Pumping Iron: The Return

It wants to pump you up all over again.

Bodybuilding is a form of competitive modeling in which contestants are judged on the symmetry, proportion, size, and clarity of their muscles. The world’s greatest bodybuilder—Mr. Olympia—is currently Ronnie Coleman, a 38-year-old Louisianan who looks, to the untrained eye, perfectly clear, symmetrical, and gigantic. One look at Coleman and you’d think no man could ever be bigger. But some had already had that thought when they first beheld the preternaturally vascular Lee Haney, who held the Olympia title from 1984-1991. And certainly many, many fans thought that man had reached his apotheosis years earlier, in the form of Mr. Olympia 1970-1975: the Austrian Oak, the King, the King of Kings—Arnold Alois Schwarzenegger.

In 1977, two filmmakers, George Butler and Charles Gaines, released the no-budget documentary Pumping Iron, in which Schwarzenegger is shown winning the 1975 Olympia title, and other bulky hopefuls—most notably Lou (“The Incredible Hulk”) Ferrigno—are shown losing it. To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the film, Cinemax has remastered and digitally enhanced the weird movie, encircling both Pumping Iron and the demimonde practice of bodybuilding in a brand-new aura of legitimacy, reminding viewers that the film opened at Cannes, and claiming that it “led to a redefinition of the image of leading men in films.” Along with some new material about the movie, the cleaned up Pumping Iron airs on Friday, Nov. 15 at 8 p.m. ET.

No true fan of Pumping Iron has ever needed to be apprised that the movie was intended as a vérité art project, in the academic school of Frederick Wiseman or the Maysles brothers. But what most people who have seen Pumping Iron like to remember, and can’t forget, are the horrible-wonderful scenes of mental conflict between the swaggering, comically vain Schwarzenegger—”I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators, people like Jesus, being remembered for thousands of years”—and the guileless Ferrigno, a hearing-impaired former sheet-metal worker under the thumb of his carping dad Matty. Ferrigno comes off as a simpleton giant, seemingly built to be outfoxed.

Schwarzenegger, fresh from a year of training at Gold’s Gym in Venice Beach, is just the man to do the outfoxing. Far from home—and his own father, whose funeral Arnold skipped so that he could keep training—the reigning Mr. Olympia at the time of Pumping Iron isan unscrupulous bully with a mighty mind for head games. Having resolved to trick Ferrigno into thinking he’s lost the 1975 Olympia title (in Pretoria, South Africa) before they’ve even posed off, he joins the Ferrigno family for breakfast on the morning of the competition. Lou’s mother gamely offers that the event should come earlier in their stay in Pretoria, so all the competitors would have time to enjoy the sights. Then, as the family looks dumbly on, Schwarzenegger fires back:

Are you kidding? They should have it in a month for him! He’s not even in shape yet! He didn’t get the timing right, I’m telling you. A month from now would have been perfect. But then I get bigger too again. And if you retire this year, you just never had the Olympia … what the hell. Can you imagine the feeling I have? Six times Mr. Olympia. I called my mother yesterday already and said, “I won,” and she said, “Congratulations, Arnold!”

Stunned, Lou seems confused. Has he already lost? But the competition’s not till—later—isn’t it? He enters the pre-judging dejected—and ultimately comes in third place. Schwarzenegger, as predicted, is six times Mr. Olympia. Can you imagine the feeling he has? It may be that no movie has ever treated the joys and horrors of male preening so well as Pumping Iron.

The film offers many scenes of wonderment before the final showdown. Schwarzenegger’s gym-rat acolytes are nervous oddballs packed into the muscles of Hercules. When they flex their muscles for each other, their biceps contract into cantaloupe-sized balls that seem to qualify as new appendages. The Brooklynite Matty Ferrigno can’t take his eyes off his son and praises him with the verve of an Italian tenor: “What symmetry you’ve got, Louie! You look like something Michelangelo cut out!”

The ‘70s were the golden age of steroids—and rampant telltale acne is visible on the oiled skin of many of the bodybuilders. (In Sam Fussell’s excellent 1991 book Muscle, about his own adventures in bodybuilding, he reveals that some ‘80s steroid-takers got acne everywhere, including the soles of their feet.) Schwarzenegger, who has spent 25 years being cagey about his past drug use, is never seen ingesting more than water and eggs. By contrast, the filmmakers caught Lou Ferrigno in his bedroom, unabashedly glugging down handfuls of pills and supplements.

The other characters in Pumping Iron—in particular, Franco Columbu, a short Sardinian who comes in second to Schwarzenegger, and Mike Katz, a sweet sad sack who seems destined to lose—help demonstrate that it takes a strange kind of guy to want cantaloupe biceps, but the drama of the film focuses, wisely, on Schwarzenegger and Matty and Lou Ferrigno. Matty plays the Burgess Meredith role with aplomb, shouting at his son: “They’re all looking at you, Louie! … You look at your arms like you’re admiring, and then you go, boom! Like ‘Take a look at this hunk of man.’ OK, Louie? Atta boy! Remember your arms are bigger than Arnold’s!”

Now, writing this out, I realize that the dialogue and drama in Pumping Iron either seems eccentric and endearing or eccentric and sick. I see it the first way; watching men go through their poses and try to please their dads and try to look stronger than one another (without actually being stronger) made my heart swell with sentimental sympathy. As the warm-blooded Italian-American faces off with the icy Austrian, I can’t help but root for Ferrigno, while at the same time being pleased that he doesn’t win the unsavory competition. Lou—something Michelangelo cut out—might now rise above the sleaziness and be a good, loving giant and protector.

Cinemax has produced a preface film and a making-of documentary to go with the 86-minute remastered film. In these, you learn that Ferrigno looks great these days—and he seems to be hearing better (cochlear implants?). Schwarzenegger looks strained—he’s smaller, and his face, which had a nice sensuousness in his youth, appears unnaturally tightened. Both men now laugh off the competition of the mid-’70s. Ferrigno simply seems like his life has come together, and, though he resented his dopey image at the time, he’s not sweating the old days. Schwarzenegger, however, takes pains to point out how much he was acting the part of the villain. “I played the kind of Germanic machine,” he says now. “I tried anything and everything to look like this evil guy.”

If so—if Arnold was gaming the filmmakers—then Pumping Iron ought to be considered less an insider’s look at a gruesome American subculture and more a staged battle of exaggerated archetypes. I’m happy to witness that big clash again, and to concentrate on the lyrics to the movie’s hilariously trashy synth theme song—with its irresistible Oedipal triumph:

Everybody wants to be respected. Everybody wants to be protected. Every man wants to be bigger than dad. … Pumping up! Really feels like flying! Coming up, just like a lion. Pumping up, now! Working out, now! Everybody wants to be remembered, everybody wants to have a friend. Gonna be ready and able, if my friend wants to turn the table. Pumping Iron. Nobody’s gonna be bigger than I am.