Movies That Ruined My Childhood: Pumping Iron (1977)
Pumping Iron was less a direct assault on my childhood as an insidious seed that colored my views on masculinity and body composition. I still love it, though.
We often talk about movies in this feature because they caused acute trauma: a scary scene, a messed up plot line that haunted us later that night, etc. But what about movies that changed the culture that dominated a childhood? Pumping Iron was the springboard for Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, and the idea that extreme hypertrophy (ie. big ol’ muscles) was manly, desirable, and downright heroic. It is no coincidence that once Conan and The Incredible Hulk rocketed to popularity, heroes from comics to Saturday morning cartoons became downright ripped. Does a covert team of ninja turtles need to be stacked like four brick shithouses? No, but it’s what society wanted. Or was told to want.
Before Pumping Iron, bodybuilders were a niche; a curiosity. Men in leopard speedos lifting old timey weights at carnivals. Then came Arnold: charismatic, confident, virile and cut out of marble like some Greek god. Suddenly everyone had a weight bench in their basement, and sales of cocoa butter went through the roof. And with it, a generation of children were indoctrinated as to what was good, what was manly. He-Manly, you could say.
Pumping Iron (1977)
Pumping Iron is a documentary following the daily routines of several amateur and professional body-builders as they get ready for the 1975 Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe contests. We see the routines, rivalries, and personal motivations of some of the seventies’ biggest bodies. Among these plot lines is the showdown between Arnold Schwarzenegger, the reigning champion, and Lou Ferrigno, an amateur making his first foray into professional body-building.
The allure of Pumping Iron is watching the day to day lives of these Herculean He-Men. From the gym, to the stage, to photoshoots and days off at the beach, you get a glimpse of their lives. But only a glimpse. For a film about pumping iron, there’s very little iron getting pumped. You see pretty much one set of work from each of the five main characters, but you certainly don’t get a feel for what a full days work is for these guys. There’s probably one big reason for that: the drugs.
Lou Ferrigno downing a bunch of supplements after waking up is as close as this film wants to get to showing you how the freakishly huge get their gains. Supposedly the original thrust of Pumping Iron was going to be sending an average Hollywood actor to Gold’s Gym to see if working with Arnold and Franco Columbu could get him yolked. The actor decided to pull out. Probably because there was literally no way he was going to get jacked quickly enough without taking a few needles in his butt. As such the movie comes across as an idealized fantasy of hard working genetic supermen.
If you thought scripted drama was the domain of the Kardashians and the 2000’s influx of reality TV, I’ve got some sour news for you. Once the original concept of the film was scrapped, they decided to manufacture some beef. The film was specifically cut to give us Faces and Heels to root for and boo against. The first pairing was Mike Katz versus Ken Waller. While Mike does seem like a genuinely nice guy, and Ken does seem like a dick, the film makes it look like they were enemies. They were actually friends.
And then there’s the scenes where Arnold rents some space in Lou Ferrigno’s head. While it was true that Arnie did enjoy playing psychological warfare with his rivals, it was reported that Arnold was specifically down with playing the villain, and overplayed how petty he could be to his fellow competitors. It’s a work folks. Once again a documentary that could have been informing waters itself down to be entertaining. It’s why I generally view the genre with a serious side-eye.
Think of the Children!
So, how is this a childhood wrecker? The impact this film had rippled through every single form of entertainment that I consumed as a child. Did I love Conan? By Krom, I did. Does the ending piano to every episode of The Incredible Hulk make my eyes water? You betcha. But it wasn’t just the movies and shows these Titans starred in. Everyone became muscle crazy.
As the 70’s gave way to the 80’s, buff became the new fad. Normally proportioned comic book characters quickly morphed to muscle-bound meatheads. Every cartoon show had someone rocking 20 inch pythons. Shirts became almost obsolete. And little boys suddenly got new role models: Gods, Barbarians, and Speedo Clad Supermen. I’m not saying that it contributed to the extreme narcissism and mild body dysmorphia I had in high-school, but I’ll just say that my first major purchase that wasn’t made to Nintendo was me dropping $700 bucks on an Olympic home gym. Arnold was living rent free in my dome, too.
Put That… Nostalgia… Right into My Veins!
All said and done, I still really liked the movie. The first time I saw it I was awestruck by all the sculpted muscle. I still am. It’s kinda fake, just like the illusion body-building sells, but Pumping Iron opened a whole new world up to me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get a pump. It’s like… well, it feels really good. I’ll leave it at that.