When you ask most people about the 1977 film “Pumping Iron,” if they remember it at all they tell you it’s about body building. Actually, it’s about so much more. In fact, the physical feat of lifting weights and working out take a back seat to the mental toughness also needed to win the title of Mr. Olympia. No one remembers any of the poses Arnold Schwarzenegger struck to win the contest, but they do remember the mind games he played with Lou Ferrigno, so much so that Lou was a loser before he even took the stage.
Body building has changed in the past 60 years. In 1953 a young man from Scotland named Sean Connery placed 3rd in the Mr. Universe contest (the Mr. Olympia contest did not begin until 1965). Six decades later director Vlad Yudin has brought fans of the event into the future, following 2011 Mr. Olympia winner Phil Heath as he trains to defend his title in “Generation Iron.”
Narrated by Mickey Rourke, the film is an in-depth look at a year on the lives of Heath and the contestants who hope to unseat him. They come from all over the world, and have nick names that begin with “The” (the Dragon, the Beast…Heath is called “the Gift”). They train hard and with purpose. In an interview Schwarzenegger likens body building to being a sculptor. You can look at the body, see what needs to be done on a certain part and, with the help of specialized machines, mold that part much like an artist with a chisel. Heath’s main competitor here is Kai Green, a massive man with a single braided lock of hair that he wears like Samson. It is as much a part of his performance as his muscles.
Yudin gets into the psyches of his subjects. Their ups and downs, highs and lows. The need to do well in competitions not only for personal glory but for the sponsorships that feed their families and keep them in the gym. You begin to judge yourself as the film moves on to the main event, and the final showdown is a nail biter to the very end. Even if you haven’t been to the gym in years, make an appointment to check out “Generation Iron.”