The psychology of what it takes to be a champion is at the crux of George Butler’s Pumping Iron (1977); a guilty pleasure – a documentary shot on a shoe-string budget, centered on the then freakish art of bodybuilding. Butler follows the exploits – both on and off the circuit - of 28 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger as he religiously trains for his sixth consecutive Mr. Olympia. Schwarzenegger, nicknamed ‘the Austrian Oak’ is in rare form on this occasion – both physically and theatrically speaking – and it is largely due to his enigmatic personality that the plotless, threadbare narrative seems more amusing and enlightened than it actually is.
Arnold gets his digs in – outfoxing fellow competitors, Lou Ferrigno and Mike Waller while equating the intense ‘pump’ sensation derived from hoisting massive poundage over his head to the act of consummating a sexual relationship with a beautiful woman. If it were only for the general amusement of seeing how Schwarzenegger began his illustrious film career – this documentary would already have a lot going for it.
However, that Pumping Iron also managed to transcend the widely held public opinion that bodybuilding was nothing more than a carnival side show – equating those involved with it as socially vane - to generate a national craze of ‘getting in shape’ (that continues to be the norm to this day) is perhaps the greatest feat since Charles Atlas began running those tacky print ads about the scrawny four-eyed geek getting sand kicked in his face at the beach.
In retrospect, Pumping iron has become a time capsule and cultural touchstone – in the interim since Arnold’s generation of hulksters, a new and more vicious breed of steroid inflated bo-hunks has taken over the platform; bigger, meaner and more dependent on illegal drugs to build their morbidly huge physiques that – in all honesty – dwarf Arnold and his contemporaries by at least a couple hundred pounds. But Pumping Iron is a documentary about bodybuilding as an aesthetic and long before it was chic; a snapshot of the forerunners that ultimately spawned an industry.
HBO Home Video’s 25th Anniversary DVD is a welcomed edition. Shot full frame, the original film stock was poorly contrasted and color balanced. The DVD makes amends for these shortcomings, preserving every last bit of grain and texture from the original camera negative to provide a dated visual quality that is thoroughly in keeping with the film’s original presentation. Flesh tones are rarely accurate, but more an unhealthy and, at times, pasty orange. Overall, the DVD appears to be true to its source material.
The audio has been remixed to 5.1 stereo, but there’s not much to appreciate, given that the original sound mix was flat mono and quite unimpressive. Over 84 minutes of extras round out this DVD – most about Schwarzenegger’s career post Pumping Iron and riddled with all too brief snippets and sound bytes that are loosely put together as the most superficial of narratives. There’s also a very engaging 2003 interview with the great man himself, a rather humorous, often intimate portrait of the muscle man who literally broke the mold and went on to have one hell of a lucrative career as a result. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)