Book Review: Muscles in the Movies: Perfecting the Art of Illusion

Muscles in the Movies: Perfecting the Art of Illusion, by John D. Fair and David L. Chapman, University of Missouri Press, 2020, xvi + 426 pp., $65.00 (hardback), ISBN 978-082622-215-2

Muscles in the Movies represents the first, in-depth, historical study into the evolution of muscularity and film. The scale of this endeavour is the first thing that immediately impresses the reader. The next is the skill and nuance of the writers themselves. For those acquainted with the study of physical culture, this will come as no surprise. John Fair’s previous books on York Barbell and the Mr. America bodybuilding competition helped shed light on two of the most important institutions of twentieth-century American fitness.[1] David Chapman is perhaps best known for producing the first scholarly biography on Eugen Sandow but his work on muscular strongwomen, vaudeville and film has been equally important.[2] Working together, the two have created a highly-readable account that will undoubtedly become a reference work for years to come.

Surveying American and European film from its early iterations to the present day, the book’s overarching focus is the symbolism of the muscular body, male or female, on screen. Specifically, their ‘intent is to show that dazzling performances by perfectly proportioned muscular bodies on the screen better enabled audiences to realize the unreal’ (12). Accepting that the ‘cinema is the palace of make-believe’ (17), the book nevertheless stresses the interaction between societal interests in health and muscularity and their crossover to film. Throughout the rest of the book, readers are reminded that although hyper-real, muscular bodies often represented very pertinent hopes, desires and fears. What is made clear continuously throughout the book is that muscular bodies, however ephemeral they may be in reality, hold a unique distinction in visual mediums.

In terms of content, the book is delineated between an in-depth treatment of older forms of film, including that found in European cinema, and an evaluation of numerous film types from the mid-twentieth-century. Early in the book, a framework of body types is identified which helps structure later discussions about the evolving nature of muscularity in film. The three ‘paradigms’ of muscularity are split between the ‘proletarian body’ whose strength is its principal value, the ‘athletic body’ found most commonly in sport and, finally, ‘the muscular body’ as forged in the gym.(29) Such bodies have remained remarkably constant throughout modern film and can be contrasted with women’s body types which the book demonstrates have tended to exist between the slim athletic body and the ‘freakish’ muscular one. While some may come to this work interested in the Herculean physiques of male actors, many of whom were bodybuilders, there is also much to be said about the athletic or muscular female star as well. This is especially the case in the late 1980s and early 1990s as female strength on screen grew.

It is fitting that the book begins with Eugen Sandow, the nineteenth-century strongman who holds the distinction of being one of the first subjects ever captured on a Thomas Edison film. From Sandow the book moves through the silent movie era wherein film stars tended to possess the ‘proletarian’ body more so than the lean and muscular frame boasted by Sandow. For those who have read Heather Addison’s previous work on physical culture in Hollywood, the present book provides an updated, and incredibly detailed, history.[3] Film, as the book makes clear, was not immune to social concerns and the bodies recorded were often chosen in direct relation to wider developments or change.

Illustrative of this is the book’s treatment of those ‘muscular heroes’ who arose in Europe after the Great War. Focused predominantly on Bartolomeo Pagano, the Italian actor better known as the ‘mighty Maciste’ and American actor Douglas Fairbanks, the book examines how movies about muscular men as heroic figures helped support European and American masculinities rocked by the pain and devastation of conflict. Embedded in such films were also jingoistic racial stories concerning the triumph of the Western man over their African or Asian foe. For women, the book tracts the impact of the Great Depression on female bodies, arguing that in the post-Depression period, film goers preferred to see traditional (slim) women’s bodies rather than the athletic builds shown during the 1920s.(106)

In the post-Second World War period, the bodies shown on screen began to adhere more to the ‘muscular body’ outlined in the authors’ body paradigms. The 1950s and 1960s, in particular, saw an influx of American bodybuilders appear in film. Bodybuilding, especially that on the West Coast of America, was attracting a great deal of societal interest. What Chapman and Fair make clear is that this interest was not confined to a single social group or desire. Muscular male, and at times female bodies, appeared in comedies, action movies, dramas, and soft-core pornography.

While this development mimicked older films in some respects – the resurgence of Hercules films during this period being an obvious example – it is clear that muscular bodies helped push new ideas about the desirability, sexuality and heroicness of these physiques in popular media. The book ends with a discussion of the Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone action films of the 1980s whose influence is still found today in the guise of superhero movies and action stars like Dwayne Johnson.

There is no doubt that this work will serve as a much needed reference book for years to come. Depending on one’s interest this book can guide readers through gender politics in film, the intersections between race, sexuality and media, the ongoing fascination with heroic bodies and/or the evolution of bodies on film. Such insights are not specific to the United States but rather extend into Europe as well. This book would make a fine addition to both the undergraduate reading list and the professor struggling to find the right information. Divided across key subjects, themes and eras, the book is testament to David Chapman and John Fair’s skill within the field of physical culture. In line with their individual works, the book is informative, well written and thought-provoking.

[1] John D. Fair, Muscletown USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999); John D. Fair, Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).

[2] See David L. Chapman, Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1994) or David Chapman and Patricia Vertinsky, Venus with Biceps: A Pictorial History of Muscular Women (Vancouver: Arsenal Press, 2010).

[3] Heather Addison, Hollywood and the Rise of Physical Culture (New York: Routledge, 2003).

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