Movie Reviews 233 – Pumping Iron (1977)

Pumping IronNot my usual type of movie review, but then again Pumping Iron is not your usual movie, even for a subject specific documentary.

The setting; the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest. The pinnacle of bodybuilding excellency. An event created to determine the one true best bodybuilder in the world. The contenders; reigning five time champion Arnold Schwarzenegger facing younger, taller unseasoned Lou Ferrigno. The former is brash, ambitious and already primed for to advance his career beyond the podium. The latter is quiet, coached by a domineering father, and grew up with a slight hearing defect that also gives him a faint speech impediment. The clash pitting these two diametrically opposed titans at that particular instant in history is simply fascinating.

At the time, both men were obscure other than to those active in the sport while the sport of bodybuilding itself was but a small cadre of practitioners and fans. The Mr. Universe and Mr Olympia contests themselves were created to elicit recognition and a showcase for the then relatively unknown sport. That all changed with the release of Pumping Iron.

The success of this movie was what made Arnold a household name, and a harbinger of his Hollywood and politician careers that would follow. Filming training, travelling and interviews, we are immediately exposed to Arnold’s assertive and cocksure nature and even his ambitions to move on. His overpowering and condescending interactions with his opponents, Ferrigno in particular, emphasize his upper hand, if not with his physique, definitely with his psychological mind games. Lou on the other hand is young, inexperienced and has to deal with his vocal sometimes overbearing father. The outcome was practically preordained. Arnold won his sixth Mr. Universe, Lou coming in third after a surprise showing by a French competitor.

Pumping Iron-Arnold inset

What makes this movie so compelling is the foreknowledge of what later became of these two brawny men. While Schwarzenegger’s Hollywood elite status soon followed the documentary,  Ferrigno later became television’s conveniently silent Hulk. But even Lou has since become a fan favorite and ironically is now just as famous for just being himself in both television comedy roles and as a speaker at conventions. Arnie of course followed up with a stint as Governor of California, and remains as slick as the body oils he used during his competition days. The rest as they say, is history.

Regardless if you have any interest in the sport or not, Pumping Iron is a definite must see documentary for both fans and critics of the Governator, and Ferrigno. But it also harkens back to a time when the world had yet to discover Venice beach and Gold’s Gym workouts.

If you have the 25th Anniversary DVD edition I also highly recommend watching the extra features which includes Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron which gives not only some behind the scenes footage, but greater context as to how the movie got off the ground, reflections from the stars, how Arnold did not even plan to enter the contest that year, and many other surprises. Again all captivating viewing.


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