REVIEW OF PUMPING IRON (The Film)

Irene L. Hause
Muscle Digest
Volume 1, Number 7
May 1977

Pumping Iron is a beautifully photographed motion picture about bodybuilders for bodybuilders and anyone else interested in good movies. Based on the book of the same name by Charles Gaines and George Butler, the movie was 18 months in the making. An estimated 88 hours of footage was edited down to 85 minutes plus some additional film borrowed from Wide World of Sports.

What emerges is a professional, illuminating, and remarkably unaffected look at the little known and even less understood growing subculture of competitive bodybuilding. The personal dedication and willpower needed to become a winner are depicted by the pain and rigor of training, the glory of victory, and the despair of losing. Along with the camaraderie and the rivalry, Pumping Iron portrays men totally dedicated to the sport in which they deeply believe.

Sponsored by the Filmex Society, the special showing on March 19 [1977] in Century City, California, was followed by a period where Jerome Gary, the co-producer, answered questions from the audience. Lou Ferrigno, with a neon-bright striped shirt stretched across his massive frame, stood in the aisle signing autographs.

Top men competing in top contests form the focal point of the story. The men are Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Franco Columbu, Mike Katz, Ed Corney, Frank Zane, Serge Nubret, and Ken Waller; the contests are the 1975 Universe and Olympia. The movie comfortably and effortlessly projects these men as the individuals they are, not the stereotypes the world would believe them to be. But the three that really stand out are Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Katz.

Arnold is the good natured, proud, charismatic leader. He plainly recognizes that he is Number One, without conceit or braggadocio. It’s simply fact with him.

The innocent giant of bodybuilding, Lou Ferrigno, is relentlessly driven toward the Olympia by his ex-policeman father, a stage father without parallel. One wonders what Big Louie would have done left on his own. Perhaps win.

As a youth, Mike Katz was a replica of the 98-pound weakling. Once shy and afraid of girls, he is shown as a warm and confident man flexing biceps with his two toddlers. In a revealing scene, he acknowledges, without self-pity, his early feelings of aloneness and how bodybuilding was his key to a sense of personal worth and public recognition.

Co-directed by George Butler and cinematographer Robert Fiore, the scenes were planned, but the actual dialogue was improvised. Two scenes stand out because of their unexpected emotional impact. The long quiet shot of the back of Mike Katz’s bowed head after he lost the Mr. Universe wordlessly said all that needed to be said. Arnold’s candid disclosure of his emotionless reaction to his father’s death was jolting. He readily admitted psychologically suppressing any feelings, positive or negative, that might interfere with training in the final weeks before a contest.

The audience found it difficult to accept such a callous attitude from the Arnold they’d grown to know from previous scenes. Later, during the producer’s dialogue with the audience, he said that Arnold had been playing a composite of bodybuilders’ attitudes. Arnold really had been touched very deeply by his father’s passing, and the actual sequence of events regarding his death was somewhat different from that described.

The photography is excellent. It is remarkably free of gimmicks and cliché shots that detract from the story at hand. At the contests, the eager excitement of the audience and the anxious nervousness of the contestants are neatly juxtaposed. The training scenes, filmed at the old Gold’s Gym in Venice, California, are totally realistic. Several bodybuilders left the theater with aching arms; mentally, they’d been right up there on the screen with the men who were straining and sweating during their workouts.

Unfortunately, the well-earned credits are easily ignored. They appear on the left of the screen while a miniature movie of posing routines is being shown on the right side. Sometimes serious and sometimes like a silent movie comedy, the mini-movie is so entertaining that the credits are simply overlooked.

The producer criticized his own movie because it fails to show the complexity of bodybuilding. True, its integration with business, family and social life, the strict diets, and the steroids are either entirely passed over or only briefly mentioned. But faulting the film on that count is like faulting a superior close-up photograph of a leaf because it fails to show the whole tree. What is portrayed in Pumping Iron—the individuality of the men, the arduous training, the tension of a contest, the thrill of winning, and the desolation of losing—greatly broaden the viewer’s comprehension of the sport and the men involved in it.

Does Arnold have a future in movies? “Definitely!” said the producer. He added that Denny Gable, Bill Grant, and Robby Robinson are potential actors too. Butler hopes to create a fad for bodybuilding movies, and Gary said he personally feels that watching movies about bodybuilding could easily become more popular than watching the real thing. He cited the slow pace of live contests as the reason. He also said that bodybuilders live in a hermetically sealed world and that they won’t get the audiences until they reach out.

There’s a message there.

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