Made before the wholesale entry into mainstream culture of steroids, breast (and pec) implants, liposuction, and other procedures that have made cosmetic surgery the business it is today, PUMPING IRON was released in an era when excessive attention to one's own body still seemed somewhat
shameful. Changing times have taken away much of the oddity of the sight of men who devote their lives to increasing their muscle bulk. It remains notable primarily as a record of pre-Hollywood Arnold Schwarzenegger.
The bulk of the documentary follows Schwarzenegger as he prepares for the 1975 Mr. Olympia competition. At 28, he has not been beaten in competition in seven years, and has held the Mr. Olympia title for an unprecedented five years. His plan is to win the title once more and then retire from
professional body building undefeated. Schwarzenegger's competition includes 24-year-old former sheet metal worker Lou Ferrigno, who later went on to fame as TV's "The Incredible Hulk." At 6'5", he is unusually large for a bodybuilder. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, where his father Matty
has retired from the police force to supervise his training. Schwarzenegger has long been an idol for Ferrigno, who seems as shy as his competitor is self-confident. (Schwarzenegger speaks about using that to his advantage; he has a history of psyching out his opponents.)
This rivalry is somewhat mirrored in the competition for the title of Mr. Universe, the nonprofessional equivalent of Mr. Olympia. The filmmakers concentrate on title aspirant Mike Katz, a former pro football player who got into body building as a defense against childhood insecurities (which he
seems not to have entirely conquered). The favorite for the title is Ken Waller, who also tells the camera that he plans to play mind games with his competition. Waller regains the title; Katz comes in fourth. In the professional division, Ferrigno comes in third as Schwarzenegger takes the title,
to the surprise of no one (least of all him). Following the ceremony, he announces his retirement.
If you're not already a fan of body building, or simply of looking at heavily muscled men in skimpy bathing suits with no body hair and oiled skin, PUMPING IRON will do nothing to make you one. Directors George Butler and Robert Fiore never allow their film to turn into a freak show, but neither
do they illuminate the appeal of body building, either to those who participate or those who watch. What insights it offers into the men it follows could probably be applied to any competitive athlete. Schwarzenegger's freakish charisma is all that lends the film any focus. Despite the handicap of
one of the worst haircuts ever seen outside a Communist bloc nation, he exudes a supreme confidence that verges on unpleasant. In interviews, he visualizes himself as a piece of sculpture (as most reviewers continue to do) and compares the feeling he gets from exercise to orgasm: "I'm coming day
and night," he exclaims (an image viewers may not wish to let into their heads). Co-director Butler went on to make PUMPING IRON II: THE WOMEN (1985). (Profanity.)
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- Released: 1977
- Rating: PG
- Review: Made before the wholesale entry into mainstream culture of steroids, breast (and pec) implants, liposuction, and other procedures that have made cosmetic surgery the business it is today, PUMPING IRON was released in an era when excessive attention to one'… (more)