"I was always dreaming about very powerful people. Dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years. Even like Jesus, being for thousands of years remembered."—Arnold Schwarzenegger, six-time Mr. Olympia and future governor of California
Let's get one thing straight: Pumping Iron is not a pure documentary. Although it chronicles a real-life event, and shadows the footsteps of actual competitors in said event, the filmmakers staged a considerable number of the on-camera situations to play up the rivalries and personalities. Director George Butler refers to the film as a "docudrama," which is probably as apt a description as any other.
Whatever we call it, Pumping Iron was the first glimpse many people outside the insular world of professional bodybuilding would catch of the human phenomenon named Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although Schwarzenegger had appeared in small roles in a couple of low-budget films before Pumping Iron premiered, it was his charismatic, larger-than-life presence in this movie that catapulted the muscleman from Austria to international superstardom.
Who would have predicted that, as Pumping Iron celebrates its silver anniversary, its hulking main attraction would be seated in Sacramento as the newly elected governor of the nation's most populous state? Only one man. And his last name contains 14 letters.
Facts of the Case
It's 1975, and the world's top bodybuilders are gearing up for the Super Bowl of their sport—the Mr. Olympia competition, to be held this year in Pretoria, South Africa. There's a buzz of added excitement in the air, as Number One-seeded Arnold Schwarzenegger (Collateral Damage), winner of the past five Mr. Olympia titles, has announced he's retiring from bodybuilding after the contest to pursue a career in motion pictures.
Schwarzenegger seems supremely confident, but he is not without rivals. The two who appear to pose the most serious threats are Lou Ferrigno (later TV's Incredible Hulk), a soft-spoken policeman's son from New York City, and Franco Columbu, a powerfully muscular Italian chiropractor who is Schwarzenegger's close friend and training partner. Both Ferrigno and Columbu have strengths in their favor: Ferrigno is a giant of a man who is several inches taller and about 40 pounds heavier than Schwarzenegger; Columbu, though relatively short in stature, boasts an impressive physique without any glaring weakness.
But neither Columbu nor Ferrigno possesses the grinning Austrian's X-factor—his boundless natural charm. When Arnold walks into the gym, every head turns. When he grunts and snarls through his grueling workout, every eye is transfixed. When he gives advice to an aspiring bodybuilder, every ear eavesdrops. When he tells a joke, everyone laughs. And even though bodybuilding seems to the casual observer to be all about the bulge of one's calf muscles and the spread of one's latissimus dorsi, it really is about the psychological by-play between the competitors, the difference between thinking one could be the best and owning absolute knowledge that one cannot be defeated. Everyone pumps iron. But no one pumps himself like Arnold.
In a way, it's unfortunate that years of interviews, the bounty of retrospective material on this DVD, and the fact-finding rigors of a major political campaign have revealed that so much of the Arnold Schwarzenegger we see in Pumping Iron is prefabricated. It's a little like having the curtain ripped away from the Wizard and discovering that he's only somewhat as magical as we at first believed. Unfortunate, because the Arnold of Pumping Iron is a force of nature, a powerfully compelling figure—Horatio Alger with 23-inch biceps. Knowing that the outrageous speeches are a bit canned (like the one in which the A-Man waxes philosophical about the similarities between the endorphin rush of extreme training and the bliss of sexual climax) and the flamboyant behavior (like stealing another competitor's favorite T-shirt) is exaggerated for mock effect dulls the sheen somewhat.
On the other hand, the realization that Schwarzenegger is acting here a fair amount of the time foreshadows his subsequent success as a major film star and, now, politician. Because he sells the sizzle, baby, like no one's business. Arnold '75 can look goofy and sound irritatingly ego-driven and monomaniacal (as in the interview where he claims to have blown off his father's funeral to remain focused on an upcoming competition—a ruse, we now understand), but when he's on camera, he's money—you can't tear your eyes away. As raw as the theatrical chops may have been at this infant stage, the underlying talent is unquestionably in place.
Around this tower of muscle and magnetism, filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore fashioned a riveting, highly entertaining pseudo-documentary that opens a door on a world alien to most mere mortals. What possesses these men to torture their bodies ("I've thrown up many times while working out," Arnold allows) for the sake of an ostensibly silly concept—packing bizarre amounts of swollen, vein-popping sinew onto their bodies so they can stand nearly naked in front of screaming audiences and be gawked at like poultry hanging in the butcher's window? The answer, we learn, is a Freudian goulash of narcissism, self-validation, and machismo gone haywire. Schwarzenegger in particular is fueled by the drive to escape the surly bonds of his homeland for the bright lights and glamour he envisioned as the American dream. For some, Arnold included, the concoction works. For others, like sad-sack Mike Katz whose shirt Arnold "kidnaps" and who finishes well back in the pack on pose-down day, the whole business seems…well…pitiful.
