I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Worth its Weight in Lifting: A Review of Pumping Iron

by Ryk McIntyre
Aug. 26, 2012

...it was an innocent age back then. Well, at least it seems that way, in retrospect. The Dark Days of Nixon were over and we were in the grey-flannel mediocrity of the Gerald Ford semi-Presidency. Why, the Earth was still so relatively unformed that America had yet to behold the Austrian Glory that was young Arnold Schwarzenegger. I’m also assuming (and I think historical records will back me up here) that there were a lot of homosexual men back then, because this documentary had to be as much made for them as anyone interested in the world of body-building competitions. “The most satisfying feeling you can get in the gym, is the pump” says young Arnold. I know a lot of men who will back him up on that statement, but will insist the best location is the showers.

Pumping Iron is a 1975 documentary about the world of body-building and weight-lifting, back before a lot of the really good steroids were invented and men had to do it all by...uhm... hand. Ok, I’m just going to admit right now that the homo-erotic double entendres are going to come hard and heavy, and see? I just did it again. And that’s not even counting the scene where Arnold talks about how, when his muscles get engorged with blood, it feels like he’s cumming. And he gets that feeling in the gym, at home, backstage, and when posing for photos. This guy cums more than Sting when he first discovered Tantric Sex. 

The film, and the book of the same title that spawned it, concern the lead-up to the 1975 bodybuilding contests, Mr. Universe (for amateur body-builders) and Mr. Olympia (for pros), held in Pretoria South Africa that year. While it has a cast of over a dozen builders of body, it mostly concentrates on Arnold, along with Lou Ferrigno and Franco Colombu.

Ostensibly a documentary, it has since been admitted by those involved (mostly Arnold and writer/director/producer George Butler) that many of the scenes were staged for dramatic appeal and story-flow. In other words, it’s proto-Reality TV. Apparently the “just the facts” approach that they tried out originally produced a documentary that really only appealed to body builders or their serious fans. So, in a move that would later inform every single Reality TV show ever, it was recast as Good Guys (Ferrigno and Mike Katz) and Bad Guys (Schwarzenegger and Ken Waller) and at least one scene was filmed after the event, for purely dramatic purposes.

Before the actual competition footage, we get shots of Arnold posing in Men’s Prison and coaching other body builders. There’s this one pose he teaches that couples one arm in a bicep-specific pose, with what looks like the Nazi salute. All the while, Arnold is extolling the young builder to be bold and big and smack the crap out of Czechoslovakia... sorry, scratch that last part. 

One of the good guys, Mike Katz gets a spotlight about how far he’s come from being a skinny, four-eyed “Jew Boy” in an unforgivingly Catholic town. We see how far he’s come and how big he had gotten, all from the will to not be small anymore. He got into football and became one of the N.Y. Jets, until an injury ended that career and opened up Body Building as an alternative. And while he never seems to win the contest, lord, the crowd loves him. even more so than the actual winners. But in a cruel re-creation of his youth, Mike falls prey to a mean-spirited prank wherein Ken Waller, another competitor, steals Mike’s “lucky -shirt”, throwing him off ao badly that he comes in 4th. It is the scene where Waller is proposing doing this, as a way of shaking Katz’s confidence, that was actually filmed later and inserted into the documentary, for benefit of a plot of sorts. Not a great moment in sportsmanship, but it may be what one gets for having a “lucky t-shirt.”  But where Katz shines is when he seems genuinely happy that Waller goes on to win the Mr. Universe title. Similarly, Arnold uses psychological warfare to undermine chief competitor Lou Ferrigno’s confidence, to alarming success, thereby taking his next and last win as Mr. Olympia.

I have to say, during Arnold’s spotlight/biography bit, he could’ve done with a speech writer. or at least a speech editor. Speaking in an Austrian accent of his admiration for “people who will be remembered for hundreds of year” he lists examples like Jesus (Ok, that’s cool) and “even dictators.” Um, excuse me Arnold, what? Ok, I’m sure he’s speaking of any dictator and not any specific fellow Austrians circa 1930s/1940s.  at least I’m hoping he wasn’t. 

Ok, back to the Gay interest: we get scenes of the various muscle boys surf-frolicking and bathing in the sun, the muscles all sweaty and oily and.... wow, did your Kinsey Scale just take a swing? To be serious though, I have no idea whether any of the men here are gay, bi, hetero or whatever, and I honestly don’t care. And that’s not just because any one of these guys can bench-press me and the zip code on which I was standing. But Lordy, some of the gay jokes just write themselves. especially given Arnold’s well-known tendency to grope the beautiful women he constantly surrounds himself with, both in the film and on into the current period of his post-California Governorship and newly revealed multifamily lifestyle.

Also featured is Lou Ferrigno (whom most people know for his later role on TV as The Incredible Hulk). At 6’5” and 275 lbs he was the biggest body builder in the world at the time of this filming, and already had two Mr. America and two Mr. Universe titles under his impressive belt, and, in 1975, was ready to go pro and give Arnold some serious competition. But even at that size, this Brooklyn boy who lived with his parents is no match for Arnold’s worldly sense of psychological warfare, which, in effect, steals Lou’s favorite t-shirt (metaphorically speaking) by at first befriending, and then subtly insulting the man. Say what you will about the ethics of this approach, but it worked for Ken Waller and it works for Arnold as well, as he ends up taking the Mr. Olympia title one last time, before announcing his retirement from professional body building competition. The big man, the lone wolf, never loses his position as King of the Hill. he just decides to up and move on. The rest is a lot of good movies and bad politics.

Ryk McIntyre is a Multi-Hyphen sort of person. Poet, critic, performer, workshop facilitator and co-host at both GotPoetry! Live (Providence) and Cantab Lounge (Cambridge,MA). He's been living in RI for the past 6 years, with his wife and daughter. Ryk has performed his work at Boston's ICA, NYC's New School, Portsmouth, NH's Music Hall and Lollapalooza, to name just a few. He has toured the US, performing in countless Poetry open mics and festivals.  He turned down Allen Ginsburg once.