Pumping Iron and the Seeds of the Rise and Fall of Arnold Schwarzenegger

by Nathan on August 5, 2011

(Source: IMDB)

Even though he had been Mr. Olympia five times prior, it was the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron that brought Arnold Schwarzenegger to the American public.  The film follows bodybuilding participants – in their training for, lead up to, and competition in – the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest.  In the end, Schwarzenegger earns his sixth and final title before retiring from the sport to pursue a career in Hollywood.

Throughout the film, you get a glimpse into what made Arnold such a star.  You begin to understand that his fame and fortune were built not just on his charm, charisma, work ethic, and spectacularly sculpted body, but also his cunning and ruthlessness.  Very rarely do you get to see such a successful and famous person at the beginning of their career, full of ambition and dedication, willing to do whatever it takes to make it to the top.

Arnold’s hard work and dedication are very evident throughout the entire film; in fact, surprisingly so.  At the start of the film, Arnold and fellow competitor Franco Columbo are at a dance studio learning ballet techniques. The ballet skills will give them natural movements as they transition from one flex to another, allowing for a smoother and more fluid set of poses.

Watching Arnold’s workouts, you see how intense of a competitor he really is.  He explains that there is a mental barrier that really separates the champions from the rest, but most people are afraid to cross it.  He goes on to say, nonchalantly, that he’s not afraid if he passes out while training.  In fact, he’s vomited in the gym many times.  But, he explains, “if you can go through this pain barrier, you may get to be a champion. If you can’t go through, forget it. And that’s what most people lack, is having the guts.”  Having the guts to put more weight on the bar, even when you think you might collapse, or sprint that last lap, despite being completely winded and gasping for breath, is what it takes to compete for a championship title.

As the films progresses, however, you see that his physical strength and size are built upon a foundation of immense mental strength.  For instance, his father died right before a competition several years prior, but Arnold didn’t attend the funeral.  He said it would break up his training routine.  He rationalized that since his father was already dead, there was no use jeopardizing his title to fly to Austria to go to funeral.  He coped with the death by blocking out any sort of sad emotion.  He could not afford to get unhinged during his training and allow any sort of negativity to influence his naturally charismatic showmanship on stage. If he lets one weak or soft emotion affect his mood, he’s done for on stage.

Arnold’s real coup de maître was the psychological warfare he employed on his fellow competitors. He said that many ambitious bodybuilders would often ask him for advice about this or that in the sport. In one particular instance, before a competition for Mr. Munich, there was one competitor who asked him for some advice. And Arnold, cheekily, told him that he learned a new posing style from the United States.  He said that in the U.S., people yell, grunt, and scream at the top of their lungs when they pose before the crowd and judges. So the guy followed his advice, yelled like a crazy man, and naturally embarrassed himself, and wholly lost the competition.

Arnold also follows the dictum from The Godfather ‘to keep your friends close and your enemies closer’. Employing the tactic on friend Franco Columbo, he explains: “Franco 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.” Franco and Arnold are certainly friends, but the hands of their friendship, in Arnold’s eyes, are not extended to competitions.

For the 1975 contest, which is the ultimate climax of the film, Arnold’s toughest competitor was Lou Ferrigno, the biggest and tallest contestant to ever participate in Mr. Olympia.  Ferrigno, who went on to star as the Hulk, had a very strict diet, intense workout routine, and received much moral support from his father and family.  He was desperate to unseat Arnold from the top spot.  Recognizing the threat, Arnold, began his mind games before they even met.

A trainer was flying out from Arnold’s local California gym to help Ferrigno train a few weeks prior to the event.  Arnold, in between extreme courtesies directed toward Ferrigno, nonchalantly told the trainer that Lou “needs a lot of work”. This subtle comment made its way to Ferrigno and festered in his mind for several weeks, stewing insecurities and planting seeds of doubt.

Then right before the contest, Arnold really went to work on Ferrigno.  He explained that “You have to do everything possible to win… no matter what. The day of the contest if he comes in his best shape and he’s equally as good as I am or if, let’s say, he’s a few percent better than I am, I spend with him one night. I go downstairs and book us together in a room to help him for tomorrow’s contest. And that night he will never forget. I will mix him up.”  Arnold proceeded to poke seemingly innocent fun at Lou’s timing, saying that he was off by a month.  He pointed out his nervousness and youthfulness.  And he engaged in distracting banter right before going on stage that threw off Lou’s focus and concentration. All these tactics succeeded shaking Ferrigno’s confidence, and damaging his performance.

Watching Pumping Iron you realize how Arnold became so rich and famous. You see the roots of his raw unadulterated drive and ambition to get on top and make his mark.  You also see, however, the seeds of his downfall.  (By downfall, I mean the irreparable damage to his public reputation from the fallout of the discovery of the child he adulterously fathered and hid from his wife, family, and public for 14 years. I do, however, want to say that I believe Arnold is the top action hero in history and his reputation for that will outlive this crisis. Nevertheless, his reputation as a respectable and virtuous political figure and moral citizen is completely shattered.)

Arnold’s downfall, which affects so many public figures, whether movie stars or politicians, is rooted in his extreme narcissism.  At first, his narcissism is kind of charming. Seeing someone so confident is endearing and kind of reassuring.  It’s almost awe-inspiring.  But as the film progresses, you realize the depth of Arnold’s.  I understand that narcissism is a strong element inherent in bodybuilding, but Arnold’s is so much stronger and moving than the other figures in the film.  Throughout the entire film, for instance, Arnold never showed one ounce of humility. He never acknowledged the possibility that he could lose, commenting that his body was utterly perfect. He had a painting of himself, showing a picture of him flexing on a mountain, as if he were Zeus himself. And in one of the final scenes of the film, after his victory in the competition, while smoking a marijuana cigarette, he’s wearing a shirt that says ‘Arnold is Numero Uno’.

Dr. Drew Pinsky, psychologist and author of The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism is Seducing America, defines narcissism as a pattern of grandiosity coupled with emotional disconnection.  Narcissists don’t recognize the consequences of their actions on others because they don’t perceive their feelings, he explains in an interview with Anderson Cooper. And, he goes on, when there is a particular impulsive for narcissists – in this case Arnold’s affair with his housekeeper – it is hard for them to predict the effects it will have on other people.

Arnold’s narcissism – so clearly demonstrated in Pumping Iron when he was at the onset of his career – led him to act impulsively and recklessly without any regard to possible consequences, of which in fact rippled throughout the media and country and brought about his eventual downfall from public life.

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