Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Matty Ferrigno, Victoria Ferrigno, Mike Katz, Franco Columbu, Ed Corney, Ken Waller, Serge Nubret
Directed by George Butler & Robert Fiore
Pumping Iron is a great document of a sport once regarded as a weird subculture reserved for those crazy enough to devote their lives to pumping iron. While watching the film I couldn’t escape the similarities to Perfect, depicting people’s desire to achieve perfection through working out. I did some research and found that this isn’t too far from the truth, as Pumping Iron‘s success in 1977 helped to popularize the sport and facilitate the rise of the commercial gym, leading to the fitness craze of the 1980s. And of course, it’s also the film that catapulted Arnold Schwarzenegger to stardom. He may have appeared in a couple of roles prior to its release, even winning a Golden Globe, but none of it compared to the power of Pumping Iron (which would later be eclipsed by Conan the Barbarian as Arnold’s true breakout role).
Even though Pumping Iron depicts the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition where Arnold competed for his sixth straight title, it’s not quite the raw, honest documentary it appears to be on the surface. Some of the scenes were specifically filmed to “fill narrative holes,” such as the Ken Waller football scene where he plots to steal the shirt of Mike Katz. In fact, the competition footage had already been shot and the directors came up with this scene to enhance the drama and the rivalry between two bodybuilders who were actually good friends. This makes me wonder if the touching scene in the locker room showing Katz’s crushing despair, and his subsequent, reserved happiness after hearing that Waller had won, is a fabrication also. Katz seemed incredibly genuine in that moment, though, asking the cameraman (or himself) the contemplative question of how it must feel to win. Even if this is a fake (which I don’t think it is), Katz’s intense passion to win the competition is palpable and honest.
There’s also the amplification of the characters of Lou Ferrigno and Arnold. One of my favorite scenes in the film features Ferrigno and Arnold working out in their respective gyms. Ferrigno is the hungry newcomer, working out in a dingy, wood-paneled room you can barely call a gym, while Arnold is laughing and carefree in the bright and spacious Gold’s Gym of California. This too is something of a lie, as these aspects of the gyms were specifically emphasized for dramatic effect to make the audience quickly buy the rivalry that could occur between two hulking competitors.
Despite these instances of pumping up the film to make it more dramatic (similar to the competitors pumping up before a competition), Pumping Iron is an incredible document of the sport of bodybuilding and of its biggest star at the time, Arnold Schwarzenegger. No one could have known the roads he would eventually take through Hollywood (and eventually into the governor’s chair in California!), so the film has achieved new life as a look back at one of my generation’s favorite stars. It’s hard not to smile whenever Arnold is on-screen, hamming it up for prisoners or posing for a magazine photo shoot with multiple bikini-clad women hanging off of him. I’m simply in too deep, so even when Arnold tells fucked up stories of how he purposefully tricked and manipulated other bodybuilders, or how he refused to attend his father’s funeral because he was training, I just can’t stop liking the guy.
Pumping Iron is also interesting as a look back at the way documentaries were done in the ’70s. Compared to the docs of today, Pumping Iron looks more like some sterile film made for the industrial steel workers union, filmed on handheld 16mm cameras and without much in the way of artistic, visual flourishes. Nowadays documentaries are much bigger business and are therefore a lot slicker. This slickness often leads me to question the validity of a lot of modern documentaries, so it’s especially interesting to me that the rawness of Pumping Iron makes it feel more true, even though I’m aware (and was while watching) that it’s actually a docufiction film.
If you’re a big Arnold fan and you’ve never witnessed the sheer power of Pumping Iron, then get your girly man physique into shape with Arnold and the boys! In addition to everything I’ve talked about, there are tons and tons and tons of footage of actual iron pumping, incredible pose routines that will expose you to more human cardiovascular anatomy than you imagined existed, and even more working out. I’m getting pumped up just thinking about it!
Plus you get to watch (or listen to) Arnold psyching out Ferrigno at the breakfast table.
It’s a priceless moment, and any Arnold fan should definitely check out Pumping Iron.