SPRING TRAINING MONTH #4: Pumping Iron, by George Butler and Robert Fiore (1977)

Type of Media: Film

As far as sports go, competitive bodybuilding seems pretty lame, right? It’s a bunch of huge, ripply people standing in front of a crowd with tons of oil on their bodies while they flex and scrunch their faces. Who could make that interesting? Well, apparently the answer is George Butler and Robert Fiore, because their film Pumping Iron takes the strange world of bodybuilding contests and makes it approachable, dramatic, and compelling in a way that only great documentaries can.

Pumping Iron focuses on a handful of male bodybuilders, most notably Arnold Schwarzenegger, as they get ready for the amateur Mr. Universe and professional Mr. Olympia competitions. It primarily follows two rivalries: one between amateurs Mike Katz and Ken Waller, and another between 5-time Mr. Olympia champion Arnold Schwarzenegger and relative newcomer to professional bodybuilding Lou Ferrigno.

What makes Pumping Iron a great documentary is that it humanizes people who seem inhuman. The bodybuilding competitors featured in it are ridiculously big and it’s difficult to get past their appearances when you first see them, but Butler and Fiore do an excellent job of building their subjects into defined characters and then contrasting them with one another. There’s shy and sensitive Mike Katz, alpha bully Ken Waller, quiet and brooding Lou Ferrigno. 

And then there’s Arnold, towering above them all with his winning reputation, posing with swimsuit models on Venice Beach and beaming like Mr. Gregarious while showing a sly cunning that makes him an amazing villain. Scenes of him eating breakfast with the Ferrigno family are squirm-inducing, as he uses jokes and fake concern to patronize Lou while Lou’s father and mother tell him what a nice man he is. Behind his smile and friendly demeanor there’s a ruthlessness that keeps him numero uno.

What’s amazing about sports documentaries, particularly Pumping Iron, is that you get to see the genuine drive and determination of the subjects. Sports fiction is filled with protagonists that possess an infinite reserve of guts, to the point that it’s easy to become cynical and sneer at the idea that all you need is hard work and discipline to become a champion. However, seeing actual men, some of whom are in their 40s, work out for five hours a day and restrict their diets to achieve their extreme bodies is inspiring, even if you don't think they look aesthetically pleasing.

Early in Pumping Iron, Arnold gives an interview where he says a lot of things that sound kind of ridiculous. The bodybuilder is both a sculptor and their sculpture. Bodybuilding competitions are about psychological strength as well as physical. Working out feels like orgasming to him. You’ll probably scoff at first, but by the end of the documentary you will believe him (well, except for that last one maybe. In most of the workout scenes the guys training look like they wanna die). The way you get drawn into his world, it’s no wonder this movie significantly heightened Schwarzenegger’s profile and turned Lou Ferrigno into a star.

If you’ve looked at bodybuilding with any kind of fascination, even if you’re just curious because you think it’s grotesque, Pumping Iron is a great look into the sport. Also, if you’re just interested in good documentaries, Pumping Iron is one of the classics.