Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows
|Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows|
10th anniversary edition cover.
|Directed by||Paul Jay|
|Produced by||Paul Jay
David M. Ostriker
Silva Basmajian (NFB)
|Written by||Paul Jay|
Davey Boy Smith
Stone Cold Steve Austin
|Edited by||Manfred Becker|
|December 20, 1998|
Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows is a 1998 documentary film, directed, produced and written by Paul Jay, which follows World Wrestling Federation (WWF) superstar Bret Hart during his last year in the WWF, from his WWF Championship victory at SummerSlam to his final match with the company and the infamous Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series on November 9, 1997.
Between two companies
As his contract nears expiration in March 1996, professional wrestler Bret "Hitman" Hart was torn between two companies, World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW) during the Monday Night Wars. On one hand, the WWF was his home. The chairman of the company, Vince McMahon, is a father figure to Hart and takes credit for Hart's rise to international wrestling stardom. However, the company's new creative approach to marketing professional wrestling, the "WWF Attitude" marketing brand which relies on an emphasis on sex, extreme violence, and the replacing of heroic wrestling characters with disaffected anti-heroes in effort to compete against the already-popular WCW, has left Hart disillusioned.
Ted Turner's WCW, on the other hand, was willing to pay him a great deal to "jump ship" as well as give him a fresh start in a company that offers a more wholesome approach. Hart chooses to remain loyal and signs a twenty-year deal with the WWF, despite the fact that WWF's Raw Is War is losing the Monday Night Wars to its rival Nitro. McMahon soon retracts the deal, and encourages Hart to move on to WCW, citing financial reasons. This leaves him with no choice but to take WCW President Eric Bischoff's offer and prepare to leave the WWF. As the still-reigning WWF Champion, conflicts arise regarding his final match with the company, including Hart's unwillingness to drop the WWF Championship. To be more precise, Hart is not willing to lose the title to Shawn Michaels, with whom he holds a bitter, real-life rivalry, in his home country of Canada. This leads to one of the most infamous events in professional wrestling as the Montreal Screwjob.
This documentary is a rare look at professional wrestling behind the scenes. Examples include Hart discussing with The Undertaker and Pat Patterson how matches will proceed, Bret's then wife, Julie, accusing Triple H of being in on the "screwjob", and the monstrous Vader discussing his recently acquired real estate license and future career plans.
Wrestling with Shadows also gives a rare look at Hart's family life as well as the Hart House—childhood home to Bret Hart as well as the rest of his extensive, wrestling-oriented family. Hart's mother, Helen, describes how she hates wrestling and has been wishing the family would abandon it for decades. Hart describes the role that wrestling has played in his life while footage is shown of his father, Stu, legitimately applying submission holds on a student of his basement — a notorious training room known as The Dungeon. Hart's then wife, Julie, is also interviewed about the toll wrestling has taken on their relationship and raising four children. Hart is shown discussing with both his father and his wife the choice to stay with the WWF or move to WCW. In one instance, his frustration at his kitchen table leads him to ask the director to stop filming.
Other highlights of the documentary include interviews held in the Meadowlands parking lot where the director asks slightly intoxicated and incoherent wrestling fans their take on the ensuing America versus Canada feud, wherein one woman credits Bret Hart as her inspiration for going back to school for computer graphics. Another interviewee claims that Americans do not love their children when they cheer for heel wrestlers like Shawn Michaels and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Another wrestling fan even shares beliefs that a strong connection lies between corporate America and the Undertaker/Bret Hart storyline. His words detail how Americans have to operate through a "by any means necessary" philosophy.
The final act of the film sheds light on the events building up to Survivor Series '97 in which Hart put his WWF title on the line against Shawn Michaels. Hart is seen entering a private discussion with McMahon on how his final match will play out, which is heard on film due to Hart wearing a wire. They seem to find common ground and agree to a no contest or "schmozz". This result would then allow Hart to make a farewell speech the following night on Raw Is War and forfeit his WWF Championship.
Hart begins the match believing that it will end as he and McMahon agreed upon; midway through the bout, Michaels had Hart in a sharp shooter (Hart's submission move) which Hart was in the process of escaping. However, McMahon comes to ringside and orders referee — and close friend of Hart — Earl Hebner to call for the ringside bell to be rung, signaling the end of the match. Hebner does so and declares Michaels the winner, stripping Hart of the title.
An enraged Hart spits on McMahon while Hebner, fearing for his safety, flees the building. Hart spells out "WCW" with his fingers to the shocked and confused crowd and smashes numerous ringside television monitors before storming backstage to confront Michaels and McMahon. Michaels feigns ignorance. During a closed-door confrontation with McMahon, Hart punches him in the face; Hart's then wife, believing that the incident was a conspiracy by the entire WWF roster, corners and confronts numerous wrestlers, most of whom appear bemused. A stunned, bruised McMahon staggers out of the building and Hart and his family leave. The film concludes with footage of Hart at home while on screen text details the immediate fallout of the screwjob.
Wrestling with Shadows is co-produced by High Road Productions Inc. and the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). It was released on VHS format to both the United States and United Kingdom in 1999. It has been available on DVD in the UK since 2004. On February 3, 2009, Wrestling with Shadows: The 10th Anniversary Collectors Edition was released on DVD for the first time in the United States. This two-disc edition includes the movie, interviews with Bret Hart and director Paul Jay ten years later and "The Life and Death of Owen Hart" documentary.
In an interview featured on the two-disc special edition, Jay states that the filmmakers had a contract with McMahon to provide not only stock footage, but the waivers for the use of the names and likeness of the other wrestlers featured in the film. After the fallout from Montreal, however, McMahon feared how he would be portrayed in the film and refused both. The director goes on to state that WCW contacted the filmmakers and not only offered to pay for the lawsuit at a cost of $750,000, they also offered a pay-per-view deal for the film and long term distribution on the Turner network. Once McMahon became aware of this, the director states that they received a fax from Titan Sports Inc., saying that they would honor their original contract on the condition that the lawsuit be dropped and they could never sell the film to Turner. Jay said they were told they had a "slam-dunk" case but when asked about the film, they were told they would most likely be in court three to four years and "there would be no film" even if they won; they chose to make the film and dropped the lawsuit. The director goes on to state that McMahon also used his reputation to kill some of the distribution deals in the U.S. and overseas.
The film was well received. It won numerous film festival awards and has aired several times on both A&E and the Documentary Channel as well as on BBC Two in the United Kingdom; after a 1999 airing on BBC Two, journalist Greg Wood described it "a story beautifully told".
Wrestling historian Dave Meltzer has stated that Wrestling with Shadows is, together with Beyond the Mat, the two most critically acclaimed wrestling documentaries. The Canadian film study book North of Everything: English-Canadian Cinema Since 1980 declared the film to be one of the best National Film Board documentaries of the period and worthy of John Grierson's mission for the NFB.
- Bret "Hit Man" Hart: The Best There Is, the Best There Was, the Best There Ever Will Be
- Bret Hart: Survival of the Hitman
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