Pumping Iron (1977)


Pumping Iron
Dir. Robert Fiore and George Butler
Premiered January 18, 1977

Noted for its introduction of future action star and California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to the wider world, 1977’s Pumping Iron is regarded by an overwhelming number of critics as one of the foremost documentaries of the 1970s. If that truly is the case, I’m not looking forward to other docs in this project, because I found it to be a singularly mediocre, uninvolving film.

As uncomfortable as I am criticizing any movie for its subject, said subject made me squirm even more. My father once told me that weightlifters lift weights and bodybuilders look at themselves in the mirror, and Pumping Iron does nothing to dispell that statement, because whereas weightlifting is an Olympic sport, bodybuilding is shown to be the stuff of glorified beauty pageants, such as “Mr. Olympia ’75,” where a young Brooklyn upstart named Lou Ferrigno challenges young Mr. Schwarzenegger for his multiple-year championship. Ferrigno is likable enough, but most of the other competitors evince a litany of overcompensating vanity-related complexes. I’m sure there’s someone else who could talk about the aftermath of the Vietnam War and its toxic impact on American masculinity, but this would be a perfect example.

The film’s choice to depict bodybuilding so uncritically is as ineffective as it is discomforting. Hovering stylistically between exploitation film and television advertisement, Pumping Iron feels as inoffensive and reassuring as a One Direction concert movie. There is a constant air of desperation and mental illness that is never addressed, as if the film were to be credited on the strength of beefcake alone. Forty years on, this comes off even sleazier than if directors Robert Fiore and George Butler had done a hatchet job. Pumping Iron is currently on Netflix, and while anthropologically interesting, I wouldn’t say it’s worth your time. My key rubric for a documentary is whether it gets me interested in the subject, if only for ninety minutes, and this certainly didn’t.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Avowedly heterosexual men marvel unselfconsciously at the near-nude male form.

How Did It Do?
Pumping Iron garnered a 96% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. I couldn’t find information on its grosses, but with a budget of $1 million and a fond memory that lives on today, I suspect it did well. Would that data from before 1981 were more comprehensive and publicly available; I would’ve loved to see the demographic breakdowns on this thing.

Lou Ferrigno parlayed his reputation from the film into a television career as The Incredible Hulk. Of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been a Hollywood fixture ever since. And director George Butler, who is still alive received a premature memorial in 2008 on Charlie Rose, because Charlie Rose.

Next Time: Operation Thunderbolt


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