Arnold Schwarzenegger may not be the Hollywood star he was in the 1980s and 1990s, but his mark on the landscape of international culture is still palpable. Yet it is still interesting to note that while he has found lasting fame as various iconic bulky monsters (Conan, The Terminator, Dutch in Predator, John Matrix in Commando), one of his first starring roles was as himself in the 1977 bodybuilding documentary Pumping Iron.
Directed by Robert Fiore and George Butler (after a book of the same name penned by Bulter and Charles Gaines), Pumping Iron is based around the 1975 Mr Olympia competition, following the preparation and participation of a handful of entrants. Not that you would notice from this lean, no-frills DVD release (the Region 1 25th Anniversary Special Edition came with various behind the scenes and retrospective interviews), but some way into the production, the team found the documentary footage too dull, so decided to spice things up a little, adding in staged scenes and exaggerating the ‘characters’ in the film beyond any rational understanding of naturalism.
Take the film’s prologue, a short sequence depicting two contenders in the amateur Mr Universe contest. A great deal of time is dedicated to Mike Katz, a huge bulk of a man physically, but a putz inside; he is interviewed with his kids, who clamber on top of their father as he speaks of his promising American football career, cut short by injury. Ken Waller, his rival in the contest, is an outright bully whose first appearance is underscored by a tight, ominous jazz fusion vamp, and involves him planning to hide Katz’s t-shirt, in order to sabotage his concentration for the competition.
Less creepy, and more outright entertaining, is the main thrust of the film, which focuses on Arnold the Austrian Oak and Italian American contender, Lou Ferrigno. Ferrigno, while a good few inches taller and wider than Schwarzenegger, is reduced in the film to a fawning underdog – a bespectacled child in equal parts coddled and berated by his take-no-shit father (a real-life Scorsese character).
Arnie is simultaneously the star and villian of Pumping Iron. He gets most of the screen time, not to mention the longest interview segments, and is the epicentre of every scene he graces. In contrast to his rather dour, wooden acting appearances, he is quite charismatic in his bodybuilder persona – always smiling, always quipping. This makes even his moments of exaggerated arrogance come off less venomous, and more ridiculous. He casually admits to admiring dictators, boldly states how he missed his father’s funeral because he was too busy preparing for a competition, and hounds Ferrigno, topping it all by humiliating him in front of his parents over an initially genial breakfast (“He’s not even in shape yet! You didn’t get the timing right, a month from now would have been perfect for you… but then I get bigger, so it doesn’t matter!”).
The result is less penetrating, and more endlessly quotable and entertaining – more of a Spinal Tap than a Shoah. In retrospect, it is unsurprising that both of the film’s main stars pursued careers in acting, because Pumping Iron is a documentary in only the most liberal sense of the word. Its coverage of the actual Mr Olympia contest is light and heavily skewed. Its insight into bodybuilding as a career and lifestyle is better, but by no means definitive or really that informative, outside of the necessary transgression of the pain barrier inherent to improvement, and the bodybuilder’s strange ambition of increasing muscles not for reasons practical or athletic, but aesthetic. In this regard, Pumping Iron is fascinating in how it presages Hollywood’s Reagan-era obsession with the ‘perfect’ (read, toned and bulky) male form, exemplified by Arnie’s world-conquering pecks. Historical importance, thematic weight and ‘before-they-were-famous’ relevance aside, though, Pumping Iron is an unsubtle, manipulative, and fun sort of faux-doc.