This writer is quite fortunate in that some of my non-wrestling fan friends maintain at least a casual interest in professional wrestling at large. On many separate occasions I?ve been asked: ?Whatever happened to Stone Cold?? or ?I remember Hulk Hogan! How old is he now??. Whilst not quite possessing the requisite enthusiasm to be regarded as full-blown fans, they nevertheless care enough to ask questions. Owing largely to names like Giant Haystacks and Big Daddy, the average Englishman tends to dismiss the idea of pro wrestling without reservation. This is an inevitable occurrence when all a person has witnessed of the pseudo-sport consists of rotund codgers (in leotards) throwing powder-puffs and stomping the canvas every ten seconds.
Such a sad truth notwithstanding, it is a distinct pleasure to encounter those who want to learn. It is the greatest of all human impulses and the joy of pro wrestling is in the sheer amount there is to discover. I took possession this week of a film I believe any such person should be directed to watch post haste. After many months of searching and a little patience, I finally acquired the special tenth anniversary edition of Paul Jay’s seminal documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows. For those who haven?t seen it, this is the story of Bret Hart’s final year in the then WWF. Jay’s camera crew follow Bret into the annals of his personal and professional life and, in the process, reveal much of the previously unspoken inner circle of kayfabe. Though sacrilege to some (misguided) types, the film affords a wrestler ? Bret Hart ? the opportunity to articulate the complexities of a world that occasionally makes the Magic Circle seem like a public archive.
Those who possess even elementary knowledge of the last ten years in wrestling will doubtless be aware Bret Hart’s final year in the WWF culminated in what would come to be known as ?The Montreal Screw Job?. Wrestling With Shadows captures both the intense build-up and the utterly surreal fallout of Vince McMahon’s actions that night. It is nothing short of incredible to witness the turmoil in the locker room as everyone realises the extent of to which Vince McMahon will go to prove a point. The film captures the barefaced lies of firstly Shawn Michaels (to Bret) and later Triple H (to Hart’s wife Julie) as they deny any involvement or prior knowledge. Considering the power Paul Levesque now wields in WWE, the sight of him shrinking against a wall in craven denial as Julie Hart bitterly admonishes him, is nothing short of stunning. The film even catches sight of a bruised, limping Vince McMahon retreating into infamy after tasting a right uppercut from a calm (yet livid) Hart after a confrontation. As Vince moves through the corridor and past the camera, all in attendance ? wrestler and filmmaker alike – dare not even breathe.
Despite twelve long years passing by and an overall cessation of hostilities taking place, Wrestling With Shadows has lost none of its potency. It remains a fine and devastatingly dramatic glimpse of a business in denial; likely the greatest you will ever have the privilege of beholding. It showcases the business in a light that inspires pride but also provides a brutal and unerringly honest insight into wrestling’s heart of darkness. Fans and sceptics alike should greet the film with genuine interest. As good as the documentary is, the tenth anniversary edition contains an additional feature which has long held great interest: ?The Life and Death of Owen Hart?.
Produced once again by Paul Jay (for A&E), the film is an emotionally profound look at the young life and premature demise of Owen Hart. It establishes the nature of Owen’s brief existence; growing up the youngest of twelve children in a house where the name ?Hart? weighed heaviest of all. It is an achingly poignant work that rams home the sad truth of Owen Hart not really desiring the so-called ?carnival life? of a professional wrestler and instead seeking the solace and simplicity of a normal family life. The film is at its most wrenching when Owen’s widow Martha speaks of the night Owen died. The anguish of Owen’s mother Helen and the stoicism of Stu Hart also serves to illicit genuine distress. I found the individual recollections and footage of the funeral to be very difficult to once again behold. I was only fourteen when Owen died and I loved wrestling above all in those days. I didn’t really know of death at the time, so the sight of the boys breaking character and paying tribute on the WWF Raw tribute show (the night after Owen died) upset me deeply, to the point I cried my eyes out. To this day I can’t watch those scenes without becoming extremely upset…
The Life and Death of Owen Hart should be treated with a modicum of caution, in so much as a personal friend of Bret Hart made this film at a time when the wounds of Montreal were still very raw. It in part exists to allow Bret and Martha Hart the opportunity to vent their totally justified anger and bitter resentment at the passing of a loved one. It is redundant at this point to assign blame when neither financial restitution, nor legal decision can change the truth: Owen Hart is dead. It is true Owen performed the stunt that killed him only under sufferance for a man (Vince McMahon) and a company (WWF) attempting to maximise every single dollar. It is also true the then-WWF had every right to expect a company, employed specifically to provide the necessary equipment for what was a very dangerous stunt, to be able and capable of doing so. Martha sued the WWF and the WWF sued Lewmar inc. into financial oblivion. No part of this million dollar trail of woe and retribution matters anymore.
I implore anyone who hasn’t already seen Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows to do so immediately. It doesn’t matter if you respect Bret Hart or believe in him or his cause, the story of Montreal is the story of professional wrestling. The abundant joy that comes from this most unique and habitually beautiful art form is tempered by the fragility of life and the corruption at the core of the business itself. It is best articulated by the Hitman when he opines: ?People think wrestling isn’t real… It’s more real than people think…? Never in life has the word ?entertainment? carried such dangerous connotations as it does in professional wrestling. Wrestling With Shadows and The Life and Death of Owen Hart remind me of how how much I love wrestling. It it true however, and I swear to God, I truly hate it and everything about it sometimes…