Pumping Iron and the birth of the 80s action hero

Feature Ryan Lambie 19 Mar 2014 - 06:21

The 1977 docu-drama Pumping Iron launched Schwarzenegger's career, and led to an era of fitness obsession and action heroes, Ryan writes...

In February 1976, the Whitney Museum in New York played host to a highly unusual exhibit: Arnold Schwarzenegger, clad in little more than a tiny pair of brown briefs, posing like a Greek statue on a rotating platform. Around him, some of the Manhattan art scene's most famous critics sat and pontificated.

Called Articulate Muscle: The Male Body In Art, the exhibition included two fellow Mr Universe bodybuilders, Frank Zane and Ed Corney, plus a panel of artists and historians, who discussed the notion of "the body itself as an art medium". The event was inspired and organised by Charles Gaines, a former weight lifter and author of the book Pumping Iron, a candid and in-depth account of bodybuilding with photographs by George Butler.

Originally expected to attract around 300 visitors, the Whitney Museum's workers were stunned when around 5,000 flooded through the doors, all waving five dollar bills. What most of those people packing into the museum probably didn't know was that Articulate Muscle had been set up for a specific purpose: to raise money for a feature-length Pumping Iron movie. 

Together with co-director Robert Fiore, George Butler had begun filming Pumping Iron several months earlier in 1975, but just as the production had reached the point where the 100-or-so hours of film had to be edited down to a feature length, it ran out of money. With credit cards at their limit and no other lines of lending available, Butler and Gaines put on Articulate Muscle, and by the end of a hectic day's business on the 25th February 1976, the pair had acquired the cash they needed to finish their film.

The success of Articulate Muscle - despite some mixed reviews from outlets like Sports Illustrated, which described it as "unforgivably dull" - was a sign of the increasing interest in the previously obscure world of bodybuilding. Back when Butler and Gaines first collaborated on the Pumping Iron book, they struggled to find a publisher who'd even agree to print it.

"What you've got to understand is that back in the early 70s, bodybuilding was the least glamorous sport in the world," Butler later told the bodybuilding website, Iron Age. "The prevailing view was that [...] bodybuilders were totally uncoordinated, and that when they grew older their muscles would turn to fat and that they had no intelligence whatsoever. Charles Gaines said that it was like trying to promote midget wrestling. It was so tawdry... everyone we knew was laughing at us."

Pumping Iron

Yet Pumping Iron was a New York Times best seller in 1974, and a young athlete named Arnold Schwarzenegger was one of its most charismatic subjects. Schwarzenegger had become the youngest bodybuilder ever to win the Mr Universe competition (he was just 20 years old), and having moved from his native Austria to California in 1968, had rapidly become one of the most popular figures in the sport.

When Butler and Fiore began thinking about turning Pumping Iron into a feature-length documentary, there were two problems: one, financial backing wasn't easy to come by, and two, Arnold Schwarzenegger wanted to retire from bodybuilding. He had dreams of becoming an actor.

Keen to show off what a Pumping Iron feature could look like, Butler and Fiore shot a piece of test footage to show to would-be investors. It featured Arnold - confident, mountainous, magnetic - training for a bodybuilding competition, and the investors were greatly impressed by the Austrian Oak and his hulking physique. But Arnold had already won the Mr Olympia competition five times in a row between 1971 and 1974. Where was the drama? Where was the intrigue?

Butler and Fiore had a plan. Rather than adhere to the conventions of a fly-on-the-wall documentary, they'd depict a tense rivalry between two sets of bodybuilders: Mike Katz and Ken Waller, who were vying for the amateur title of Mr Universe in 1975, and Boston heavyweight Lou Ferrigno's attempt to steal the Mr Olympia crown from Arnold Schwarzenegger. (An additional plot strand, which saw the Harold And Maude actor Bud Cort turned into a muscular superman by Schwarzenegger was partly filmed but dropped during production.)

"There are certain things in the movie that are true," Schwarzenegger later admitted in the making-of documentary, Raw Iron, "the competition, the food, the training, all of that is true. But there are certain things that aren't true. That's why we didn't call it a documentary, we called it a docu-drama. The only way we could raise the money for the movie was to make it more dramatic."

