Pumping Iron (1977)

Pumping Iron is a cult classic. A perfect piece of kitsch pop culture. Watching it again recently reminded me why.  It is brash, theatrical, surreal, horribly over-the-top, sometimes tender, (un)intentionally comic…in other words, an absolute treat.

Bodybuilding has always been an unusual sport. A bizarre marriage of unfettered testosterone and peculiar, obscured femininity. But it is also one that requires superhuman dedication, sacrifice and ambition. Pumping Iron captures this alternative world at is vainglorious, preening peak, as its “star”, the incomparable Arnold Schwarzenegger, lifts, boasts, bullies, taunts and struts his way to the 1975 Mr. Olympia title.

You either love or loathe Arnie, but on whichever side of the fence you fall (and there is much to dislike) he is a remarkable character. Watching him here is an enormous guilty pleasure as he crushes his friends and foes alike, exploiting physical and psychological weaknesses wherever he finds them, imposing his extraordinary, relentless will on everyone and everything.  He is cruel, charismatic, intelligent, and desperate for attention…for all the attention. He is an enormous, pompous, muscular slab of peacock. The king. And this is his court. It is absolutely captivating.

Others come into his orbit – Franco Columbo, the hugely likeable but slightly tragic Lou Ferrigno (and his overbearing Brooklynite father who pushes and parades his son like demented ringmaster), the quiet family-man Mike Katz, Ken Waller, Serge Nubret – but however close they may have been to Arnold (Columbo was a longstanding friend) if they are not useful, they are ultimately useless. The ego drives everything and nothing else matters except victory. His mental dismantling of Ferrigno is equal parts heart-breaking and thrilling.

Pumping Iron launched Arnold’s career, and watching him here you are aware that his star is in its ascendancy – as, you feel, is he as his swaggers his way to triumph. But without his arrogance and absurdity, Pumping Iron goes from being a fantastic study of human nature to a merely interesting exploration of a weird and wonderful underworld that few of us would ever glimpse.

It is one of those rare documentaries that by both luck and design captured perfectly a place and time. It is completely bonkers and utterly brilliant.

The full documentary is on YouTube. Here is part 1 of 12:

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