The 1980's was an era of the tended to move away from the gritty anti-hero of the '70's and towards a more straightforward man of action. You can see this in the evolution of characters like John Rambo. In his first outing, he was a traumatized vet who was lost in everyday American life. But by the 2nd and 3rd film he embodied America's gung-ho spirit of strength and exceptionalism that was all the rage in the Regan Decade.
In this era, there was no shortage of muscle-bound tough guys who would play by their own rules and save the day. We have the above-mentioned Sylvester Stallone along with other action greats like Chuck Norris. But the one who has arguably the best action movie track record of the '80's is Arnold Schwarzenegger.
To be sure, he has his share of stinkers like Raw Deal. But if just look at a partial list of his 80's hits (Terminator, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer, Commando, and The Running Man) you can see why his remembered as one of the Blockbuster Kings. In those movies, Arnold played men of action who were larger-than-life and portrayed an extreme form of hyper-masculinity.
But of all of his movies, the manliest of all is Predator.
Predator mighty actually be a perfect film. I don't mean that it's subject matter is the most transcendent. But Predator knows what kind of movie it is and it delivers on that goal perfectly. Director John McTiernan, who would later go on to direct Die Hard and The Hunt for Red October is a master of filming a dynamic action film. I am quick to defend the skill of action movie directors because they must convey in the visuals the vicarious thrills of danger and victory to those sitting comfortably in front of the screen. McTiernan crafted a movie that is beautifully shot, with a great economy of storytelling. Writers Jim and John Thomas (along with Shane Black) make a story where the characters are well-crafted and defined with minimal dialogue. In fact, I think there are only three lines of dialogue in the entire third act.
So why is this the manliest movie of the 80's?
Because this is ultimately a movie about man's survival against nature.
This may sound strange since the primary antagonist is an otherworldly creature. But that is just window dressing. Dutch and his crew are the most competent special forces squad and they dispatch an entire encampment of guerrillas with no casualties and minimal injuries. But then they have to drive deeper and deeper into the jungles, the heart of darkness. Here, they are not the superior ones, but the hunted ones. In the same way, nature is a great equalizer. It is true that some of us may have advantages over others, but when a tornado rips through your home town or the flood waters was down your street, you can feel how powerless we are to nature. Who can survive against such forces? Predator tells us an image of manhood that can stand up and survive.
It is incredibly telling to see the order in which Dutch's squad is taken out and why. The first to die is Hawkins. He is lost first because he is the weakest. He is constantly trying to impress others with his jokes. Notice how demure he is when his jokes fall flat. During the battle with the guerrillas, he does very little of note. And when he dies, he is begging Anna to calm down. Nature will pick off the weakest of us first. In this often unforgiving world, a man must be strong.
But this is not a simple case of "only the strong survive." The second victim of the Predator is arguably the toughest one of the group. Blaine is constantly showing everyone how masculine he is. He brags how he is a "sexual tyrannosaurus." He spits on Dillon's shoe to show domination. He famously says to Poncho "I ain't got time to bleed." He stands out in front of everyone with the largest gun of anyone in the group. Blaine is the embodiment of machismo. But he does not last long either. A real man must be strong, but physical strength and toughness can only do so much. It should be noted that right before he dies, he is fooled into thinking a little animal is Hawkins' killer and he shot through the back. He lacks mental acuity and observation skills. He is not aware enough of his surroundings.
Mac cannot be the model of manliness because he is crazy. This makes him a dangerous opponent. He stabs the boar to death and he injures the Predator at their first encounter. But as his emotions take control of him, he is unable hold himself in check. He runs off from the group, causing Dillon to go after him. His desire for revenge ultimately is fruitless. Before he dies, he seems to calm down enough to formulate a plan, but he does not see that it is a trap and easily dispatched, laying on his back on the jungle floor. The Predator finds Mac so little of a threat that he stands right above him and motionlessly blows him away.
Dillon is a little harder to categorize. He is a pure pragmatist. He lies to Dutch and manipulates him and his group to get what he wants. He isn't an evil person per se. He is someone who is trying to prevent a war and he wants to get payback for the men he lost. What's interesting is that this pragmatism isn't what gets him killed. It would be fascinating to see what would happen if he stayed true to his personality in the first act and remained selfish until the end. Would he have lived? Would that then say that the most selfish among us would survive? But the movie side-steps this by having him go after Mac. He is not wholly altruistic, as his last words to Dutch are to hold the chopper. But, like Mac, he is bent on revenge. Even when not clouded by insanity, pure revenge will get you killed.
Billy dies for one simple reason: despair. He has already decided that nature will win and there is no point in going on. Dutch and his team can deal with the world of men. As mentioned before, they are at the top of their dominance hierarchy. But Billy notes, "There's something out there, and it ain't no man... We're all gonna die." For Billy it is a foregone conclusion. When he throws away his equipment on the log bridge, he is not taking a stand to buy the others time. If he was, he would have kept his weapons. And his death barely slows the Predator down. Even though he takes out his machete, this is not to defeat his enemy but to simply have a warrior's death. Besides Dutch, I think Billy had the greatest potential to survive. He was smart, observant, strong, and calm. But he gave in to despair. If you believe that there is no hope for you then there will not be. The dangers of nature can seem overwhelming, but real manhood involves holding on to at least enough hope to keep going.
