered the archetypical "guy movie."
For many, this would be one of the last places an individual would expect to encounter a predominant homosexual theme (despite Snyder, Boorman, and Fincher's films also containing strong homoerotic undertones). Yet McTiernan does not flippantly insert such into his work in the mere hope of unnerving his heterosexual male viewers (in lieu of an extended take from behind of Arnold Schwarzenegger crawling along the ground). Instead, the filmmaker provides his audience with a cautionary parable of the AIDS epidemic which, during the time of the film's release, was just beginning to be understood.
When Predator was produced, a scant five years after the Center for Disease Control recorded its first cases in Los Angeles, AIDS was considered a disease which primarily affected homosexuals, especially males. (Shortly after its discovery, the press dubbed the virus "G.R.I.D." for "Gay-Related Immune Deficiency.") McTiernan uses this as a catalyst for his film by issuing his viewers an exclusive "predator" of men, one which has no name, is rarely seen, and which -- once met -- typically proves fatal. Poignantly, the director presents a cast of Special Forces soldiers who, overwrought with both muscles and ego, naively believe themselves to be impervious to harm. Only in the presence of an invisible enemy for which they seem to have no defenses do they give pause yet, due to peer pressure, hubris, and overabundant machismo, all but one perish by film's end.
After setting the tone with the first spoken line of dialogue by having the military-decreed alpha male of the scene, General Phillips (R. G. Armstrong), comment upon team leader Dutch's (Arnold Schwarzenegger) physical appearance, "You're looking good" (which is reprised during the finale when Dutch assesses the eponymous character's (Kevin Peter Hall) looks, "You're one ugly motherf**ker" -- what would Dutch have said should he have found the alien attractive?), McTiernan gives us one of the first hints as to his agenda: In a genre production whose audience not only tolerates, but anticipates, rabid violence, Dutch notes, "We're a rescue team; not assassins."
The Special Forces team is a tightly-knit group which does not look fondly upon foreign members joining its ranks, as seen in the overt animosity exhibited by the team's heavy weapons man, Blain (Jesse Ventura), and Dutch's apprehension of CIA agent Dillon (Carl Weathers) being ordered by Phillips to accompany the elite squad on a rescue mission. Dutch adamantly protests, "General, my team works alone. You know that." His acrimony is suspicious given that Dillon is a former Special Forces member, thus was once part of the "group," and close friend who had previously served alongside Dutch in battle. Remonstrating Dillon's presence after the CIA agent refers to Dutch as "Old Buddy" and produces one of a matching set of Zippos they obtained during joint service in Vietnam (the team's second-in-command, Mac (Bill Duke) and Blain silently scrutinize Dillon as he tells of the lighter's history), Blain spits tobacco juice upon Dillon's boot, as if to symbolically call Dillon's heterosexual bluff. After urging Blain closer so as to whisper (indicative that he is about to voice something that can't be openly expressed) and endeavoring to quell the sexual hostility taking place by affirming he has unequivocally renounced his homosexuality, Dillon remarks, "That's a real nasty habit you got there." Interestingly, just as they are about to reach the mission site, Dillon admits to Dutch, "[I] [n]ever knew how much I missed this."