Pumping Iron depicted a highly competitive world of mind games and cold-hearted tactics. Lou Ferrigno was initially intended to be the villain of the piece - a six foot eight, dark pretender who posed a serious threat to the smaller, older Schwarzenegger and his chances of winning Mr Olympia for a sixth time. This depiction would change during production, as it became clear that Ferrigno was very much the underdog; partially deaf and lifting weights in a dingy gym New York while Schwarzenegger exercised in the sun just off Venice Beach, California, Ferrigno emerges in the finished film as a quiet, gentle giant.

Pumping Iron therefore gave Schwarzenegger a chance to flex his acting skills as well as his muscles. With the cameras rolling, he built up the persona of a calculating, ruthless competitor determined to win at any cost ("I sell the idea that I'm a machine that has no emotions, who doesn't care about anything but winning," Schwarzenegger later said).

In one scene, we see Schwarzenegger sit down with Ferrigno and his family shortly before the Mr Olympia competition, and arrogantly tell them that he's about to win for a sixth time. In another, he  states that he didn't bother to attend his father's funeral because it clashed with a bodybuilding contest.

These and many, many other scenes were either exaggerated or fabricated entirely for  Butler's roving camera. The results of the competitions, however, were genuine. Gentle, unassuming family man Mike Katz lost out to the grandiose, mischievous Ken Waller (whose antipathy towards Katz was, again, manufactured for the camera). Ferrigno came third in the Mr Olympia competition, while Schwarzenegger won for a sixth and final time. In this particular underdog story, the good guys fought and lost.

America shapes up

Pumping Iron's heightened view of competitive bodybuilding was a hit with audiences when it appeared in January 1977. Bodybuilding, once thought of as a fringe pastime, took a leap into the mainstream, and Arnold Schwarzenegger became its grinning, chiselled ambassador.

"What we did," Butler later said, "is we went for an audience outside of the sport and we defined bodybuilding to a world who knew nothing about bodybuilding."

Pumping Iron arrived as a fitness craze began to take hold in America. A year earlier in 1976, Rocky had made Sylvester Stallone a star, establishing his character as a humble, blue-collar southpaw who, through grit and determination, honed himself into a boxer with a shot at championship glory. Just as Rocky was a rags-to-riches tale, Pumping Iron had its own, similar spin on the American Dream: here was Arnold Schwarzenegger, a migrant from Europe, who through sheer force of will had transformed himself into an Adonis.

Maybe this is why, in the wake of Pumping Iron's success, gyms began springing up all over the United States. Just as the American Dream taught that wealth and opportunity were there for the hardworking, so toned, physical perfection became a desired, attainable goal for 70s and 80s America. The economic uncertainty and trauma of the early 70s and the post Vietnam war era would be washed away on a tide of adrenaline.

"Body building and physicality became a hip thing," Stallone once said of the period. "It's okay to be proud of your body."

The new fitness craze was reflected in the design of the gyms themselves. Air-conditioned, filled with row upon row of gleaming, cutting-edge fitness equipment, they were a world away from the old image the typical gym: sweaty, grim dungeons of grunting and testosterone. By the 1980s, newspapers and magazines were beginning to note just how popular gyms were becoming; in 1981, the New York Times reported that "Health clubs are becoming the singles' bars of the 80s."

The cover of the November 1981 issue of Time magazine read, "The fitness craze: America shapes up". A Rolling Stone article about gyms, written by Aaron Latham, would later become the 1985 film Perfect, starring John Travolta and Jamie Lee Curtis in tight spandex. In fact, everyone seemed to be wearing spandex - the top-selling video of the 1980s was Jane Fonda's Workout. A leotard-clad Olivia Newton-John scored a hit in 1981 with the saucy pop song, Physical.

The dawn of the 80s action hero

As fitness began to permeate popular culture, Arnold Schwarzenegger's acting career kicked off in earnest. He'd had brushes with the movie world before, namely in 1969's Hercules In New York, where Schwarzenegger, badly dubbed and credited as Arnold Strong, wrestled a man in a baggy bear costume in Central Park. He'd also made a brief appearance in Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye (1973), and even earned a Golden Globe for his performance in the 1976 comedy drama Stay Hungry, written by Pumping Iron's Charles Gaines.