Finally, Poncho dies because he gives in to fear. He is always quick to point out things that are wrong. He's the one who tells Blaine he is bleeding. Out of anyone in the group, he is the one who panics the most. When Billy admits he's scared, Poncho's fear levels sky rocket. But the reason Poncho lasts longer than the others is that he does two things. First he does not let his fear break his resolve. Even after he is horribly injured, he defiantly says, "I can make it!" The second thing he does is that he gets others to help him. It is important to remember that Dutch and his group are a unit. They are made stronger and better because they work as a team. Notice how they are quickly picked off whenever they become separated. Working together will get you farther. But Poncho dies because, in his fear, he does not figure out how to survive. As they are escaping, Dutch says to Anna in front of Poncho "He didn't kill you because you were unarmed." When they hear Billy's death cry, Poncho instinctively points his weapon at the jungle. That is why he is killed instead of Anna.
This takes us to Dutch. He is the model of manliness and he is the only one of the men to make it out alive. From the beginning we see how he understand manhood. Physical strength is important, as demonstrated by that often memed handshake between himself and Dillon. But in that conversation, he makes clear that he and his group are "a rescue team, not assassins." Dutch and his group could easily be ones who assert their own will on others for gain. Instead, they understand that it is the role of a man to protect. We see this in how he treats Anna. At the end of the second act, he knocks the gun out of her hand and draws the Predator's fire. He then yells that infamous line, "Get to the CHOPPAH!" I can see how some may see this as potentially chauvinistic, but it draws on something deep in the masculine ethos: a man protects women. This is at the core of romantic love. In Ephesians, Paul says, "Husbands love your wives as Christ loved His church." (Ephesians 5:25) Jesus shows His love by laying down His life and dying for the Church, His bride. That sums up a great deal of the idealized relation between men and women. We this play out in other films like A Quiet Place. This isn't to say that women don't sacrifice in an incredibly deep and noble way that is equal to men. But specifically, it ingrained in men from an early age that he has to be the one to take the bullet for the women in his life to keep them safe. This principle then begins to govern other relationships in life. That is why a man is always ready to stand up and protect.
He also shows great loyalty to his men. He trusts them, so he is shocked to be betrayed by Dillon. When told that the group is expendable, he says, "My men are not expendable." His concern is not for himself as it is for the men under his command. He was going to go after Mac when he ran off, until Dillon stopped him. And he carried Poncho as far as he could until the end. Someone I follow on youtube described the GI Joe cartoon as a loyalty fantasy, which is true. There is something idealized about men finding friends in whom they can place their lives and whose lives they can protect. And the same thing is true of Dutch.
It should also be admitted that Dutch does survive through an extraordinary amount of luck. He is not the master of nature. He must survive nature by the skin of his teeth. He and his commandos defeat the guerrillas through pure skill. But his life always hangs by a thread against the Predator. He could have been shot instead of Poncho. He happens to fall into the river that leads to the mud camouflage. Dutch even briefly gives in to despair as he simply waits for the Predator to kill him by the river bank. He is never safe and is always in danger.
But what sets up Dutch as the true survivor is simply his ability to adapt.
We see this early on when he attacks the compound. He sets up the plan, but then on the fly he improvises and takes out the truck that was acting like generator. Dutch realizes that the Predator can see the trip wires and so plants a new kind of trap. He frees Anna to help them. In his final fight with the Predator, he sets up an elaborate trap, but he continually has to change up the plan. And even at the very end, he almost gets the Predator in the pit to be impaled on the spikes, but the Predator is too smart. But Dutch does not give in to despair, like Billy. He immediately assess the situation and sees a new opportunity. His chances may be slim, but he takes what he can get. Notice he latches onto hope for victory in the fact that they made the Predator bleed: "If it bleeds, we can kill it."
He does not get stuck in one frame of mind, but is open-minded to all of the possibilities in order to achieve the best outcome. One of the keys of manhood is action. I do not necessarily mean violence, but Dutch is no ponderous Hamlet. He is observant and he plans, but as importantly, he takes action in the moment. He does not delay or hesitate. He is confident in what he chooses.
This may not seem to be the most civilized thing, but notice that Dutch does not survive because he is civilized. He is smart and resourceful, but not civilized. When he prepares for the final battle, he covers himself in mud like ritualistic war paint. And he calls out his enemy by giving a low and loud guttural roar that echoes through the jungle. He is in touch with his violent, animalistic side. He knows how to tap into that in order to make war on his enemy. Every man deeply feels the need to be able to make war on an enemy that would harm those he loves. This does not always mean hurting other, but it means digging deep to find the fiery passion that will make you never give up the fight.
But in the end, he is not an animal. When the Predator is helpless, Dutch cannot bring himself to kill him. Again, Dutch is not a bully who merely asserts his dominance on someone who is weaker. He understands that his capacity for violence must be tempered by utter self-control. He stands victorious in his struggle with nature, but he is not nature's master. He is a new, scarred man who has taken all the world has thrown at him and survived. The others on the chopper look at him in awe. The last words of the Predator are an echo of Dutch asking "What the hell are you?" The Predator cannot fathom what he has encountered.
But we know.
We can see in Dutch what Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar: "Nature might stand up and say to all the world, 'This was a man.'"
That is why Predator is the manliest movie fo the 1980's.