In 1977, a movie called Pumping Iron exploded into the public consciousness and turned the sport of bodybuilding into something that everybody was aware of. Pumping Iron also transformed several bodybuilders into international superstars including Arnold Schwarzenegger and the man who went on be become the name we most associate with The Incredible Hulk, Lou Ferrigno.
But it was the man behind the camera, George Butler who made Pumping Iron a reality and took the bodybuilding culture into the national consciousness. It was his unique vision that made the dream of Pumping Iron a reality and how he came to have that unique vision is a fascinating story.
George Butler was born in London in 1944, but was raised in Wales, Somalia, Kenya, and Jamaica and later attended the University of North Carolina. After earning a master’s degree in creative writing from Hollins College in Virginia, Butler joined VISTA, a domestic version of the Peace Corps. He soon found himself in downtown Detroit in the aftermath of the 1967 riots.
The situation in Detroit was so dangerous that his VISTA supervisor got mugged so often that he refused to travel there to check on him. During his sojourn in Detroit, Butler edited and published a community newspaper called the Oakland Lion. He took lots of photographs of riot-torn Detroit, developing his skills as a still photographer.
In 1972, while on an assignment for Life magazine to cover the Mr. Universe contest in Baghdad, Butler met Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was at that time an unknown bodybuilder. He instantly recognized the natural charisma that would later catapult the Austrian strongman to international celebrity status. He persuaded Arnold and his fellow competitors to participate in a film documenting their preparations and competition in the 1975 Mr. Olympia contest in Pretoria, South Africa. That documentary would eventually become Pumping Iron.
It seemed a natural transition for him to apply his talent to motion pictures. In his own words, “If you know what a still camera can do, you know what a movie camera can do.” The movie, Pumping Iron proved to be a long journey both in miles and stamina. Initially intended as a glimpse into the human side of body-builders, it became a good versus evil saga, showing various behind the scenes strategies, some of which were enhanced or even invented to assist in sustaining the dramatic arc of the film.
When he ran out of money for Pumping Iron and his equipment was impounded, Butler enlisted the aid of a curator at the Whitney Museum of Art to host a fundraising event highlighting the physiques of Schwarzenegger and two other bodybuilders as performance art. The thousands who braved a blizzard to view the bodies on display convinced investors that Butler’s film was a sure thing. Ultimately, Pumping Iron made several careers, including Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, in addition to launching Butler’s career as a filmmaker.
Butler followed up the success of Pumping Iron with a sequel, Pumping Iron II: The Women in 1985 and In the Blood, a 1989 documentary about the role of hunting in game conservation. In 2000, Butler’s The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition (2000), which tells the story of an ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1914-1916 won critical acclaim and numerous film festival awards and nominations.
In 2004, Butler produced a documentary, Going Upriver: The Long War of John Kerry. He and Kerry had became friends in 1966, and Butler had been documenting Kerry’s life and career since his return from Viet Nam in 1969. Butler later declared that he “knew one day it would pay off.”
The movie career of George Butler after his success with Pumping Iron was one of diverse topics where he always brought his unique vision to bear on fascinating subject matter. His next project, Roving Mars was a documentary about the NASA’s 2004 launch of twin Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity. It was released in 2006.
Returning to the sports theme, Butler made The Good Fight, based on the 2006 season of Florida State University’s football team and coach Bobby Bowden. During the filming of this movie, Butler enjoyed extensive access to the team, the coaches and even Coach Bowden’s family.
Some think of Butler as a filmmaker who specializes in sports documentaries. At least half of his documentaries have dealt with sports, but the overriding theme concerns survival.
The ability of George Butler to show the human beings involved in great events was already evident when he revealed the very unique personalities behind the muscular bodies on display in Pumping Iron. That unique movie making vision made Pumping Iron the fascinating study of bodybuilding that went on to become a bread out sensation that made bodybuilding a national obsession.