More than any other art form, movies capture and exemplify the time in which they were made. They are more than the writer’s story, the actor’s faces, and the director’s message; they are the perspective of us, the audience, that elevates a piece of cinema to a cinematic experience. Perspective is fluid, shaped by our lives and the time in which we are experiencing those umm… experiences. What have we accomplished? Where have we failed? What is coming next? Great films have “rewatch value” with each viewing being unique because you have changed, not the film.
Pumping Iron is a documentary released in 1977 and is noteworthy for a few reasons. Mostly because it introduced most of the world and pop culture landscape to Arnold Schwarzenegger, but it also introduced Lou Ferrigno, a year before he would paint his skin green and become the angry version of Dr. David Banner in The Incredible Hulk television series. Pumping Iron is also credited with playing a large role in kicking off the fitness boom of the 1980’s as well as my own recent interest in getting into better shape. Maybe it’s my upcoming wedding, my plans to have kids sooner rather than later, or my impending 30’s.
Who am I kidding? It’s the wedding.
I looked into a few different fitness routines and gurus, and after sweating through a couple of different gyms and “boxes” I landed on Power Lifting which involves the familiar major weight exercises (bench press, deadlift, shoulder press, squats, etc.). It turns out the jocks were right, throwing up weights in a stinky gym while shutting out the rest of the world’s stressors is indeed very therapeutic. I liked to lift things up and put things down! As I researched more on the subject I came across 2013’s Generation Iron, very much the spiritual follow up to Pumping Iron, as it follows several bodybuilders in the lead-up to the Mr. Olympia competition in 2012 (Pumping Iron follows their forebears in the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe competitions).
By 1975, Arnold Schwarzenegger had already won the Mr. Universe title once (at age 20), and the Mr. Olympia title five consecutive times from 1970-1974. As the documentary picks up, Arnold has already decided that this will be his final year of competition. Throughout the movie, we see Arnold wage subtle, carefully planned psychological warfare on his opponents, focusing with laser like precision on a young, 23 year old upstart, the aforementioned Lou Ferrigno, who on top of being the largest bodybuilder to date at the time, was also determined to topple Arnold’s kingdom.
The movie is made up mostly of interviews with the competitors, narration about their varied backstories, stage performances, and their training routines. While there are multiple characters and stories to follow, the real heart of the movie lies in the rivalry between Ferrigno and Schwarzenegger: Star vs Rookie. Arnold trains with other body builders at Gold’s Gym and the famous Muscle Beach, laughing and striking up lively conversation with friends and strangers. He surrounds himself with beautiful women (no lamentations here). Everyone is drawn to his natural magnetic personality, and no one is immune to his charms. This scene is one of my favorite examples:
Ferrigno trains under the watchful eye of his father in a dark, small Brooklyn gym. He is quiet, unassuming (despite his massive size), and only ever seems to speak when it’s needed or in the heat of lifting something particularly heavy. His ability to block out distractions is so intense it’s almost as if he can’t hear them at all.
Knowing what would eventually become of Arnold’s career, both movie and political, watching him pre-super fame in his natural element you begin to ask yourself how he didn’t become a bigger star much earlier. The man was clearly made for the limelight. It may or may not be a well known fact, but Arnold was already a self made millionaire before he became a movie star, and watching Pumping Iron gives you direct insight into why. The man is driven, cunning, controlled, charming, and somehow nonchalant about all of it.
A pre-fame Ferrigno is a whole different thing. Lou never really rose above B-level status after his bodybuilding career, and his quiet and reserved personality full display throughout Pumping Iron is probably the reason why. There have also been whispers throughout the years that Lou’s father/coach was living out his dreams through his son, something Lou apparently resented. I cannot say how true these rumors are, but after watching the two of them interact in the documentary I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch.
Now, how does all of that talk about perspective at the beginning of this piece play into this? At the time of filming, Arnold was approaching 30 and preparing to start a new chapter in his life. I myself will be turning 30 in September, and will be married before the end of the year. I find myself a little lost, unsure if I have the strength to do it. Not the wedding, I’m TOTALLY down with that – love you, babe! But LIFE basically. When I watch Pumping Iron, I see a man my age, full of confidence and success, and because I am in the future looking back, I know he is making all the right decisions… well, most of them anyway (Terminator Genysis) and making it look easy. Then I look at Lou, full of hope and and a solid build, whose flame will burn out in the grand scheme long before Arnold’s.
Pumping Iron proved to be far more of an existential cinematic experience than I was prepared for. I want to hear your thoughts. Sound off in the comments section below.
Pumping Iron and Generation Iron are both available on Netflix.
He prefers the company of his wife and dogs to most others. Batman nerd, true crime obsessed, Guinness fan, and general dork. Dad jokes are his specialty.