Yet Schwarzenegger's huge frame and thick Austrian accent didn't exactly endear him to Hollywood's filmmakers - in the early 70s, he simply didn't fit the leading man template. All of that changed with Pumping Iron. Although many of the bodybuilders received a profile boost from the feature (Lou Ferrigno landed the title role in The Incredible Hulk in 1977), it was Schwarzenegger who was most commonly singled out by critics - "Schwarzenegger lights the film up like neon," one review read. What's more, Schwarzenegger's steely, single-minded screen persona made him perfect for the two movies that would eventually make him stratospherically famous.

Conan The Barbarian arrived in 1982, and was a huge hit. Both that film and First Blood, which starred Sylvester Stallone and appeared in cinemas later that same year, established a new breed of action hero: terse, capable, and physically imposing, they were a world away from the relatively slight actors of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Where the heroes embodied by John Wayne or Clint Eastwood might have shot first and asked questions later, this new breed of hero wouldn't even have bothered with the questions. 

Even though Schwarzenegger was the villain, he dominated both the title of 1984's The Terminator and the film itself - as the implacable, emotionless future cyborg in James Cameron's science fiction classic, the Austrian took the persona he introduced in Pumping Iron to its heartless conclusion.

It was Stallone's 1985 action sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II (written by James Cameron) and Schwarzenegger's Commando (also 1985) that epitomised the 80s action movie at its height. Although the villains and scenarios in each are different, they're both about lone soldiers wading into battle, arms shining with sweat and oil, teeth bared, guns blazing. 

The image of the muscle-bound warrior and the colossal machine gun was one that appeared time and again in the middle part of the decade, either on the covers of videogames or the posters of B-movies that followed these hits, like Chuck Norris's Missing In Action, which was 'inspired' by the First Blood Part II script floating around Hollywood and rushed into production by the Cannon Group in 1984.

Both the 70s and 80s fitness craze and the pumped-up action hero embodied the tone of the Reagan era. It's an interesting coincidence that the cover of Time magazine mentioned earlier also carried a picture of President Reagan and Russia's leader Leonid Brezhnev with the line, "War of words: east-west exchange" beneath it. The late 70s and 80s was a period not only of renewed confidence and optimism in the US, but also of renewed tensions between east and west.

Just as former actor Ronald Reagan presented himself as a tough cowboy - he often allowed himself to be photographed on his ranch, chopping wood with an axe or riding horses - so the movies presented a new American hero that was  tough, determined and seemingly unstoppable; a lone force for good against a heartless enemy. In a press conference shortly after the Lebanese hostage crisis in 1984, Reagan famously said, "Boy, I saw Rambo last night. Now I know what to do the next time this happens..."

The 90s and beyond

By 1990, Schwarzenegger was one of Hollywood's most highly-paid stars, having shot and quipped his way through a string of hits, including Predator, The Running Man and Total Recall. Stallone didn't have quite the same sure-fire draw, but films like Rambo III, Tango & Cash and Rocky V still made money, even if they weren't of the same magnitude as First Blood Part II or Rocky IV.

It's often said that the violent, trashy, often R-rated action movie had run its course by the early 90s, and that the success of Jurassic Park, which dominated the box office as Schwarzenegger's Last Action Hero faltered in 1993, proved that audiences were more keen to see special effects spectacles rather than testosterone-fuelled bloodshed.

Yet it's also arguable that audiences never lost their appetite for action; it was the political and cultural climate surrounding the movies that changed. The us-versus-them mentality that emerged when the Second Cold War was at its height between 1979 and 1985 soon thawed, and by the time Rambo III came out in 1988, its anti-Soviet fervour already seemed out of step.

The fitness craze, meanwhile, didn't so much die out as become so assimilated into popular culture that it became almost invisible. Pumped-up wrestlers and toned Calvin Klein models became a common sight in magazines, TV ads and on billboards. These days, it's widely expected that actors and actresses will train intensively for an action role - fitness magazines thrive on writing about the regimes that transformed actors like Tom Hardy into Bane or Henry Cavill into Superman.

