Pumping Iron and the birth of the 80s action hero

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.

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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.)

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“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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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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