ANY MENTION OF “strongman” will elicit in the minds of members of my generation memories of the giant Magnus Samuelsson or Mariusz Pudzianowski pulling trucks and lifting stones and, red in the face and trembling, heaving hundreds of kilos in weight off the floor. Then and now, it was and is only on the fringes of the mainstream, but then, as now, a highly charismatic figure has emerged and seems determined to thrust the spotlight upon it.
Like the four-time World’s Strongest Man winner Jon Pall Sigmarsson, whose guttural (and questionable) declaration that “there is no reason to be alive if you can’t do deadlift” made him an instant sporting icon, Eddie Hall, through sheer force of personality, is reacquainting Britons with this most primitive sport. Anyone who watches a lot of sport will know that self-obsession is so often dressed up as “showmanship”; Eddie Hall chooses instead to describe himself as a “narcissistic prick”, which makes a nice change.
Eddie: Strongman, which was made in 2015 by Matt Bell, follows the eponymous athlete as he strives to be named “World’s Strongest Man”, a feat which he did eventually achieve in 2017. Through Hall, we come to learn about the punishing routines of men like him and the sacrifices they are forced––or rather, choose––to make to achieve their goals. Hall, and his principal rivals Brian Shaw, Zydrunas Savickas and Hafthor Julius Bjornsson, who appeared in Game of Thrones, must eat almost constantly when they aren’t training, and in Hall’s case must sleep wearing an oxygen mask in the event that, due to his considerable size, he stops breathing while unconscious. As for Hall’s family he spends as much time with them as he can afford, which isn’t much, and his wife is under no illusions regarding how much he relies on her.
There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.”
All this is fascinating. What Bell does so well and yet without straining, if I can put it that way, is to explore the psychology of men like Eddie Hall. Eddie grew up in a working-class area in Stoke-on-Trent, which since the closure of its pottery factories has been blighted by crime, and excelled first as a swimmer before turning to strength sports. (In point of fact he broke one of Mark Foster’s records as a teenager.) The exception that proves the rule that strongmen are, as Eddie suggests, complete narcissists, is Brian Shaw, whose need to be strong seems to be propelled by a kind of body dysmorphia or “bigorexia”: he mentions, at one point, that he used to eat extreme amounts of food because “more food means more big”. Hafthor and Zydrunas have shades of the same kind of self-obsession that drives Eddie. Memorably, the stoic Lithuanian Zydrunas, who we are told may be the greatest strongman ever to have lived, looks into the camera and says, “I have many trophies. You need a big house to store many trophies.” There’s a suggestion that Eddie is in some way playing a character when he, for example, pauses halfway through a strongman event to give the middle finger to his competitor, but like comedians who plead the same, the line separating the two personalities is blurred to say the least. Besides, as Rachel Dawes notes in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, “It’s not who you are underneath; it’s what you do that defines you.” It doesn’t harm Eddie’s cause: these athletes are almost totally reliant on sponsorship and competition victories to support their extreme habit, and a little self-promotion might be the order of the day.
Strongman, like those who choose its path, is far more complex than most would believe, but nevertheless there is something primal, and therefore interesting, about the pursuit of raw strength. Bodybuilding, in contrast, is found somewhere like the intersection of sport and performance art, and there are multiple criteria by which competitors are judged. In strongman, there is little room for style or grace or finesse; strength reigns supreme, and it has enduring appeal for that reason. As Eddie points out, the origins of strongman go deep into the history of the species. It isn’t much of a stretch to imagine our terrified nomadic ancestors gathering around to see who could lift the heaviest rock. Eddie: Strongman is illuminating and very watchable, for the most part because of its charismatic central figure and the unusual nature of the sport. But director Mark Bell nevertheless deserves praise himself for the way in which he tells his story.