Still, the interaction between Schwarzenegger and his competitors is the most compelling reason to check out Pumping Iron (that is, unless you really dig looking at grotesquely muscled behemoths flexing and perspiring). The way Arnold subtly teases and torments the gentle and shy Lou Ferrigno tells you everything you need to know about the future superstar from Austria. In fact, it would be almost agonizing to watch Ferrigno, who also has to contend with the well-intentioned but overbearing ministrations of his manager/father, if one didn't know that a few years later he himself would become a household name thanks to the Hulk TV series. We want Lou to win, but know deep down that despite his Brobdingnagian physique and earnest desire, he's 100% outclassed by Schwarzenegger.
Given its semi-documentary origins, Pumping Iron doesn't boast much in the way of dynamic camera work (DP Robert Fiore often struggles to keep his subjects in focus), but it deftly captures both its target theme and its era. The mid-'70s flavor of the picture adds considerably to the kitsch factor that's essential to its enduring charm. If it were made today, the film would take itself much too seriously, be bloated with unnecessary technical flash and annoying musical bombast, and have infinitely less fun with itself. As an artifact of its time and of its bizarre fetishistic sport, Pumping Iron excels.
For Pumping Iron's Silver Anniversary, HBO Films delivers the film as the centerpiece in a rock-solid DVD package. The film looks amazing for its age and ragtag source material—the image is as clean and inviting as it's possible for a quarter-century-old documentary-style picture to be displayed. Considerable work has been accomplished to eliminate much of the print damage familiar to anyone who's seen the film on TV in the past two decades, and color and clarity have been boosted to the limit of what the original allows. The new Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack doesn't seem much an improvement over the plain vanilla mix that's also included, but dialogue is distinct and well-balanced, and the harsh sonic edges typical of guerrilla filmmaking have been smoothed somewhat.
Fans of Pumping Iron won't be disappointed by a new featurette entitled Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron. This comprehensive 42-minute extravaganza combines a wealth of previously unseen outtakes with up-to-date interviews with several of the principals. An opening title informs us that thousands of feet of excess film lay moldering in a warehouse until the stalwart historians at Cinemax culled out these goodies for our viewing enjoyment. In addition to the Austrian Oak himself, old bodybuilding pals Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Joe Weider, Bill Grant, Mike Katz, and Reg Park drop in to swap recollections, as does director George Butler. It's everything you ever wanted to know about the world of Pumping Iron, wrapped in a slick, fast-paced package.
A second featurette, Iron and Beyond (14:00), offers an update on Schwarzenegger's film career, with interview clips from directors with whom Arnold has collaborated, including James Cameron (the first two Terminator films, True Lies) and John McTiernan (Predator). Several of Schwarzenegger's action star rivals—Sylvester Stallone, Carl Weathers, Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson—offer their perspectives on Arnold's impact on the film industry and popular culture in general. This lively, entertaining piece definitely sells the super-sized sizzle that is Schwarzenegger.
The 14-minute interview segment with Schwarzenegger titled Iron Insights might have been more accurately called Arnie Does Backfill. Schwarzenegger spends most of his face time promoting the notion that most of the unsavory aspects of the picture were, in fact, staged. Given the present state of the Big A's political fortunes, cynics might be inclined to view this little chatfest as Schwarzenegger the politico trying to explain away—if not bury altogether—the images of himself that might hinder his future electability. The viewer can judge for himself or herself just what ratio of confessional truth versus revisionist history is to be found here.
An odd "video biography" of Schwarzenegger features a sonorous announcer reading a biographical script (which scrolls across the screen like a TelePrompTer while the narrator intones with grave seriousness) recapping the highlights of the A-Man's athletic, cinematic, and public service exploits. Stills from the Schwarzenegger photo album accompany the traveling text. Although it's a mildly interesting overview of Schwarzenegger's career, the presentation is ridiculously ponderous and overlong at ten minutes, and worse, it can't be fast-forwarded or scanned through. If you get bored, you either have to opt out of the feature completely (at least you're offered that option) or duck out to the kitchen for a sandwich until Mr. Voice-of-God finishes yakking.
Also included are two HBO promotional spots hyping Pumping Iron's 25th anniversary run on the pay cable Goliath's kid brother, Cinemax. The first spot, which runs a hair beyond two minutes, features a seated Schwarzenegger reminiscing about the making of the film. Spot #2 is a 90-second glimpse at the gala party the Cinemax folks threw to celebrate the documentary's re-release. Many large individuals pose and flex.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura co-starred in three films: The Running Man, Predator, and Batman and Robin. It may be just coincidence, but if you ever hear that Danny DeVito's running for governor, I wouldn't bet against him.
For those who love bodybuilding—and you know who you are—Pumping Iron shovels in all the sweaty, testosterone-laden, tanning-oil-soaked goodness you could possibly want, and then some. For everyone else, it's still plenty of fascinating fun in a carnival-geek sort of way. It's a rare glimpse at Arnold playing Arnold (or at least a Munchausenesque version of himself) before he was the world's biggest action star, and long before he was running the world's sixth-largest economy. Recommended.
The governor's office summarily pardons this film for any and all offenses. Anyone who's not a girly-man can join the Judge down at the gym for a round of bench presses and forearm curls. Court is in recess.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Other Reviews You Might Enjoy
Scales of Justice
• Featurette: Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron
Review content copyright © 2003 Michael Rankins; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.