McTiernan's central character focus is Dillon as his renounced homosexuality gradually reestablishes itself. After Dutch realizes that he was issued a faux motive for the rescue mission, Dillon states that Dutch and his men are expendable. Noticeably hurt, Dutch asserts that Dillon was once "[ . . . ] somebody I could trust." With pronounced tears of regret welling up in his eyes, Dillon snaps back, "I woke up." In other words, Dillon begrudgingly abandoned his homosexual tendencies in order to be further promoted. This accounts for Dutch's reservations when Dillon is assigned to his "team" as well as the group's general dislike of Dillon. However, after the request for a rescue helicopter is denied, Dutch declares, "We're [thereby including Dillon in the group] assets, Dillon. Expendable assets" and that Dillon is "[ . . . ] just like the rest of us." Midway through the feature, Dillon has accepted the sexual dynamic in question and his role therein. He tells Dutch that "I'm going [to enter into the jungle] after Mac," to which Dutch snickers, "That's not your style." Dillon's retort is succinct, "I guess I picked up some bad habits from you." It can be posited that Dillon's decision is spurred by guilt, desire to regain Dutch's admiration, and is penance given that the likelihood of following after Mac will prove fatal: Dutch tells him that entering the bush is a futile gesture, to which Dillon replies, "Maybe I can get even." Dutch then tosses Dillon his (phallic) firearm, which Dillon willfully accepts. By feature's end, upon sighting Predator for the third time (which is complimented by the team's scout, Billy (Sonny Landham), who repeatedly senses something in the jungle, i.e., "gaydar"), replete with his arm around Dillon, Mac whispers, "I see you." This is implied to denote that he has spotted the alien hunter but, given his use of the ambiguous second-person pronoun (versus "It," which is the referent that the team most frequently uses to designate Predator and that Mac utilized moments before reverting to "you"), such can be argued to be his oral acknowledgement of Dillon's homosexual inclinations. Poetically, Dillon metaphorically comes out of the closet seconds before his death by admitting, twice over, that he too sees Predator. (He saw the alien earlier yet told no one.)
The prevalence and abundance of (exaggerated and overlarge -- to the point of satirical absurdity) phallic weapons reinforces the film's unbridled masculinity. Character development takes place early in the film within the womb-like sanctity of a helicopter's cabin wherein homoerotic goading is comfortably directed by and at the multiple personages: Subsequent to the rejected offer of chewing tobacco to the various team members (with the understandable exception of Dillon), Blain chides, "[The crew is a] [b]unch of slack-jawed faggots. This stuff will make you a goddamned sexual Tyrannosaurus, just like me." The team's demolition expert, Poncho (Richard Chaves), then hoists up his (phallic) grenade launcher and phonetically puns, "Strap this on your sore ass." The most blatant phallic object seen in the film is Blain's horribly mislabeled minigun -- a weapon designed to be mounted to the side of aircraft -- which he ironically refers to as "Old Painless" (another understatement if placed within a psychosexual context). Most every other member carries a powerful firearm as well and, in its absence, a bowie knife (which Billy uses to cut a water vine prior to sucking on it). Revealingly, Dutch notices a pattern to Predator's penchant for prey: One must be a threat, i.e., be in possession of a "weapon," which is why Dutch instructs the team's guerilla hostage, Anna (Elpidia Carrillo), to "[l]eave it [Poncho's discarded gun]. He [Predator] didn't kill you because you weren't armed." By assuming the/a weapon/phallus, Anna would become symbolically masculine whereas, without it, she retains her femininity. Not surprisingly, Anna survives. Obviously, Predator is not interested in women qua women (anymore than Dutch is: After grudgingly consenting to Anna's transport, he tells "straight" Dillon, "She's your baggage").
McTiernan further develops this motif by having the most "macho" of the team -- Dutch, Dillon, Blain, Mac, and Billy -- emasculate themselves via metaphorical female menstruation before becoming desirable, subservient prey for the alpha hunter. As such, the physically largest of the team members must bleed prior to being killed, as evidenced by Mac incurring a razor nick, Blain taking a bullet or shrapnel fragment to the left bicep, and Dillon's arm being severed. Most revealingly, after discarding his firearm, Billy surrenders himself to the dominant male by cutting a vertical, thus vaginal, slit into his own chest. Predator is content to merely dispose of the less masculine, cf., less desirable, of the group: The team's radio operator, Hawkins (Shane Black), wears oversized glasses and reads comic books; Poncho remains skittish after discovering a cove of skinned soldiers. Gun in hand, Hawkins is killed while pursuing the escaped Anna (thus he nevertheless meets his demise while playing the role of the dominant male). Poncho is murdered after having sustained a crippling blow from a fallen (phallic) log which undoubtedly resulted in internal injuries/bleeding. (His wound is inadvertent and not the manner in which Predator intended because, throughout the film, all other members are penetrated through the use of the alien's laser or forearm blades. This lies in undeniable contrast to the physically superior hunter who, though he kills many, never mortally injures a character through brute force.) Conversely, in one of the film's most memorable lines, Dutch reasons that "If it bleeds, we can kill it." The team members' agenda then becomes the same as the alpha Predator -- to subvert the other's machismo. This is why Predator hastily removes a bullet lodged in his thigh: To stop the bleeding, thereby regaining his undermined masculinity. Predictably, Predator is bested when Dutch drops the largest phallic symbol in the film -- an entire tree trunk -- on top of him. It is also worthy to note that Mac issues a death threat to Dillon early in the film: Should the latter inadvertently reveal the team's location, Mac promises to "bleed" Dillon "real quiet." Given the story's subtext, Mac is proclaiming he will emasculate the CIA agent. Moments later, he figuratively attempts to do just that. Mac coerces an adverse Dillon into assuming a submissive position by having Dillon expose his back. Mac then produces a phallic knife in order to impale a scorpion crawling along Dillon's shoulder. Fascinatingly, an apprehensive Dillon retaliates by producing his gun (in opposition to, say, a non- or less-phallic fist). Dillon reluctantly thanks Mac, who grumbles, "Anytime" as he watches Dillon walk away.
