Theatrical release poster
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Pumping Iron is a 1977 American docudrama about the world of professional bodybuilding, with a focus on the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe and 1975 Mr. Olympia competitions. Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore and edited by Geof Bartz and Larry Silk, it is inspired by a book of the same name by Butler and Charles Gaines, and nominally centers on the competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his primary competitors for the title of Mr. Olympia, Lou Ferrigno. The film also features segments on bodybuilders Franco Columbu and Mike Katz, in addition to appearances by Ken Waller, Ed Corney, Serge Nubret, and other famous bodybuilders of the era.
Shot during the 100 days leading up to the Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions and during the competitions themselves, the filmmakers ran out of funds to finish production and it stalled for two years. Ultimately, Schwarzenegger and other bodybuilders featured in the film helped raise funds to complete production, and it was released in 1977. The film became a box office success, making Schwarzenegger a household name. The film also served to popularize the culture of bodybuilding, which was somewhat niche at the time, and helped inspire the fitness craze of the 1980s; following the film's release, there was a marked increase in the number of commercial gyms in the U.S.
The film was released on CED and VHS, and then re-released on DVD in 2003 for the 25th anniversary of the theatrical debut. The film inspired three sequels: George Butler's Pumping Iron II: The Women (1985), a documentary about the world of female bodybuilding; David and Scott McVeigh's Raw Iron (2002), a documentary about the making of Pumping Iron and how the film affected the lives of those who appeared in it; and Vlad Yudin's Generation Iron (2013), a documentary on which Pumping Iron producer Jerome Gary served as executive producer.
In 1975, bodybuilders are preparing for the upcoming Mr. Universe amateur competition and Mr. Olympia professional competition in Pretoria, South Africa. The first part of the film documents the life of Mike Katz, a hopeful for the title of Mr. Universe. Katz was bullied in his youth for being Jewish and wearing glasses, which spurred him to become a pro football player; when his career with the New York Jets was ended by a leg injury, he became a bodybuilder. His psychological balance is thrown off by a prank by fellow contender Ken Waller, who steals Katz's lucky shirt before the competition. Waller wins Mr. Universe and Katz comes in fourth. Fighting back tears, Katz cheerfully appraises the situation before calling home to check on his wife and children. He then congratulates Waller.
The film then switches focus to the rivalry between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, professional bodybuilders competing for the title of Mr. Olympia. Schwarzenegger, at this point a ten-year veteran of bodybuilding, has won Mr. Olympia for five consecutive years and intends to retire after a final competition. Ferrigno, who at a height of 6 ft 5 in (1.96 m) and 275 lb (125 kg) is the largest bodybuilder to date, is determined to be the man to finally dethrone Schwarzenegger. The film contrasts each man's personality, home environment, and training style: Schwarzenegger is extroverted, aggressive, and works out with other bodybuilders at Gold's Gym and Muscle Beach, whereas the quiet, reserved Ferrigno—who went partially deaf after a childhood ear infection—trains with his father in a dimly lit, private, basement gym. While Ferrigno surrounds himself with his family, Schwarzenegger is accompanied wherever he goes by other bodybuilders, reporters, and beautiful women.
In between interviews and workout demonstrations with Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger, the latter explains the basic concepts behind bodybuilding. Although he emphasizes the importance of physique in bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger also stresses the psychological aspects of competition, crediting meticulously crafted strategies of psychological warfare against his opponents for his numerous victories. The film briefly looks at Schwarzenegger's training partner, Franco Columbu, a favorite to win the under-200 lb division at Mr. Olympia. A former boxer from the tiny village of Ollolai, Sardinia, Columbu returns home to celebrate a traditional dinner with his family, who still adhere to old world values and are skeptical of the overt aggression of boxing and bodybuilding. Nevertheless, Columbu impresses his family with a display of strength by lifting the back end of a car and moving it down a street.
