Pumping Iron

By Jared Young

Mailed on November 20, 2012

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Dear Arnold Schwarzenegger
as Himself

Dear Arnold,

As someone who was eleven years old in 1991, I can tell you this: in 1991, every eleven year-old wanted to be Eddie Furlong. Sweet bangs, skateboard skills, a laptop that could hack a bank machine, and his own personal cyborg assassin--he had it all. By the end of Terminator 2: Judgment Day, when (spoiler alert) you sacrifice yourself to destroy the computer chip inside your head that will give rise to sentient digital overlord SkyNet, it's clear that you've become a proxy for young John Connor's absent father, who, (double spoiler alert) you killed in the first film.

Throughout your career, that's what you've been to me: a father figure. Even in movies like Predator, there's a paternal spirit to the way you take control of your strike team when the flayed bodies begin to appear. In Commando, there's not even a patriarchal analogy to untangle: you're a father, maiming and murdering and cracking wise in search of your kidnapped daughter.

But the big surprise of Pumping Iron - the 1977 documentary that chronicles the regimens and routines of a group of bodybuilders as they train in preparation of the Mr. Olympia contest in Pretoria, South Africa - isn't your youthful exuberance or frightening steroidal girth.

It's that you're the bad guy. More Thulsa Doom than you are Conan; more Bennett than John Matrix; more T-1000 than T-800. Like most films, Pumping Iron is fascinating to watch because it has a fascinating antagonist.

You have an irrepressible charisma--I don't think anyone would argue otherwise. What other unintelligible man-mountain could get away, throughout his career, playing characters named Alan Schaeffer, Ben Richards, or Howard Langston (Schaeffer, Richards, and Langston: a great name for a 70s prog-rock band). Pumping Iron is the genesis of all that; the film that introduced the world to your gap-toothed smile, ovoid Austrian accent, and the ridiculous wingspan of your lats. When the film was released in 1977, you were no stranger to the big screen. Following in the footsteps of your mentor Reg Park, you starred as Hercules in a low-budget sword-and-sandals flick, and just the previous year played a version of yourself in Bob Rafaelson's Stay Hungry. So, what was it about _Pumping Iron _that gave birth to the living legend known today as "Arnie" (aka. The Governator)?

It's simple, really. While the role of the hero might be more satisfying for the ego, the role of the villain is always more fun. The id, unleashed. And in _Pumping Iron _you seem to be having a lot of fun.

You hit all the beats of a great bad guy: the megalomaniacal visions ("I was always dreaming about very powerful people, dictators and things like that. I was just always impressed by people who could be remembered for hundreds of years, or even, like Jesus, be for thousands of years remembered."), the merciless psychological warfare (to your opponents before the Mr. Olympia finals: "You make too much noise! Has to be very quiet in here, like in a Church!"), the cold-blooded backstory (telling your mother that you wouldn't attend your father's funeral: "I'm sorry, I can't come. And I didn't explain to her really the reasons why…I didn't bother with it.") You even give us an expository rundown of your nefarious plans ("Franco [Columbu] is pretty smart, but Franco's a child, and when it comes to the day of the contest, I am his father. He comes to me for advices. So it's not that hard for me to give him the wrong advices.").

But that's not the only surprise in Pumping Iron. The hero of the film (and, yes, documentary films, by nature of the way they manipulate the truth through editing and music and every other filmic choice, have heroes and villains) is a young Brooklynite, born deaf, trained by his overbearing father in a dank local gym that looks like an abandoned Italian restaurant.

His name is Louis Ferrigno. At twenty-two years-old, he's the sweet, innocent, charmingly awkward foil to your arrogant Adonis. It's hard not to cheer for him as he makes it his mission to unseat you as champion.

But it's even harder not to cheer for you. Despite the profound hubris, the Machiavellian scheming, you're the one we want to see onscreen. Whether as a golden god coasting through Gold's Gym in Venice Beach or as a leather-jacketed cybernetic killing machine dedicated to protecting a foul-mouthed twelve year-old.

There's a reason Lou Ferrigno didn't go on to star in high-concept Ivan Reitman comedies and James Cameron blockbusters. And the reason is clear in the final moments of _Pumping Iron. _As the winner of the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest is about to be announced, it's not the earnest, hard-working underdog we're pulling for. We're hoping the bad guy wins. And, for the next three decades, he will.



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