It is Anna who imparts the history of Predator, "When I was little, we found a man. He looked like . . . like, butchered. The old woman (sic) in the village crossed themselves . . . and whispered crazy things, strange things. 'El Diablo cazador de hombres.' Only in the hottest years this happens. And this year, it grows hot. We begin (sic) finding our men. We found them sometimes without their skins . . . and sometimes much, much worse. 'El cazador trofeo de los hombres' means the demon who makes trophies of men." While saying nothing of the observation that Predator attacks "men/hombres" rather than "people," makes trophies of his (male) conquests, and a fate "much, much worse" than being skinned alive being left to subjective possibility, Anna relays that the deceased males were discovered without their skin. Biologically, the skin is the largest component of the human immune system. Without it, humans are highly susceptible to disease, including AIDS. Paralleling this leitmotif is Dutch's impromptu realization that Predator cannot locate, cf., "see," him if he covers himself. He does so using mud, which is analogous in this context to a makeshift prophylactic. Logistically, this is sound: Once Dutch infers that Predator only attacks those brandishing weapons, he is already wounded, thus susceptible to being killed sans weapon. (Upon crawling onto a soggy embankment, thereby coating himself in mud, he reaches for a weapon, only to find it missing. In the following scene, we see that he remained in possession of his bowie knife but that it was coated in mud. Thus, his symbolic phallus was safe, i.e., not exposed.) Due to the risk of exposure/infection, Dutch continues to veil himself in mud and only approaches Predator directly after his "organic condom" is washed off. (Interestingly, the DVD chapter titled "The Alien's Weakness" denotes the scene wherein this revelation takes place and not the episode in which Dutch deduces that the creature can bleed.) Consequently, risk of viral infection exists only if one's metaphorical penis is exposed or the possibility of blood contamination through an open wound is present. Predator is both wounded and "unprotected" at the time of his death after having removed his facemask before engaging Dutch in the final battle.
The most palpable homoerotic display witnessed during the film is Mac's reaction to Blain's death. Moments after Blain is fatally shot by Predator, Mac picks up his deceased friend's minigun/phallus and opens fire into the jungle with "Old Painless" (which he had instructed Blain earlier in the film to "take [the minigun] out of the bag" it was being transported in). He does this, not in the hope of killing what or whoever murdered his friend, but merely in heated response to Blain's demise. In perhaps the film's most alarming homoerotic scene, believing he has spotted the killer, all remaining team members join Mac and simultaneously discharge their weapons in what is, essentially, an ejaculatory orgy: They "release" the entirety of their phallic-directed ammunition into the jungle. Emblematic of Mother Nature and therefore the epitome of life, the jungle is decimated by homosexual males, a symbol of biological sterility. Not only does Mac manifest hostility toward the female Mother Nature, but he and Blain are the only two who fail to interact with Anna on either a verbal or nonverbal level (though Billy is clearly apprehensive and uncomfortable in her midst to the extent that it is debatable that this is a subconscious motive in his remaining behind and being sacrificed by Predator, specifically when one considers how close he is to the rescue site). After assuming responsibility for the transportation of Blain's body, Mac takes a flask (which both men had shared earlier in the day) and places it upon Blain's corpse. Later, when on patrol, he holds a vigil before vowing revenge, "They'll (sic) come back again. And when he does I'm gonna cut your [Blain's] name right into him!" Veiling his theme of homosexuality behind the auspices of race, McTiernan has the African American Mac inform Dutch that, "He [Caucasian Blain] was . . . my friend." The disapproval evident in Dutch holding Mac's gaze after the utterance, atop Mac averting his eyes under Dutch's condemning stare, insinuates that Mac has spoken the unmentionable. The plausibility of this sentiment solely relating to the male bond is also challenged by Blain's oblique racism. His Southern heritage is emphasized and he never utters a word to the film's other minorities, Native American Billy (though he does offer him, along with most everyone else present, chewing tobacco) or Hispanic Anna. (The character of Poncho is designated by the surname "Ramirez" and described as "an East L.A. streetwise Chicano" in various drafts of the script. Given that Blain interacts with and speaks to Poncho, this is perhaps why McTiernan cast Caucasian actor Richard Chaves in the otherwise Hispanic role.)
