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Pumping Iron is a 1977 docudrama about the world of bodybuilding, focusing on the 1975 IFBB Mr. Universe and Mr. Olympia competitions. Inspired by a book of the same name by Charles Gaines and George Butler, the film nominally focuses on the competition between Arnold Schwarzenegger and one of his primary competitors for the title of Mr. Olympia, Lou Ferrigno. The film also features brief segments focusing 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 to 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 then somewhat niche culture of bodybuilding, helping to 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 United States. The film was released on CED, 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 in 1985, a documentary about the world of female bodybuilding; and David and Scott McVeigh's Raw Iron in 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 2013 documentary Generation Iron—Pumping Iron producer Jerome Gary also served as executive producer on Generation Iron.
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's being bullied in his youth for being Jewish and wearing glasses spurred him to become a pro football player; when his career with the New York Jets was ended by a leg injury, Katz 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, he cheerfully appraises the situation before deciding to call home and check up on his wife and children. Katz then goes to congratulate 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, 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 six feet, five inches (1.96 m) and 275 lbs (125 kg) is the largest body builder to date, is determined to be the man to finally beat 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, Schwarzenegger 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 first in the under-200 pound division at Mr. Olympia. A former boxer from a tiny village in 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 his family. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger attends the judging for the under 200 pound class in order 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 for the only time in the film praises another bodybuilder, openly admiring Corney's physique and posing prowess. Columbu places first and he moves on to compete against the winner of the over 200 pound category.
Schwarzenegger, Ferrigno, and Serge Nubret prepare to go onstage and compete for the over 200 pound category. In the locker room, Schwarzenegger engages in some last-minute intimidation of Ferrigno. Ferrigno is visibly shaken onstage, and as a result, 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, who falters. Schwarzenegger is declared Mr. Olympia, and in a post-victory speech 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. 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 the slimly built 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. Arnold 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, prior to the film's release, a subculture regarded by many as being on par with early 20th century freak showsScript error: No such module "Unsubst"., 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 materials.
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 didn’t 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.
The film received highly positive reviews with the review tallying website Rotten Tomatoes reporting that 22 out the 23 reviews they tallied for the film were positive for a score of 96% and a certification of "fresh". The website summarized the critics consensus by saying that "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."
- 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.
- Pumping Iron at 25: The film that almost wasn't
- Pumping Iron, rottentomatoes.com, accessed February 10, 2011.
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- Hause, Irene L. (1977, May). Pumping Iron (film review). Muscle Digest. 1(7), pp. 40–42. Retrieved October 13, 2007.
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- Pumping Iron Gallery, 500 photos