Saturday, October 6, 2012

30 in 30 - Day 6: Pumping Iron

One of the older docs on my list is the 1977 classic Pumping Iron.  Before I get into my review, I just wanted to say that I couldn't imagine what it would have been like to see a movie like this 35 years ago.  It must have been ground-breaking.

Remember, Arnold Schwarzenegger at the time was ONLY known for his bodybuilding.  Watching the movie now was interesting because I could see a lot of the charisma we would eventually all see in the future actor and Governor.

One of supposed "must see' docs according to many websites and lists.

Today's film - Pumping Iron

Pumping Iron (1977)
85 mins.
Rated: PG (there are a few instances of profane language and a scene or two with sexual references)

"From Gold's Gym in Venice Beach California to the showdown in Pretori, amateur and professional bodybuilders prepare for the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests.  Five-time champion Arnold Schwarzenegger defends his Mr. Olympia title against Serge Nubret and the shy young deaf Lou Ferrigno, whose father is his coach."  (source: imdb)

Link to the film - I watched it online via Youtube

As i mentioned, I knew this film was considered a classic before I even sat down to watch it.  I know a lot of people who have seen this film (and I'm sure I've caught snip-its here and there).  But I had no idea what to expect when I sat down and started watching.  And the opening scene was one that left me thinking "What have I gotten myself into?"

Fade from black.  Bodybuilders Franco Columbu and Arnold Schwarzenegger are taking ballet classes.  Learning proper posture to assist in their posing.  At first, it looks like they are just goofing around, but my thought quickly changes.  Not only are they serious, but smart.  You can instantly see how this simple lesson aids in the bigger picture of accomplishing their goal.

Quite the introduction.

The Pumping Iron theme music that plays during the opening credits completely dates the film to the 70's.  That's all I'll say about that.

We are introduced to some of the big names in the sport at the time as they pose and compete.  Out of all the bodybuilders, it is clearly evident that the main focus is on Arnold.  At 6'2" and 240 lbs, he's just 28 years old when he decides to pursue his 6th consecutive Mr. Olympia title.  At the top of the mountain, we are tagging along through the training sessions leading up to the event in South Africa.

He trains out of Gold's Gym in Venice, California - the mecca of bodybuilding.  It's a small gym by today's standards, but the energy inside the room is overflowing.  He has extra motivation this year as he has decided it will be his last competition.  He will retire from competitive bodybuilding after the event.

He's confident when he talks about his sport.  Describing it as a sculptor would build a sculpture.  Knowledgeable and engaging, you can see the future actor in him instantly - and he commands the room.

We move on to meet some of the other competitors.  Mike Katz is the family man, Ken Waller is the "villian" of the film, Ed Corney is the super-poser.  All play a small role and have bit parts in the doc.  This is a story about Arnold and his main competition - Lou Ferrigno.

That's right...The Incredible Hulk himself.

But before we meet Lou, we get to know a little more about Arnold.  His life growing up in Austria, his decision to begin lifting weights and the decision to move to America.  There are some great photos of a young Schwarzenegger that really show a motivated person.

We learn a bit about Lou and his upbringing.  Partially deaf as a result of an ear infection when he was very young, Ferrigno didn't connect with other kids and had no interest in what others were doing.  I think this was a commonality with all the bodybuilders.  They used the sport to gain confidence and even fight off those who bullied them.

By the way, there's a scene where Lou goes over to a dresser littered with pill bottles.  No mention of what's in them or how many he takes daily.  Be it supplements or whatnot.  This was one area of the sport that got zero airtime.  I guess back in 1975 it wasn't the same issue as it is today.  Making Pumping Iron 2012 would be a very different film (and much less innocent).  But I digress.

We have our classic matchup between characters.  Arnold, living and training in Venice where everything is light and fun and sexy (photo shoots and beach parties) while Lou is living with his parents in Brooklyn, training out of a dark and dungy gym.  Done on purpose?  You bet.

Now living with his parents introduces us to Lou's dad - who is also his trainer.  Constantly motivating (or should I say "breaking down") Ferrigno to do more and lift more, he becomes a domineering force that clearly affects Lou.  You can just see it in the body language between the two of them.

