Pumping Iron captures the 1975 Mr Olympia contest, particularly the intense training leading up to the contest. Arnold is preparing to defend is title for the last time, and nipping at his heels are contemporaries Franco Columbu and Lou Ferrigno. The film isn’t a documentary. The training and contest footage is real, but the “drama” scenes (oh no, Arnold’s going to sabotage Franco!) are scripted. Some were actually shot after the contest had ended.
Watching these guys is fascinating. Arnold is charmingly boorish, while Lou Ferrigno is moody and angsty – a born underdog. A lot of the movie’s conflict centers around Lou and his overbearing father, who pushes him around with impunity. Straight away you realize that Lou can’t ever win. Even if he takes home the title, it’ll be his dad’s victory, not his own.
There are lots of fun moments. Arnold’s tireless ability to involve scantily-clad girls in his workout routine, his sledging of Lou Ferrigno before the contest (“I called my mama and told her I won Mr Olympia 1975!”), and his hilarious monologue about the similarities between lifting weights and having an orgasm. There’s some serious stuff as well, like Ferrigno’s clashes with his father and Mike Katz’s I-want-to-reach-for-the-shotgun speech after he loses the Mr Universe contest.
One might feel cheated by the obviously punched-up Hollywood drama. But to be honest, I don’t think the movie was any more fake than the contest it depicts. Arnold was the figurehead of the Weider bodybuilding empire, which (via Ben Weider) controlled virtually every aspect of the Mr Olympia. He was definitely going to win the contest, regardless of how the competition looked.
Want a freebie? Serge Nubret, 12 days before the 1975 Olympia, showed up in tremendous shape. But he got barred from entering, ostensibly because he dishonoured the sport by appearing in a porn movie (I’ll refrain from making a comment). So he let his training regimen fall apart, lost 12 pounds of muscle in 12 days, and suddenly…he was allowed back in. Nobody cared about his porn movie appearance, because now he wasn’t a threat to Arnold anymore. This seemed like a really damning story when Mr Nubret related it on a bodybuilding forum, complete with pictures of how he looked 12 days before the contest.
The Weider brothers had much to gain by keeping Arnold at the top. He was charismatic and handsome, he wasn’t a black man, and he knew how to play the game: he wasn’t someone who would upset the apple-cart by demanding better wages or working conditions. He crushed Sergio in 1972 and Mentzer in his 1980 comeback, and many critics agree that these too were paper championships.
Arnold is the greatest bodybuilder in history. But it’s not because of his 7 Mr Olympia titles. Regardless of the lingering sensation that the contest might be the truly fake part of this movie, Pumping Iron is a very entertaining watch.