Pumping Iron (1977, George Butler and Robert Fiore)

For this film-by-film look at the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger, I’ve been watching his movies in a random order and jotting down a few thoughts. The Schwarzenegger Says quotations are taken from Total Recall (2012), Arnie’s brilliantly bonkers autobiography.


Watched: 28 November 2019
Format: A DVD bought online, second-hand.
Seen before? No. 

Review: The opening moments of this 1977 documentary – which explores the world of competitive bodybuilding – see Arnold Schwarzenegger and fellow bodybuilder Franco Columbu being taught dramatic posture by a ballerina. It quickly becomes clear that the sport is as much about show as substance. The Mr Olympia competition that all the bodybuilders are working towards is not about strength; it’s about style.

Directors George Butler and Robert Fiore initially planned to have their cameras follow the actor Bud Cort as he took up bodybuilding as a novice. But after a rethink that idea was dropped and focus switched to the charismatic Schwarzenegger, then 28 years old and the king of the sport after five consecutive Mr Olympia titles.

We meet Arnie as he hangs out and trains at Gold’s Gym in Venice, Los Angeles – and he’s clearly the leader of the pack. He’s popular with his colleagues, can charm a gang of inmates when he visits a local prison, and relishes a saucy photoshoot with a trio of bikini babes. He also pontificates passionately about the benefits of bodybuilding, likening the rush that comes from a workout to sex: ‘It’s as satisfying to me as coming, as having sex with a woman and coming,’ he says, beaming. ‘I’m coming day and night.’

But Pumping Iron is not just the Arnold Schwarzenegger show. Occasionally the documentary eye moves to other competitors, such as amateur rivals Mike Katz and Ken Waller, who are involved in a surprisingly moving sequence when the former loses out to the latter in competition. Katz says he’s happy for his colleague, but you can plainly see the pain behind his eyes. Katz also misplaces a lucky T-shirt, compounding his bad day. It was stolen by Waller as a prank, and we even see Waller impishly planning the joke beforehand with some pals. However, this is where the line between fact and fiction becomes a little fuzzy. Katz and Waller were actually friends and the scene of Waller mooting the theft was staged later in order to massage the drama. In fact, given that people in Pumping Iron rarely acknowledge the presence of the camera – aside from one moment during competition when Arnie winks at a female camera operator – this documentary often feels like a scripted drama.

This sense of a directorial hand guiding events is stronger still once Lou Ferrigno enters the story. Acclaimed as the ‘largest bodybuilder ever’, Ferrigno was then a gentle 24-year-old with hearing problems who was coached by his clearly devoted but perhaps too-eager father, Matt. Compared with the brash, arrogant and charming Arnie, Lou comes off as childlike and full of doubt – despite being 6’5” and 275lb. However, the pair are destined to meet at the 1975 Mr Olympia tournament in Pretoria.

The contrast between these two ‘characters’ must have been a documentary-maker’s dream, and Pumping Iron uses various tools to amp up the differences. Schwarzenegger is filmed in airy, sunny spaces; he’s smiling, laughing, hanging out with acolytes; he’s been there, done that, and got the too-tight T-shirt. When we see Ferrigno, however, he’s serious, frowning, worried; his gym is a windowless room. Whereas Arnie talks about sexual contests, Lou has dinner with his working-class parents. It’s clear Ferrigno is desperate for something to happen, to be able to burst out of his confined world. Pumping Iron was eventually released in 1977, the same year as Saturday Night Fever, and there are eerie similarities between Ferrigno and John Travolta’s character in that movie, Tony Manero. We even see Lou delicately drying his bouffant hair – all that’s missing is a Bee Gees soundtrack.

After the kind of training-regime montage that would later become a backbone of the Rocky movies, the two men cross paths in South Africa. In these sequences, a Schwarzenegger victory is never really in doubt. He openly announces his ability to unstable opponents just by talking to them, then brazenly puts down Ferrigno at every opportunity – even slighting him while having breakfast with his parents. But despite his arrogance and cockiness and undoubted bad behaviour, it’s incredibly easy to see why this film sky-rocketted Arnie into a Hollywood career. He’s a gigantic personality.

Schwarzenegger Says: ‘My job, of course, was to play myself. I felt that the way to stand out was not just to talk about bodybuilding, because that would be one-dimensional, but to project a personality. My model was Muhammad Ali. What separated him from other heavyweights wasn’t only his boxing genius – the rope-a-dope, the float like a butterfly, sting like a bee – but that he went his own way, becoming a Muslim, changing his name, sacrificing his championship title by refusing military service. Ali was always willing to say and do memorable and outrageous things. But outrageousness means nothing unless you have the substance to back it up – you can’t get away with it if you’re a loser.’

Nine people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered out of 10

Next: Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

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