It’s a good thing that Austrian muscleman Arnold Schwarzenegger was already drifting toward a film career by the time this compelling documentary was released in 1977, because Pumping Iron was a key step in defining his cinematic persona: Even though the movie amply displays the staggering physique that made Schwarzenegger a world champion, it also reveals the ruthlessness at the heart of Schwarzenegger’s machine. Watching him torment sweet-natured fellow bodybuilder Lou Ferrigno, diminishing Ferrigno’s confidence prior to major competitions, provides a case study in winner-takes-all competitiveness—just like in the action movies Schwarzenegger made throughout the ’80s and ’90s, only the strong survive in Pumping Iron.
Filmmakers George Butler and Robert Fiore exhibited herculean resolve of their own in getting the film made. Basing their project on a nonfiction book about bodybuilding that Butler co-wrote with Charles Gaines, the filmmakers started shooting in 1975, following competitors Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger (among others) toward a pair of contests, Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe. After a stop-and-start production process, the movie was finally completed in 1977, by which point Schwarzenegger had already completed his first major role in a Hollywood movie, the offbeat 1976 release Stay Hungry. So, whether by circumstance or inevitability, Schwarzenegger became the focus of the documentary.
Throughout the picture, which contains sequences of competition, private life, and training, Schwarzenegger commands attention by expounding on various philosophical notions. In some scenes, he comes across like an easygoing athlete whose supreme confidence renders him invulnerable to stress. In others, he’s the consummate arrogant jackass. (The most notorious scenes involve the future Governator toking on a joint and comparing muscle burn to “cumming day and night.”)
Other textures in Pumping Iron are nearly as memorable as the star’s megalomania. Ferrigno’s dysfunctional dynamic with his smothering father is heartbreaking, the sad saga of a son unable to get the type of approval he desperately needs, and the filmmakers provide amusingly blunt sketches for the personalities of various other competitors. The best testament to Pumping Iron, of course, is that it’s fascinating even for viewers who consider themselves uninterested in bodybuilding. A sequel, titled Pumping Iron II: The Women, followed in 1985.
Pumping Iron: RIGHT ON