Pumping Iron Captures the Creation of Arnold Schwarzenegger in Real Time

by nyljaouadi1
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Forty-four years ago, bodybuilding wasn’t much more than just a marginal underground subculture—an obscure freak-show circuit populated by jacked-up guys in Speedos and slathered in baby oil showing off their impossible physiques in front of half-filled VFW halls. There wasn’t any real glory in the sport. No big paydays or purses. It was just another fringey demimonde desperate for something (or someone) to help it crossover into the mainstream. In 1977, it finally found that something in an American documentary called Pumping Iron…and it found that someone in a cocky, charismatic Austrian on the cusp of becoming a global superstar named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Directed by George Butler and Robert Fiore, Pumping Iron is the best kind of documentary. It initiates its unsuspecting audience into a world they most likely knew nothing about before the lights dimmed in the theater—a world of sweat, obsession, narcissism, pain, and ecstasy. And, as this hypnotic, enthralling film shows, it’s also a gladiatorial arena where sometimes physical brawn is less important to winning than manipulative mind games and cut-throat conniving.

Pumping Iron is one of my favorite movies from the ‘70s, partly because it’s such an incisive time capsule of its era. With its funky, brassy, Regal Beagle-meets-Studio 54 score, it’s a quintessential Me Decade artifact. The sideburns on its subjects are shaggy and long. The shorts are high and snug. The gyms where these musclemen work out have the seedy, smelly Italian Stallion vibe of a world that still existed before such things as “health clubs” were invented or the fitness craze would blossom into full bloom in the early ‘80s. But the main reason why I love the movie is because it allows you to witness, in real time, a superstar being born—something that remains as rare today as the passing of Halley’s Comet.

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The comet in this case was Schwarzenegger. With a boyish cowlick and a grinning baby face that make him seem a decade younger than the 27 years old he was when it was filmed, the 6-foot-2-inch, 240-pound he-man was the closest thing to a living legend that the world of bodybuilding had at the time. He was a Charles Atlas for the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not age—freakishly ripped, impishly mischievous, eminently quotable, and so comfortable in his own defined-deltoid skin that it’s impossible to watch him and not be charmed. He may have been unknown to the wider world back then, but in the small pond of competitive bodybuilding, Schwarzenegger was as big as you could possibly get—literally and figuratively.

Even though Pumping Iron crackles to life whenever the Austrian expat comes on screen, Butler and Fiore’s documentary isn’t just about him. The film is smartly structured as a walk-up of sorts to the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest being held in Pretoria, South Africa. Before we get there, though, we meet a small roster of statuesque wannabes in training: There’s a junior high school teacher from Connecticut named Mike Katz with a thinning combover and an easily wounded air of innocence; there’s Ken Waller, a trash-talking ginger-haired bully who’s only too eager to exploit that innocence (both are vying for the lesser, amateurs-only Mr. Universe title); there’s Franco Columbu, a pint-sized Sardinian pit bull who’s like the eager, tea-cup sidekick to his bigger, more blustery pal, Arnold; and there’s Lou Ferrigno, a naïve, hearing-impaired 24-year-old pussycat and former sheet metal worker from Queens whose coaching from his sweet, retired NYPD cop father is no protection from the psychological gamesmanship that Schwarzenegger is about to zap his way.

The filmmakers clearly understand that Schwarzenegger is their film’s main attraction and meal ticket, and they rightly turn him into the centerpiece of their three-ring expose—he’s the strapping straw that stirs the drink. Not just because Arnold is the sport’s reigning champion and rock-star posterboy (in the film he’s going for his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia title), but also because every cocksure boast and passive-aggressive put-down that passes through his lips is plated in 24-karat sound-bite gold. For instance, here he is talking about the allure of working out in the gym:

“The most satisfying feeling you can get in a gym is ‘The Pump.’ Blood is rushing into your muscles and that’s what we call ‘The Pump.’ Your muscles get a really tight feeling like your skin is going to explode. It feels fantastic. It’s as satisfying to me as cumming is, you know? Having sex with a woman and cumming. So can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am getting the feeling of cumming in the gym, I’m getting the feeling of cumming at home, I’m getting the feeling of cumming backstage when I pump up, when I pose in front of 5,000 people…. So I’m cumming day and night!”

With his frisky smirk and thick-as-strudel, Hans & Franz accent, Schwarzenegger is the embodiment of a new kind of celebrity only the ‘70s could have produced. He’s a preening, pec-rippling peacock who’s unabashedly bigger than life. He’s unencumbered by modesty, indecision, or doubt. He’s a sui generis, media-savvy genius whose gaze is constantly looking forward. His third-act victory is more or less inevitable before he even steps into his Speedo and takes the stage in South Africa. In a scene that isn’t just the best and most telling moment in the film, but also a hint at the sort of ruthless will-to-power persona that would make Schwarzenegger the King of Hollywood in the two decades that followed, he cruelly toys with his biggest threat, Ferrigno, like a cat swatting around a mouse.

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In the scene, the two men have both arrived in Pretoria and are having breakfast together on the morning of the competition. Ferrigno is young and too trusting. He’s in awe of Arnold. Big mistake. Because Schwarzenegger has no time for flattery—or mercy. Moments after telling the camera how he will “mix him up”, Schwarzenegger just begins to clinically and psychologically dismantle Ferrigno’s confidence, teasing him and psyching him out bit by bit like a sadist pulling at Jenga pieces. You can’t help but feel bad for the future Incredible Hulk.

Ferrigno ends up coming in third. And we see him standing on stage like someone who was just hit by a Mack truck driven by Niccolo Machiavelli. Schwarzenegger clinches his sixth and final Mr. Olympia, and afterwards he holds court with his fellow fawning muscle men in an “Arnold is Numero Uno” t-shirt while he smokes a joint and drinks a glass of wine. Ferrigno, meanwhile, tries to smile when everyone sings Happy Birthday to him backstage, but it’s no use. He’s still shellshocked.

Later, Schwarzenegger announces to the roaring crowd that he is retiring from competitive bodybuilding. The sport has been good to him, but it is time for him to move on. He is now in search of new worlds to conquer. He doesn’t elaborate on what those new worlds are. But for anyone watching Pumping Iron in a movie theater in 1977, the answer would have been easy enough to guess. In fact, one of those audience members was a Hollywood producer named Ed Pressman, who walked out of Butler and Fiore’s documentary convinced that he had just found the star for his next movie—a swashbuckling action-fantasy about a mythical musclebound warrior named…Conan The Barbarian.

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