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Solie's Tuesday Morning Report: Special Edition

BRET HART, Wrestling with Shadows

Film review by Earl Oliver


Volume 3, Issue 379 - November 8, 1998

Why Vince, Why..?

a review of the film

BRET HART, Wrestling with Shadows

by Earl Oliver

First I have to say that this is a wonderful film. And I don't mean that it is a "wonderful film about wrestling", I mean it is a powerful, amazing documentary that tells a tale that really needs to be told.

The beauty of this movie is that the director didn't start out to tell the story of what Dave Meltzer has called "The Biggest Doublecross in the History of Professional Wrestling."

In fact, the filming began about a year before that infamous incident. At that time, the film crew was hoping to get an unprecedented look behind the scenes of the World Wrestling Federation. What they got in the end was the most dramatic story ever in the history of wrestling. The press release that accompanied my preview copy states that this film is "...a story about loyalty and betrayal, money and greed, dignity and disgrace. It's about fathers and sons, fans and icons, and keeping one's integrity in a world of moral uncertainty. In a word, it's a film about being human".

And I agree.

Early in the film we visit the Hart family in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Stu Hart, the legendary promoter of Stampede Wrestling, told his young wife Helen in the beginning that they would be in the wrestling business for "...maybe a couple of years." Of course it didn't turn out that way. The Harts had eight sons and four daughters. All eight boys became wrestlers, all four daughters married wrestlers.

The daughters recall what it was like, growing up with a father in a business that everyone considered "fake." The taunting they endured, the bullying by other children. Bret himself tells a story about how one particular bully, two years his senior and much bigger, sent one of his sisters home in tears. Bret publicly challenged the brute and then started wondering what he was getting himself into. The day of the fight he recalls that he walked out of the school yard and into an alley, the best wishes of one of his teachers ringing in his ears and proceeded to beat the tar out of his opponent to the surprise of the onlookers. Afterward they hoisted him onto their shoulders and paraded him around the schoolyard - an experience he relates to the eerily similar circumstance that occurred the night he won the WWF Title for the first time.

Later we get a tour of the infamous Hart Dungeon, the basement workout room where Stu put young, aspiring wrestlers through the ringer to teach them discipline and toughness. We hear excerpts from a tape recording, made some years ago by one of the boys, of a particularly vocal victim of Stu's ministrations. The recording is quiet for a few moments, as the Hart patriarch cinches up on the youngster, and then the boy screams. Between his hollerings we hear Stu saying, "Show some discipline..." The next scene shows a rather frail looking, 80 year old Stu Hart putting a modified surfboard on a burly athlete who is grunting and groaning and begging the old man to let him up. Stu calmly demonstrates that "...moving the arm this way lets up on the pressure while moving it back..." again he demonstrates, "...causes the eyes to pop - see the vein right there on the temple - see that?" he says, pointing to the bulging vein under his victim's forehead. "See? The lips are turning blue..." The rather large youngster says, "Please let me up, sir..."

Bret Hart reveals that he never intended to make a career as a pro-wrestler. He wanted to be an artist, to make films, and toward that end he entered college to pursue studies in that area. Then, low on funds, he decided to take a semester off to earn some money as a referee in his father's promotion. Before he knew it he was in training under his father's tutalege. He debuted as a pro-wrestler in 1979 and spent the next four years wrestling for Stampede until Stu sold the business to Vince McMahon, Jr. in 1984, and Bret moved to the new organization. For several years after that he languished at the bottom of the card, but he eventually convinced McMahon to let him team with his brother-in-law Jim Neidhart and the Hart Foundation was born.

Skip forward to October of 1996. Bret is at the center of a bidding war between McMahon and his arch rival, Ted Turner, who owns the WCW promotion. McMahon offers the famous 20 year contract, paying Hart $1.5 million per year for three years as an active wrestler at which point he would retire to the front office for a substantially lower, but still healthy figure for the remaining 17 years of the contract. Turner was offering him more then twice as much money, but out of loyalty, he was ready to re-sign with McMahon. His chief concern was for the legacy and future of the Hitman character, and Vince assured him that that the Hitman would be a WWF hero (babyface) for years to come. Bret accepted the WWF offer.


BRET HART, Wrestling with Shadows

is available for $24.95 (plus Shipping and Handling) at
http://www.brethartvideo.com
or by calling 1-800-900-6952


By March of 1997, Vince was still losing the ratings war and was changing his tune. He wanted Bret to turn heel. At first Bret was against the idea and it took three days for McMahon to convince him that the fans were getting tired of his "white hat" image and that it would be more fun to be a heel anyway. He and Bret came up with the idea of the Anti-American angle, where he would remain a babyface in Canada and Europe and be a heel in the States.

As the film progresses, we see Bret becoming more and more uneasy with his America-hating personna. He is being urged to say things that he doesn't want to say, throwing out insults that he would never consider uttering in real life. Bret talks to the camera as he drives his car down a street in Pittsburg, "Every once in a while I meet a little kid whose really down about it, who wishes I would change back. They try to understand it and I don't really have a great answer for them either. Hopefully, when this is all over, I won't find that I've damaged that relationship. If I did, I will feel like I kind of, in some ways, made a wrong decision."