The last character we are introduced to is Franco.  He is a good friend of Arnold's.  We learn that he moved to the US from Italy.  A great scene with him is when the film crew visits his hometown and he physically lifts a car that is stuck parked in a lane - boxed in.  With no effort, he just drags this car out.  Hilarious.

Throughout the training regimes shown from both Lou and Arnold, it is incredible to see the level of confidence Schwarzenegger has - bordering on cocky.  Admitting to manipulation and mind games if necessary to one-up his opponents, you get the sense that he would do anything to win.  He knows he's on the top of the mountain and is daring everyone to knock him off it.

The time comes and the Mr. Olympia tournament is here.  The warm-up room is so tiny that the tension between Arnold, Lou and Lou's dad is palpable.  It's great stuff.

The way the event works is that there is an under 200 lb. class (won by Franco Columbu) and an over 200 lb. class.  The winner of the two classes would go head-to-head to determine Mr. Olympia.

Ferrigno is clearly uneasy and nervous before heading out.  This is the first time he's competed at this event (this is a professional the past, he's competed at the Mr. Universe contest which is an amateur event).  Arnold is adding to the pressure by talking smack and playing the intimidation and mind-game cards to perfection.

Without revealing who wins (let's just say Arnold rides off into the sunset a happy cowboy) Arnie retires from competing.  And in a great scene to end the film, both Lou and Arnold are riding on a bus, just relaxing and having a laugh.  It leaves me feeling like these guys have a strong mutual respect for one another - even if during the event they are pretty cutthroat.

I really enjoyed this doc.  While the style of shooting, interviews and narration seems a little low-budget by today's standards, it gives a great aura to the sport.  Schwarzenegger is a true character and really carries this film.  Without him - there is no Pumping Iron....simple as that.

The personalities is what creates the interest in this movie.  If it were just about bodybuilding, then I wouldn't have lasted the hour-and-a-half.

As I was watching it, I kept wondering "What are these guys up to today?"  Obviously we have been inundated with the name Schwarzenegger for decades as he revolutionized the "action star" and becoming one of the top box office draws of the 80's and early 90's.  But what about the others.

Well, I discovered after watching this doc, that there was a 25th anniversary "making of" documentary.  That's right - a doc about a doc.

Here's the link to Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron.  It's a great watch as it has a lot of never before seen footage and current (at the time) interviews with a number of the main characters.

Overall, this was a very engaging film with a real simplicity to it.  Yes, it's 35 years old, and the relevance of the subject might not be there anymore, but the film holds up for its entertainment value alone.

A great watch - even for the theme music alone.

4 out of 5

Here are some other reviews I found online for the film...

Rotten Tomatoes

New York Times


Next up...The History Of The Boston Bruins


  1. This is one of my favourite movies ever. I just watched it again last week and also discovered Raw Iron, which was very good as well. Pumping Iron 2: The Women next? Had no idea that existed either until last week.

    Anyway, thanks to some internet research (wiki), here are some interesting tidbits that I didn't know of beforehand...

    -Ferrigno actually came in 2nd in the Mr.Olympia contest in 1974. Pumping Iron depicts his 3rd place finish in 1975. Not sure why that wasn't mentioned in the movie.

    -Ferrigno retired after that, then competed 17 YEARS LATER at the 1992 and 1993 Mr. Olympia competitions finishing 12th and 10th.

    -Ferrigno played 2 games for the Toronto Argonauts before being cut in 1976.

    -Ferrigno competed in The World's Strongest Man competition in 1977. He finished 4th.

    -There is a doc called 'Stand Tall' which depicts Ferrigno's attempt to win the 1994 Masters Olympia. *I still have to check that one out. It's on youtube, I believe.

    -Arnold came out of retirement and WON the 1980 Mr. Olympia again! Now that would have made a really interesting doc!

    -Arnold apparently made some movies later in his life.

    1. Thanks for geeking out there Dave! :)

      In all seriousness, it was a really enjoyable film and I'm definitely going to have to check out Stand Tall. Some amazing info there.


  2. I own the Arnold Shwartz... Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding and it is the BEST guide to bodybuilding and doing it right! I've done hours on end of research for my custom workout program but for bulking that 800+ page book is a haven! I fell in love with Arnold through that book and found out he's not as dumb as people think he is. He knows a lot about how the body works and how to manipulate it, awesome!

    A must re-watch for me!