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review added: 4/5/04



Pumping Iron
The 25th Anniversary Special Edition - 1977 (2003) - White Mountain Films/Channel 5 Distributing (HBO Video)

review by Rob Hale of The Digital Bits

Pumping Iron: The 25th Anniversary Special Edition Program Rating: B

Disc Ratings (Video/Extras): B/B/B+

Specs and Features

85 mins, PG, full frame (1.33:1), single-sided, dual-layered, keep case packaging, Iron and Beyond featurette (15 mins, 4:3, English DD 2.0), Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron (45 mins, 4:3, English DD 2.0), Iron Insights featurette (15 mins, 4:3, English DD 2.0), video biography of Arnold Schwarzenegger with exclusive photo gallery (10 mins, 4:3, English DD 2.0), 2 promotional shorts, languages: English (DD 5.1 & 2.0), subtitles: English, French and Spanish

Want to know what it feels like to be laughed at? Mention to someone who has never seen Pumping Iron that you think they should see it. All too frequently this seems to be the reaction I get and I can't say I'm surprised, but it is still a shame. Iron does have two major obstacles impeding its acceptance to your average viewer: first, it's a documentary which is a genre riddled with unwarranted implications of mind-numbing tedium; second, it's about bodybuilding, which is amongst the most marginalized of sports and also viewed as a tedious affair by many people. These obstacles in place, the film is completely fascinating largely due to one key element: Arnold.

Pumping Iron is not a great film, this is true, it frequently feels staged and really doesn't do that good of a job of covering the sport of competitive bodybuilding (leave that to its superior sequel Pumping Iron 2: The Women), but it is essential for even the most grudging fans of Arnold Schwarzenegger. No explosions or one-liners in later films can match Arnold's comparison of getting 'pumped' to an orgasm. Nor can they beat his story about how he tricks an admittedly better opponent into losing. Pumping Iron is more about the power of confidence and mental exercise in competition than bodybuilding, and on this level it succeeds tremendously.

It is easy to see why Hollywood latched on to Schwarzenegger soon after this film was released. Oozing charisma, Arnold towers over everything around him. In many ways, the film can almost be seen as an audition, and is infinitely more fascinating than any performance he's given since. This IS essentially a performance being put on by Arnold as he shows off both body and confidence, whittling his competitors down to little stubs by the time the competition arrives. As everyone else in the film is busy trying to keep themselves together, Arnold is busy one-upping them in workouts, planting seeds of failure (his breakfast with Lou Ferrigno), and just plain acting the role of Mr. Olympia as if it is a forgone conclusion that he's the winner.

All this having been said, there is still more to enjoy with the film than just Arnold. The relationship between Lou Ferrigno and his father is engaging and the supporting cast are all intriguing in their own way, even if we don't really spend much time with them. Overall, the film is just a lot of fun, which is much more than I think anyone who isn't familiar with this film expects, and I find that it constantly surprises people when I show it to them. Pumping Iron's probably not going to make most people out there fall in love with bodybuilding, but it is still a guilty pleasure and I can think of far worse ways to spend your hard earned money and time.

HBO Video has done a pretty admirable job with this release and I must say I'm surprised. Taking one look at the incredibly cheesy cover art for the disc (and low ticket price) I was expecting a slapped together, 'quick-let's-get-this-thing-out-there-he's-gonna-be-governor' affair, but I'm happy to say that it isn't. Quite a number has been done to this film to clean it up and, while not perfect, it looks and sounds terrific compared to my old laserdisc. The film still exhibits some grain and is a bit fuzzy here and there, but overall the picture is much sharper and colors much stronger than I've ever seen from this film. The audio is similarly much cleaner overall. In the past I've had to crank up the volume to get through the hiss and general muddiness of the soundtrack, but things are in much better shape here and the addition of a 5.1 mix sure is nice, although a bit overkill for the film.

Supplemental features are equally well presented. First off, we get a 15-minute featurette, which was obviously intended as an introduction for VHS and/or cable broadcast which covers the influence of the film and what it did for Arnold's career. It's light and fluffy, with interviews with many of Arnold's friends and colleagues talking about his career and how this film sparked the fitness craze of the 80's (which I feel is a bit overstated). It's nothing spectacular, but not bad for an intro piece. Far more interesting is Raw Iron: The Making of Pumping Iron. Containing gobs of deleted material, this documentary is almost more interesting than the feature itself. Pretty much everything you could want to know is covered here from the earliest conception stages through a little 'where are they now' segment. A great amount of detail is spent discussing how much of what we see on screen was planned out and staged in order to form stories and develop characters. This isn't terribly surprising (I did mention that the film does feel staged at times, and this is a technique used more than we like to think in documentary filmmaking), but the candor with which the filmmakers talk about it is refreshing. Also included is a brief series of interviews with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is equally candid about the 'character' that he had to develop, and how the stories were put together as the production moved forward. Rounding out the extras are a rather lengthy and detailed video biography of Arnold that's pretty decent, and some promotional spots for the film, made for when it was being rebroadcast on Cinemax, which are nice to have, but add little substance.

All in all, it's a nice little package at a great price for a film that surpasses most people's expectations. An easy recommendation.

Rob Hale
robhale@thedigitalbits.com


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