Starring: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno
Runtime: 83 mins
With effortless charm and less than perfect English, Arnold Schwarzenegger explains how he undermines his opponents in the 1975 Mr Olympia contest: “Franco is pretty smart, but Franco’s a child. He comes to me for advices. So it’s not hard for me to give him the wrong advices.”
Pumping Iron follows several bodybuilders in the run-up to the non-professional ‘Mr Universe’ and professional ‘Mr Olympia’ competitions. These were judged in Zoolander-esque ‘pose-offs;’ perfect physical symmetry and muscle definition being the goal. However, far from a montage of sweaty gym and Herculean weightlifting scenes (though there are many), the documentary provides an in-depth account of the personal backgrounds of and the psychological one-upmanship between the competitors. Schwarzenegger’s charisma and political savvy outshone his rivals as brightly as his superior physique, and thereafter shot him to worldwide fame.
To up the emotional ante, clear villains and heroes are cast in each competition, and classic American ‘characters’ identified. Women fawn over Arnie: the American dream. Heartbreaking stories of Michael Katz’s childhood bullying and devotion to his own children render his crushing defeat by ‘baddie’ Ken Waller infinitely more affecting.
In the most powerful scene of the film, Schwarzenegger describes how he informed his mother over the phone that he would not attend his father’s funeral so that he might continue to exercise unencumbered by mourning. Though elsewhere it clearly exaggerates for dramatic effect, Pumping Iron remains a documentary masterpiece.