The traditional action movie crystalised a moment of American history that, to modern eyes, seems almost quaint. It was a period of acquisition, brash self-confidence and sculpted bodies. Modern action heroes like Batman, Iron Man and Superman are, by contrast, introspective and tortured - a reflection of a world still dealing with the impact of 9/11, the subsequent War on Terror, and the 2008-9 financial crisis.

Trashy, loud and violent, the heroes of 80s action cinema were - whether critics cared for them or not - utterly unique. The image of Arnold Schwarzenegger, posing in his little brown briefs in the Whitney Museum, signalled the approach of that era; Pumping Iron hastened the arrival of an age of big-screen brawn. 

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Solid article, however one film I think that should also be named as a big influence in the move away from the Stallone/ Schwarzenegger 80's Action Hero: Die Hard.
Released at the end of the 80's Die Hard was the perfect subversion of the 80's Action Film, John McClane was a balding cop, who was in over his head, made mistakes and was nowhere near the Schwarzenegger/ Stallone levels of fitness.

While on paper the plot is very close to the over the top 80's Action films, the acknowledgement of the absurdity at work in the conventions, along with the subversion of the genre's troupes, would have meant that its success probably had an impact on the audiences expectations for films (and suggests they were growing tired of the genre already.)
Once an audience embraces the ironic deconstructed narrative, it becomes that much harder to sell them the standard version.

In some ways you could argue a parallel in the martial arts transition from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan - the unstoppable warrior that barely ever gets touched to the scrappy underdog that keeps fighting through the hits. Stallone's very interesting in this era in that Rocky Balboa was much more the latter than the former while Rambo was an eternally tortured soul despite his one man army abilities.

Very thought-provoking article.

The trick there was Willis could act. Not saying the big two couldn't act at all, just not as well-rounded. They should have known better. in bodybuilding, you hit the muscles from every angle. Now their movies flop. Unthinkable! And the Schwarzenegger ones in particular are good, and sabotage looks intriguing. But me. Freeze was the culmination of his acting ability: the quip. Should have stuck with the heartless killer. Jackman, Butler, Hardy, Now you need muscles and acting skills.

I always thought that Sly was actually a good actor given the right film.

He was perfect in Rocky, which is not really an action film?

Same goes for First Blood and Cop Land.

All films where he needs to play someone a bit down on their luck and not taken seriously by anyone. Until it's too late!

I'd even say his acting skills shone in Over The Top. Again, the same sort of role. No one takes him seriously (from the father, to his son, to his final opponent) until it's too late!

He was perfect in Cliffhanger and nailed the "not taken seriously til it's too late" guy. But though arnie is terrible in expendables, sly is too, AND in his new movies. Arnold seems to have grown.

I remember when the not very good but at least very Jackie Chan "Around the World in 80 Days" came out, and I was flipping channels and saw Arnold Schwarzenegger chasing Jackie Chan. I thought to myself, how is this not classic? Probly cuz it sucked. But still. If I could watch it from the beginning with my 8 year old some day, I will. Both of those conditions or no deal.

There is no better name for a weightlifter than Gaines.

Interesting that you picked Die Hard, which was meant to be a Schwarzenegger vehicle as Commando 2. Or rather Die Hard was based on a script which was to be Commando 2.

One of the bits of trivia I really liked about Schwarzenegger was that when filming Terminator he trained on all of the weapons so he could strip it down, reassemble it and reload it without having to look at the weapon. His reasoning being that a Cyborg from the future wouldn't need to look at the weapon to reload. Likewise with the driving, he drives the car whilst scanning his head from side to side in a methodical way much like you would expect a computer based system to do. That just shows the thought processes and preparation of the man.

Do you even Lift?

The look has changed quite a bit since the 80s though...

In the '80s there was that pro-bodybuilder steroids look, where the muscles are bizarrely large/bulky AND they have insanely ripped/low-body-fat at the same time where you can see every sinew and vein...

