One of the least seen important films of the 1970s is Pumping Iron, a curious “docudrama” that helped launch the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger and inspire the fitness craze of the early ’80s (remember Olivia Newton-John’s video for “Physical”?). Pumping Iron is a fascinating film, especially when seen in the context of Schwarzenegger’s subsequent cinematic and political career (it was really his first film, although it wasn’t released until two years after Stay Hungry, a Bob Rafelson comedy that starred Jeff Bridges and Sally Field along with the young Ar-Nuld and is quite wonderful in its own shaggy way). It also launched the career of Lou Ferrigno, who was cast as TV’s Incredible Hulk not long after its release.
Before P umping Iron, bodybuilders were generally viewed as a species of freak - the movie went a long way toward the mainstreaming of the subculture. And it also employed some of the same dramatic artifice that permeates today’s reality series. (The filmmakers, who initially envisioned the film as a comedy starring Bud Cort set in the world of bodybuilding,“cast” Schwarzenegger as a villain and Ferrigno as a Rocky-style underdog and shot them accordingly; there were also several scripted scenes in which friendly bodybuilders pretended to be enemies.)
With Generation Iron, Russian-born writer-director Vlad Yudin has made a sort of remake of Pumping Iron, bringing back many of the principals for cameo appearances as he chronicles the run-up to the 2012 Mr. Olympia competition, the equivalent of the World Cup of bodybuilding contests. Yudin focuses on seven hopefuls who prepare for and compete in the Las Vegas-set event.
Yet while the influence of Pumping Iron is obvious, Yudin eschews the playacting for a straighter and actually more enlightening approach. What emerges is a picture of a sport populated mostly by serious-minded young men of intelligence and sensitivity, some with more interesting backgrounds than others, but all obsessively dedicated to what is less a sport than a code of life.
Issues such as performance-enhancing drugs are addressed coolly, with the suggestion that the sport is art and science, and that bodybuilders are far more concerned than most of us about what enters their bodies.
“Bodybuilding falls into this unique category of being a sport, entertainment, being a way of life, and art,” professor Schwarzenegger offers early on, and Yudin’s largely admiring camera presses in to prove his point. And we are left to consider natural gifts versus applied science, and ponder why we usually credit the former more than the latter. Like all good stories, this movie about bodybuilding is really about much more.
Generation Iron 87 Cast: Documentary, with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Mike Katz, Phil Heath, Branch Warren, Kai Greene, Victor Martinez, Jay Cutler, Hidetada Yamagishi, Roelly Winklaar, Ben Pakulski, Dennis James; narrated by Mickey Rourke Director: Vlad Yudin Rating: PG-13, for thematic material and brief strong language Running time: 106 minutes