Robin’s Underrated Gems: Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows (1998)

We recently recorded a Shouts From the Back Row podcast about movies which starred professional wrestlers and while the majority of these movies do tend to suck, there are plenty of excellent wrestling documentaries out there. One of the main reasons that behind-the-scenes wrestling documentaries are fascinating to watch is because there was once a time when such a thing was unheard-of. For years, the industry had to adhere to the concept of “kayfabe”. The inner workings of pro wrestling were treated with the same secrecy as “The Magician s Code” and everyone involved with the business was forced to constantly keep the illusion that it was all 100 % real. Of course, one it was publicly revealed that wrestling was not a legitimate sport, but rather a predetermined form of “sports entertainment”, the industry became much more open to letting fans see what went on behind the curtain. The documentary, Beyond the Mat, was a pretty eye-opening look at the inner workings of professional wrestling, but it was not the first film to provide the public with this type of behind-the-scenes access. In 1996, a Canadian filmmaker named Paul Jay decided to do a documentary for the National Film Board of Canada called Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows. It would profile Bret “The Hitman” Hart, one of the top superstars in the World Wrestling Federation and unquestionably the most famous wrestler to ever come out of Canada. The project’s original intentions were to showcase the day-to-day experience of a being a pro wrestling superstar, but the filmmakers could never have dreamed about the historic events they were about to chronicle. While the documentary was being made, Bret Hart wound up leaving the WWF, and the filmmakers would bear witness to perhaps the most infamous moment in wresting history, elevating the project to whole other level.

As Wrestling with Shadows opens, we are on the eve of the WWF’s annual Survivor Series pay-per-view, which is taking place in Montreal. The promotion’s champion, Bret “The Hitman” Hart, is faced with a very tough decision. He has just signed a huge contract with the competition and has to drop the WWF title before leaving, but does not want to lose the belt to his hated rival in front of his fans in his home country. We learn that Bret hailed from the largest wrestling family in Canada and started out his career in an Alberta-based promotion run by his ultra-tough father, Stu Hart. While virtually everyone in the Hart family became involved in wrestling at some point, Bret obviously achieved the biggest stardom. After signing with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation, he eventually became the promotion’s champion and one of their most beloved babyfaces (i.e. “good guys”).  After 14 years working for the WWF, Bret is told by Vince that the company is in financial peril and that he can’t afford to pay him the lucrative contract he signed him to. The WWF has been losing a TV ratings war with their rival promotion, Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling, and there’s a fear the company might go out of business. Bret is offered a huge contract with WCW, but is torn between that and his loyalty to Vince. However, Bret is also disillusioned by the WWF’s decision to go from traditional, family-friendly wrestling to a being a more raunchy, adult-oriented product. After spending many years playing a good guy, the fans have started turning on Bret because they find his squeaky-clean babyface act to be stale. His unhappiness with the company’s current direction helps validate Bret’s decision to jump ship, but the big obstacle is his refusal to drop the WWF title in Canada. Bret really does not want to lose the belt to Shawn Michaels, an arrogant primadonna whom he hates both in AND out of the ring. Vince is paranoid that Bret might be show up on WCW programming with the title if he doesn’t lose it before his contract expires, so no one is quite sure to handle this situation.

Of course, when Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels finally had their big match at Survivor Series, the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” took place. Vince agreed to let the match end with a double-disqualification so that Bret wouldn’t have to lose, but when Shawn put Bret in his sharpshooter submission hold, Vince immediately pulled a double-cross by calling for the bell. The match would end with the fake illusion that Bret submitted and Shawn would walk out with the title. This would be one of the few real, 100 % unscripted moments to ever take place in pro wrestling. The fact that there happened to be a documentary crew on hand to capture this has always made people speculate that this was planned all along. However, over 15 years later, it’s obvious that the events in this film are all real and that the Montreal Screwjob helped elevate Wrestling With Shadows from a mere behind-the-scenes documentary into a Shakespearean tragedy.  Even if you’re not a pro wrestling fan, Wrestling with Shadows makes for very compelling drama because it’s still one of the very first documentaries to reveal what goes on behind-the-scenes, and show the wrestlers as ordinary human beings instead of larger-than-life characters. But even though pro wrestling is all a predetermined stage show, this film demonstrates that the people can still take it VERY seriously. The sections which detail Bret Hart’s transition from beloved babyface to hated heel are all fascinating stuff.  You can see how seriously Bret takes his “Hitman” persona and he has a hard time transitioning into a bad guy role, not understanding why today’s wrestling fans want to cheer badass antiheroes like his rival, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Bret’s heel turn would make for one of the greatest wrestling storylines of all time as he would constantly insult America and praise Canada… which meant he was still hailed as a hero whenever he wrestled in his home country! One of the most eye-opening segments in the film showcases a group of passionate fans expressing their opposing views about Bret Hart, and there’s no way you could convince these people that it’s all just a show.

Vince McMahon was reportedly so unhappy about how he was portrayed in Wrestling with Shadows that he tried to block the film’s release, but relented when WCW made Paul Jay an offer to buy the rights to the film. While it’s easy to view the film and simply think of Bret as the good guy and Vince as the bad guy, you can still understand Vince’s perspective. The competitive, political nature of pro wrestling just causes everyone to be paranoid and protective of their spot at all costs, and it’s nearly impossible to find success in the industry without being swallowed up by it. However, it turns out that coming off as a bad guy was the best thing that could have happened to Vince McMahon. He soon embraced this persona to play an over-the-top heel character on television, and his onscreen feud with “Stone Cold” Steve Austin would lead to the most successful boom period in the history of the WWF. However, Bret Hart would go on to face a non-stop series of his tragedies as his wrestling career was soon ended by a serious concussion and he would suffer a bad stroke a few years afterward. In addition, his brother, Owen, would continue to work for the WWF and die in a tragic accident after falling from the arena’s rafters during a botched stunt in the middle of a live pay-per-view. In spite of this, all parties involved would eventually have a reconciliation when Bret returned to work for the WWF in 2010 and ultimately buried the hatchet with Vince McMahon and Shawn Michaels. Like Beyond the Mat, Wrestling with Shadows is essential viewing for both wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike. Even if you know nothing about the industry, this film makes it very easy to understand what’s happening even if the events might come across as insane. Wrestling with Shadows is probably more well-known in Canada than the United States, as Bret Hart is such an iconic figure here that he actually transcends wrestling. While this documentary will probably not convert you into a wrestling fan, it might give you a new appreciation for the industry and help you realize that it isn’t always as “fake” as they make it out to be.

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