While today it's usually either a smaller build and ripped (eg. Brad Pitt in Fight Club), or large without being pro-bodybuilder large and not so ripped that the veins are showing (Thor, Man of Steel, etc.).
Or they're bulky fat-muscular like "strongest man" competitors (eg. Tom Hardy as Bane).

The only guys who still have that '80s look really are some of the pro-wrestlers and even then most of them tend to be on the bulky-fat-muscular side.

Yes the difference is power lifting. It'll bulk you up but not rip you up as well, all though you could do one then the other. I don't like steroids but I know those guys don't just use that and not work out. They are monsters and put in that work. Schwarzenegger was 6'2, 260 lbs offseason, 235 competition. Ronnie Coleman was 330 lbs, 300 competition wt. and he's 5'11! And look at the waist difference. These days they don't have the tapered waist, their trunks are bulky. Arnold himself complained about it a few years ago. It's cuz steroids then are not like steroids now. Now it's insulin. That's why I drink a coke after a workout. Same thing but on a much smaller scale. Sorry for the rant.

I went to the gym this morning, but I was a bit late so I only did about half of my workout. This article though had me pumped. I haven't watched pumping iron in years. I wish I could eat as much as them... But man all the POOPING!

I had replied but Dog deleted it because I put a link in it, ok 'Take 2'. Yeah Pumping Iron is a great motivational film for anyone who goes to the gym or is thinking of going. Have you ever Watched BroScienceLife, it's a hilarious take on working out and the gym in general.

I'll YouTube it. Check out a trailer for Generation Iron. Bodybuilding doc that came out last year. I haven't watched it, and I'm sure Kai Greene will never be Arnold, but these dudes are massive. Speaking of "the gym in general", a Facebook friend of mine sounded like a jerk the other day: he said "I can't stand when I'm in the zone and got my hood and headphones on and someone stops me to tell me what I'm doing wrong, when they look like Gumby goes to the Gym!" It reminded me that I don't like Facebook. But I will say this: that dude is swoll up. Huge arms too. And only certain people get like that. Jerks. Cuz jerks are highly motivated. I'm kidding of course. I knew Charles Hawkins, who was mr Mississippi and on 04 mr universe. Lovely attitude.

Last November I hurt my back at work. End of October, I was hittin, in 4 sets, 275 14 reps to 315 4 reps. Now, 275 is my finishing set. Injury sucks. Why do I wanna be huge? Cuz of Arnold and Stallone. And when I first met Charles Hawkins, a real life huge bodybuilder that was my dad's boss no less, I got the motivation to actually do something. However, that was 16 years ago, and I worked out on and off. Which is basically off. Then 3 years ago a power lifter gave me his workout. In 6 months my max went from 275 to 350. Bad shoulders stop me from 405, my old goal, but now I just wanna do 315 for high reps, 12 to 15. And big arms of course. Mine suck. 16 in. Anybody can shoot a machine gun, but if you're gonna take a picture just holding one, you better have big guns. Is that a pun?

Actually, Arnold did compete in Mr. Olympia one final time in 1980 after winning his sixth title in 1975. His last Olympia win is considered to be the most controversial in bodybuilding history. Arnold only trained for 8 weeks after being out of bodybuilding for 5 years while all the other competitors trained all year long. So when Arnold won, many were shocked at how he could win with just 8 weeks of training and a noticeable lack of mass and definition after being out of bodybuilding for 5 years. Some competitors felt Arnold only won based on his name and newfound popularity as an actor instead of the quality of his physique.

That's some really nice weights, I'm now where near those sort of weights. Yeah I've had a few injuries too, it's a nightmare especially when you were feeling good upto the injury and pushing yourself then you out for a while and you always have in the back of your mind should I push myself this hard , will I get an injury again. Just watched the trailer, wow those guys are tanks

Watched broscience. He cursed a lot but he was pretty funny. But yeah I'm scared to do deadlifts, and the problem is deadlifts thicken your back. Without that, bench press and all that other anterior stuff will give you an imbalance, shortening your muscle fibers. Leads to strong but small arms. It sucks! And yeah those dudes are monstrous. Little hulks.

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