In South Africa, Schwarzenegger wages his psychological warfare on Ferrigno, befriending Ferrigno and then subtly insulting him over breakfast with Ferrigno's family. Schwarzenegger later attends the judging for the under-200 lb class to scope out who his competition will be for the overall Mr. Olympia title, jokingly disparaging Columbu. The appearance of Ed Corney stuns Schwarzenegger, who praises another bodybuilder for the only time in the film, openly admiring Corney's physique and posing prowess. Columbu places first and he moves on to compete against the winner of the over-200 lb category.
Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Serge Nubret prepare to go onstage and compete for the over-200 lb category. In the locker room, Schwarzenegger engages in some last-minute intimidation of Ferrigno, who is visibly shaken onstage and subsequently ends up placing third behind Nubret and Schwarzenegger, who is declared the winner. Schwarzenegger and Columbu engage in a posedown for the title of Mr. Olympia. Schwarzenegger uses his stage presence and intimidating looks to unnerve Columbu, and is declared Mr. Olympia. In a post-victory speech, he announces his official retirement from professional bodybuilding. Later, at an after-party for the competitors, Schwarzenegger celebrates his victory by smoking marijuana and eating fried chicken. With the competition over, he wishes Ferrigno happy birthday and leads the other competitors in singing "Happy Birthday to You" as a cake is revealed. The film ends with Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Ferrigno's parents riding together to the airport.
The film began as a look at bodybuilding from the perspective of a newcomer to the sport; to this end, the production had hired slim actor Bud Cort, with the intention of following Cort's development from a physically slight man to a muscular, strong bodybuilder. Cort trained at Gold's Gym for a brief period, taking lessons from Schwarzenegger, but ultimately felt that he was wrong for the project; Cort and the producers amicably parted ways, and the documentary team began to focus more intently on the established bodybuilders at Gold's.
In order to compensate for the loss of Cort's narrative arc, Butler decided to capitalize on Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno's contrasting personalities and cast the film as the story of a heroic but "sinister" underdog (Ferrigno) against a charismatic, powerful "villain" (Schwarzenegger). To this end, Butler intentionally avoided filming Ferrigno's training sequences with bright lighting and emphasized the open-air atmosphere of Gold's Gym and the sunlight at Muscle Beach for Schwarzenegger's training sequences. Schwarzenegger claims to have helped Butler in casting himself as a villain, citing his story about not returning home for his father's funeral as having been told to him by a French bodybuilder; however, following the film's release, claims surfaced that Schwarzenegger had in fact refused to attend the funeral. Butler additionally cast the relationship between Mike Katz and Ken Waller as a sinister rivalry, filming the "football scene" where Waller decides to steal Katz's shirt after the fact in order to fill in a narrative gap. Waller and Katz were in fact close friends, and Waller's theft of the shirt was simply a spur-of-the-moment prank not intended to upset Katz to the extent that it did. Waller was later regretful of the football sequence, claiming that audiences at bodybuilding competitions continued to boo him for years after the film's release.
Following the Mr. Olympia contest, the production ran out of money and ended up in development hell for nearly two years. In an effort to raise funds, Butler arranged an exhibit with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City: Bodybuilders would become "living sculptures," posing on rotating platforms while art critics analyzed the aesthetics of the bodybuilding physique and compared and contrasted the men to Greek sculpture. To increase interest in the event, Butler arranged for Candice Bergen to be a celebrity commentator; Schwarzenegger also agreed to appear as one of the "living sculptures", having received modest attention for his Golden Globe-winning appearance in the film Stay Hungry. The event proved to be a great success, generating more money than Butler had anticipated and allowing him to complete production on the film.
Upon its release, Pumping Iron became a commercial and critical success. Schwarzenegger's popularity grew beyond that afforded him by Stay Hungry. Ferrigno was shortly thereafter cast as The Incredible Hulk, a role he would continue to play in a variety of mediums into the 2010s. Although bodybuilding had been a subculture regarded by many as being on par with early 20th century freak shows prior to the film's release, the film normalized the idea to the point that interest in bodybuilding began spreading into mainstream American culture. In the years following the film's release, hundreds of commercial gyms began appearing across the United States as demand rose for access to weightlifting equipment.
