Netflix Film of the Week: Pumping Iron

The FILM IN WORDS Netflix Film of the Week: helping you navigate the filmic minefield of the nation’s favourite video streaming service.

Pumping Iron

Words: Brody Rossiter
Twitter: @BrodyRossiter


Throughout the most famous and often infamous of his various high-profile careers, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s thespian credentials (or lack thereof) have consistently been a subject of great debate. Though his most recent big-screen bicep flexing outings have oozed a somewhat novel charm born out of late 80’s, early 90’s nostalgia as opposed to the raw unashamed machismo which flourished during the same eras, he is still responsible for some of not only cinema’s, but pop-culture’s most recognisable moments and chopper-centric one-liners. For those uncertain or simply unaware of the Austrian Oak’s finest filmic performance, they need look no further than his first: 1977’s bodybuilding docudrama-come-mockumentary, Pumping Iron.

Despite never previously appearing on-screen as a leading man, Arnie situated himself as the muscular earth around which the finely spun yarn of a plot revolved with great ease. He comfortably displayed himself as a loveable but ultimately ruthless and egotistical villain of the piece – employing a litany of underhand techniques and tactics to psyche out his fellow competitors competing for the title of 1975 Mr Olympia (Bodybuilding’s richest and most prestigious prize). No individual felt the playful wrath of the then five-time Mr Olympia more so than the young up-and-comer – and television’s future Incredible Hulk – Lou Ferrigno. Partially deaf and struggling to establish himself from beneath the pressures of his overbearing father, Ferrigno’s freakish muscularity and genetic makeup situated the young ‘kid’ from Brooklyn as a genuine contender for Arnold’s cherished crown – a fact which didn’t go unnoticed by the wily ten-year veteran of the bodybuilding scene. Though numerous heated rivalries and even greater friendships are depicted throughout Pumping Iron’s portrait of the 70’s bodybuilding community – a sport which remains niche and controversial today and was even more so four decades ago – it is Arnold and Lou’s direct competition and highly contrasting lifestyles which makes for such compelling, comedic and often inspiring viewing. The numerous profiles of Pumping Iron’s cast, many of whom are now legendary throughout gym locker rooms and training room floors, highlights the diversity and hidden depths of every competitor from international playboys to dedicated family men – allowing for a genuine sense of a rich and diverse community packed with personalities who shared the common goal of having their name in lights to be established.

Pumping Iron may well have had certain elements of plot staged for entertainment purposes, but it is undeniably a daring and iconic study of masculinity and competition in its rawest and most tangible form, which paved the way for numerous documentaries and documentary makers in its wake. Bodybuilding was considered a strange otherworldly art-form, inherited from the god’s and their portrait makers; Schwarzenegger’s famous ‘sculptor and clay’ analogy perfectly surmising how the extremities of the sport could be considered a highly dedicated exercise in the aesthetic rather than solely a gruelling exercise in physical limitation and mental conditioning. The picture exhibits its cast as far more than the action-heroes and magazine pin-ups they went on to become but rather a group of uncompromising artists to rival any Beat Generation, avant-garde auteurs or Britpop collective. Four decades later it comes as no surprise Schwarzenegger is still widely considered the greatest bodybuilder and Mr Olympia to grace the stage with a posing routine, largely in part to director George Butler’s candid depiction of the soon-to-be superstar in the environment he felt most at home, and alongside the men who made “Do you even lift?” a mantra long before it became just a meme.

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