About an hour into the movie we watch the end of Bret's controversial match with the Undertaker during which he won the WWF Title for the fifth and final time, aided by Special Referee Shawn Michaels' "accidental" chair shot on the forehead of Mark Calloway. Shown with his son Blade in the dressing room after the match, Bret looks dejected. He poses for photos with the Title belt but we can see that his heart isn't in it.

Later, during a workout, his training partner quips that Bret probably has "10 years of wrestling" left in him. Hart looks aghast and says, "Ten years of wrestling? I feel like the guy wandering around the prison yard whose a lifer - you know - I've got the nicest cell in the whole prison, I've got the run of the place, kind of got the warden in my pocket...but I cant wait to get out. Once I'm out, that will be the real test...whether I can get on the outside and stay out. Whether I can lead a normal life..."

The moment after he speaks to Vince McMahon on the phone, and has been told that the WWF can't afford to honor his 20 year contract, is caught on film. He asks them to cut off the camera as he sinks into a dining room chair opposite his wife to talk about his options. McMahon suggested that Bret go back and talk to the Turner promotion. Hart later renewed his contacts with Turner Vice-President Eric Bischoff and eventually, after some vacillations on McMahon's part, accepted Turners offer but agreed to keep it secret for the balance of his time at Titan.

Meanwhile, Bret is getting more and more digusted with the direction of the WWF storylines. "I can't imagine what their thinking is. I can't imagine Vince McMahon sitting around a table going, 'Well, why don't we try this tonight...Shawn will pull his pants down, show the crack of his ass to everybody, jumping around...' I wish I could be in the room and go, 'Are you guys nuts?' It's become Smut TV." In the weeks before the Toronto match that ended his WWF career, Bret rebeled and started to complain publicly about the creative direction of the WWF. McMahon's response was to leak news of Hart's pending departure, telling the fans that Bret had "sold out" to WCW.

By now Bret is beginning to suspect that McMahon is trying to destroy his career before he leaves. During a limo ride following Hart's final Stateside appearance for the WWF in Detroit, he complains to his companions (including his brothers-in-law and Wayne "Honky Tonk Man" Ferris) about the lines he was given to say in his rant against Shawn Michaels that night. He says, "...Vince says to me, 'I want you to really shoot with him on this interview.' We sat, Vince, Shawn and me, sat there. We went over all these things that they wanted me to say. Tapping into him sorta being gay, get into this and hit him with that. I ask Shawn, 'You really want me to say these things?' and he says, 'Yeah! Hit me with this, hit me with that.' and I say afterwards, 'I feel really uncomfortable - I'm doing the same thing to you that I'm asking you not to do to me...'"

Via a "wire" that Hart wore into the meeting, we are privy to the discussions between Hart and McMahon on the afternoon of that final match.

McMahon agreed, saying it was the right thing to do, and the two shook hands on it. Outside the meeting moments later, Hart tells his wife, Julie, "It will be alright. He says it will be a screw-job."

"I don't believe it," is her reply.

Later, in the ring, we see the referee is knocked down and Michaels is applying Hart's own Sharpshooter finishing move on the Hitman but is "feeding" his left leg back to Bret so that he can execute a reversal. The scenerio was to be that a second referee would run in followed by Owen and Neidhart who would interfere and cause the disqualification. Instead, as Michaels falls forward to the mat, the original referee (Earl Hebner, a supposed close friend of Bret) is on his feet and calling for the bell. Declaring Michaels as the winner! McMahon is at ringside and yelling at Michaels to take the belt and leave. Michaels looks as upset as Hart and gets almost to the top of the ramp before having the presence to turn back toward the crowd and display the Title. Back in the ring, Bret is spitting right in McMahon's face.

Moments later, in the dressing room, Shawn is frantically assuring Bret that he had nothing to do with the outcome. Julie confronts Michaels and Paul Levesque (Hunter Hearst Helmsley) in the hallway - again they deny complicity, but she doesn't believe it and tells them so.

The very next night we see Hart watching RAW on TV with a bitter smirk on his face as Shawn Michaels brings out a midget in a Hitman outfit, seemingly destroying the Hitman character, but we know that it was only the beginning of the WWF's propaganda blitz. The "Why, Bret Why..?" series of character assasination pieces.

And that's why this film is so important, and a "must see" for every true wrestling fan in my opinion. Before now we have had only Bret's word about what really happened. Vince McMahon's version of events and his explaination of the motives of the players has largely been accepted, especially by the younger, pro-WWF fans. This movie, if watched with an open mind, shows us what happened and allows us to make our own judgement about who were the good guys...and the bad...

At least that's the way I see it...

Earl Oliver
Editor, Solie's Wrestling Newsletter


HITMAN HART, Wrestling with Shadows - Directed by Paul Jay - A High Road Production co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada in association with TVONTARIO, Craig Broadcasting Systems, Inc., A&E Television Networks, CTV, BBC, La Sept ARTE Unite Soirees Thematique, with the participation of Cable Production Fund Telefilm Canada - Equity Investment Program, Rogers Telefund and CAVCO.

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