Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Pumping Iron

(1977) Directed by George Butler & Robert Fiore; Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Matty Ferrigno, Mike Katz and Franco Columbu; Available on: Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ****

Note: This review originally appeared in 2011, but was subsequently removed for inexplicable reasons. The following is a slightly “refurbished” version.

“Obviously a lot of people look at you and they think it’s kind of strange what you’re doing… but those are the people who don’t know much about it… As soon as you find out about what the whole thing is about, then it’s just another thing. I mean, it’s not any stranger as(sic) going into a car and trying to go in a quarter mile, five seconds. I mean, that’s for me strange.” – Arnold Schwarzenegger

Pumping Iron presents a glimpse into the über-competitive world of championship bodybuilding. I have to admit that I’m not exactly an aficionado of the sport or even a weightlifting enthusiast, but Pumping Iron manages to make the subject of bodybuilding appear captivating. A well-made documentary could probably make crocheting seem interesting, and this film is certainly no exception, as it focuses on the complexities and personalities surrounding the competitive sport. We witness the preparation, mind games, triumphs and defeats leading up to the 1975 Mr. Universe competition in South Africa.

The star attraction, of course, is a 28-year-old Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime. He’s been competing since the age of 15, and it shows, with a “been there, done that” sort of world-weariness. Schwarzenegger is cocky, smart, savvy and charismatic. There’s no room for false humility. He doesn’t believe he’s the best, he knows it. He’s also clearly aware of his public face, and cognizant of how to pander to an audience. His magnetic presence in Pumping Iron leaves no doubt that he would go on to much bigger and better things.

It’s not just Schwarzenegger’s show, however. Pumping Iron spends a fair amount of time covering several key competitors, including the Brooklyn-born, Italian-American Lou Ferrigno, who would eventually star in The Incredible Hulk TV series. We observe his family life and his working class roots as he trains to compete for the Mr. Universe title, and attempts to oust Schwarzenegger from his top spot. We also see some of the also-rans, such as Mike Katz, a schoolteacher and amateur bodybuilder, as he prepares to go head to head with the best. His story is the most touching, as we view his life at home with his young children, and he discusses his dreams. He started out as a downtrodden boy who decided that he wanted to be bigger and stronger than everyone else, and we get a sense that he’s been flirting with success for years. We feel his anguish as he approaches, but doesn’t quite measure up to the levels of the better contenders. In a sport that encourages flagrant displays with egos to match, Katz comes across as humble and soft spoken, a direct contrast to many of his trash-talking rivals.

Butler and Fiore film the bodybuilders with a fetishistic lens, sparing the viewer no ripple or curve of sculpted flesh. The bodybuilders’ massive proportions are the result of countless hours of training in gyms, with an obsessive devotion to achieving the ideal form they have envisioned for themselves. Their bodies are continual works in progress, and it becomes evident that this relentless pursuit of bodily perfection can never truly be attained. There are numerous scenes of Schwarzenegger and his opponents working out.  Amidst the pain of constant weightlifting and pushing their bodies to the limit, there is an immense feeling of self-satisfaction. Schwarzenegger talks about “the pump,” and the pseudo-orgasmic sensation that he feels from attaining his exercise high. It is this paradoxical relationship between pain and pleasure that keeps Schwarzenegger and his peers going.

Pumping Iron has a singular interest in the sport of bodybuilding, which is its principal strength and weakness. When I learned the Mr. Universe competition was held in South Africa, I expected this would be a ripe opportunity for some social commentary.  Although it wasn’t expressly stated, this was still the time of apartheid, and racial separatism was the norm. The focus, however, is clearly on the contest, with no room for commentary on the socio-political climate of the day.  One of the primary contestants, Serge Nubret, was black, and I couldn’t help but wonder what his thoughts were about what was going on outside the doors of the auditorium where the Mr. Universe competition was being held. We see him perform on stage, but unfortunately never hear from him.  It’s possible the filmmakers decided this sort of commentary was beyond the scope of the documentary, but a brief pause for reflection would have been nice.

The final showdown between Schwarzenegger and his contender, Ferrigno, serves as a fitting climax for Pumping Iron. We are invested in their rivalry, even if the outcome is fairly predictable. For nearly 90 minutes, we’ve been granted a peek into an alien world that most of us will never fully understand or appreciate, but it’s a journey worth taking.


  1. Interesting review, Barry. I had assumed that Pumping Iron was a film I would find utterly boring, but there is a lot more to this documentary than I thought.

    1. Thanks, John. It's a fascinating look at the drama and mind games that go on behind the scenes. I'm not a fan of bodybuilding, but this film proves that a good documentary can make anything look interesting.