The film received highly positive reviews with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting as of December 2019 that 32 out the 35 reviews they tallied for the film were positive for a score of 91% and a certification of "fresh". The website summarized the critics consensus by saying, "In addition to offering an enlightening early look into the world of future star/politician Arnold Schwarzenegger, Pumping Iron provides a witty and insightful overview of competitive bodybuilding."
Richard Eder of The New York Times called the film "an interesting, rather slick and excessively long documentary about the small but intensely competitive world of bodybuilding." Variety wrote, "Technical credits are generally excellent with Fiore's camerawork a major asset. Commercial aspects will depend on the interest in local markets in the sport itself. Certainly, after the first quarter hour of flexing muscles, they all begin to look alike to the non-athletic viewer." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "The film allows us to get to know two bodybuilders very well, and, as a result, 'Pumping Iron' is much more a story of human beings than it is a freak show. I actually ended up caring who won the contest." He ranked it #9 in his year-end list of the best films of 1977.
Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "Directed by Butler and Robert Fiore, who is also the film's very adroit cinematographer, the witty and entertaining 'Pumping Iron' confronts what has been generally considered as a rather exotic subculture with the utmost sophistication. Butler and Fiore regard the bodybuilders with neither compassion nor ridicule but rather a steadfast, cool detachment—even when they themselves are being nakedly manipulative—which makes for a slick, shrewdly calculated, highly amusing and thoroughly enjoyable experience." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called it "an amusing, buoyant documentary about competitive body building," and observed that "Schwarzenegger is the first personality since Bruce Lee who might become a unique and credible physical star, idolized in particular by kids but enjoyed and admired by a vast cross-section of the public." Louise Sweet of The Monthly Film Bulletin wrote that Schwarzenegger "inspires envy rather than disgust at ostentatious musculature, and lures even the reluctant viewer into his unusual world. Almost all the body-builders here are likable, but Schwarzenegger's articulateness and humour make the film cohere and convince."
For the film's 25th anniversary, filmmakers David and Scott McVeigh tracked down the participants in Pumping Iron to follow up on their lives and see how the film's success had affected them personally and professionally. The resultant film, Raw Iron, also served to document the making of Pumping Iron, exploring the difficulties that Butler had in producing the film and the narrative choices he made. Raw Iron also debunked a lot of the dramatics that played out in Pumping Iron, such as a cold comment by Schwarzenegger about why he did not return to Austria for his father's funeral. It exposes the drama but reassures the genuineness of the hard work these men put into bodybuilding. The film originally aired on Starz, and was later featured as an extra on the DVD of Pumping Iron.
- Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron. 2002. DVD.
- Leigh, Wendy (1990). Arnold: An Unauthorized Biography. ISBN 0-7207-1997-6.
- Schwarzenegger's Next Goal On Dogged, Ambitious Path. New York Times (2003-08-17). Retrieved on 2011-06-20.
- "IRON AGE- Articles - Butler Interview". April 28, 2009. Archived from the original on 2009-04-28.
- "Pumping Iron and the birth of the 80s action hero". Den of Geek. Retrieved 2019-01-30.
- Pumping Iron, rottentomatoes.com, accessed December 30, 2019.
- Eder, Richard (January 19, 1977). "Film: Muscles Galore". The New York Times. 62.
- "Film Reviews: Pumping Iron". Variety. January 19, 1977. 22.
- Siskel, Gene (March 18, 1977). "'Pumping Iron' strikes imposing Show of men behind the muscles". Chicago Tribune. Section 2, p. 1.
- Siskel, Gene (January 1, 1978). "'Annie Hall' gives a laughing lift to year of space races". Chicago Tribune. Section 6, p. 2-4.
- Thomas, Kevin (April 18, 1977). "Men Behind the Muscles". Los Angeles Times. Part IV, p. 1.
- Arnold, Gary (February 19, 1977). "'Pumping Iron': A Witty Psych-Out By Mr. Olympia". The Washington Post. B1.
- Sweet, Louise (November 1977). "Pumping Iron". The Monthly Film Bulletin. 44 (526): 240.
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