So as not to leave any doubt as to his thematic intentions, McTiernan inserts Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally" into his film, not once, but twice. The first occasion is through Blain's boom box as the team is being flown into the jungle and the second is Mac mumbling the lyrics when in solitary search of his friend's killer. Aside from Richard being gay, the song is considered the story of a man reveling in homosexual promiscuity: "Uncle John" is spotted by the narrator with "bald head Sally," which is a euphemism for the penis. When John sees "Aunt Mary comin'," he retreats into an alleyway. As he hunts for Predator, who is obviously taller than any of the team's members (and ignoring the "long" aspect of the lyrics), Mac strips down while exasperatedly reciting his version of the chorus, "I'm gonna have me some fun."
Though primary themes, McTiernan is not crassly conveying a homophobic tale wherein almost everyone who is gay dies of AIDS. Rather, he uses these subjects to fashion a potent cautionary fable. Mac and Blain are not the only male pair-bond in the production, though they are one of the few monogamous couples. Their familiarity with one another is solidified by the nonchalant manner in which Mac shrugs off Blain's offer of chewing tobacco alongside Blain's heated exchange with Dillon concerning Blain's "habit" taking place under Mac's watchful eye. Likewise, Hawkins is constantly attempting to evoke laughter from, or flatter, Billy by way of misogynistic jokes. These faithful pairings are juxtaposed by Dillon and Dutch. After Blain's death, as if infatuated yet shy, Dillon continually follows Mac and observes him at a distance. (Given Mac's effort to metaphorically penetrate Dillon from behind and solitary display of machismo via his threat to emasculate the CIA agent, the latter leaving Dillon speechless, the tentative argument exists that Dillon is merely capitalizing upon Mac's coy flirting once Blain has passed away.) Although it is implied that Dillon and Dutch share an intimate past by Dillon's reminiscence of their matching Zippos, it is suggested that Dutch has had numerous gay partners. Upon entering the jungle, he is fairly apathetic toward the assignment. Once Jim Hopper's body is discovered, he becomes noticeably agitated and announces, "I knew these men" and that "now it [Predator] wants us [male soldiers]." Clearly, the third-person inclusive is meant to indicate that Hopper and his men were homosexual. Given the allegorical perimeters set by the director, those whom glibly expose their "weapon" and fail to "protect" themselves or, more concretely, refuse to practice safe sex, die regardless if they are monogamous. This is reinforced by Dutch's licentious nature. His survival is nonetheless assured since he "covers" himself in the midst of an invisible predator of gay men.
John McTiernan's second feature-length film, Predator, houses strong homosexual motifs, undertones, and symbolism. However, the filmmaker does not incorporate such tropes in the hope of unsettling his predominantly heterosexual male sci-fi horror audience. Instead, he uses them as a forum to present a cautionary parable for the AIDS epidemic by displaying the dangers of infection through reckless sex practices. He goes on to show that those who harbor the greatest risk are those with raging machismo and unchecked libidos who believe themselves to be impervious to harm. Sadly, the actor who played Predator, Kevin Peter Hall, would later die of AIDS from a contaminated blood transfusion.