Rippling Biceps, Sculpted Abs, and Cinematic Illusion

Guest bloggers John D. Fair and David L. Chapman discuss the writing of their newly published book, Muscles in the Movies: Perfecting the Art of Illusion. John D. Fair is Professor Emeritus of History at Auburn University and Adjunct Professor of Kinesiology at University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of seven books including Mr. America: The Tragic History of a Bodybuilding Icon. David L. Chapman is an independent scholar and author of more than a dozen books including Sandow the Magnificent: Eugen Sandow and the Beginnings of Bodybuilding.

Muscles in the Movies is a book about the way films have used well-built and athletic bodies to create a web of cinematic illusion.  It also explores the reasons why audiences were perfectly willing to surrender to that deception.  Movies and the techniques of building musculature developed at roughly the same time, and they both influenced the way we see the human body.  Coincidence?  Not Likely.  As we discovered, a focus on muscularity (both male and female) appeared across the years and in the films of a great many countries.  Italy, Germany, pre-revolutionary China, and many others have all made significant contributions to the genre.  Despite the surprising frequency of rippling biceps and sculpted abs, many cinema fans seem to think that musclemen first appeared on the screen in the 1980s with the Terminator or Rambo.  But no.  We found that muscular bodies and daring athletic stunts have been present in world cinema from Edison’s earliest films in the 1890s all the way up to the present.  Along the way, we discovered a genre populated with demigods, athletes, ape men, daredevils, dancers, superheroes and superheroines that have been enthralling audiences for well over a century. 

It was fun discussing the obvious figures in this history:  Douglas Fairbanks, Annette Kellerman, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, but it was equally exciting to discover some of the lesser-known musclemen and athletic women (like Maciste, Astrea, and Eddie Polo) as we traced the line of brawny physiques from the 19th to the 21st century.  We also examined a few of the techniques that allowed these men and women to acquire their muscles and their abilities. These included such sports as swimming (Johnny Weissmuller), martial arts (Bruce Lee), skating (Sonja Henie), and acrobatics (Burt Lancaster).

The history of cinematic muscles would be a daunting topic for one person to take on, so we decided to share the work.  For the first time in our writing careers we chose to co-write a book; we figured that collaboration would be a good way to divvy up the duties and tap into our personal preferences as both historians and movie fans.  John is a university professor, an athlete, and a family man, and David is a retired public-school teacher who has written books on a variety of subjects from Italian jazz to strongwomen to gay physique photography.  Chapman has an interest in the earlier movies as well as those made internationally; Fair focuses on American and more contemporary manifestations of muscularity and the various ways these beefy stars built their physiques. 

Although we had both previously published several books, this was the first time that either of us had written an entire work with a co-author.  All in all, we two authors found that ours was a pretty pleasant and harmonious collaboration, and there are several reasons for our success.  First of all, we have known one another for many years, so there were few personality surprises.  We also have respect for each other’s areas of expertise, writing skill and opinions. We both bring a variety of different life experiences to the writing process.  Our interests may be diverse, but we are united in a love of these movies and the well-built people who starred in them. 

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