Welcome to a special edition of “Ringside Review.” Given that Survivor Series is just around the corner, today marks an opportune moment to mark the 15th anniversary of one of the most controversial moments in the history of professional wrestling. To that end, this week we’ll be looking at Paul Jay’s documentary “Wrestling With Shadows” which chronicles Bret “The Hitman” Hart’s final year in the WWF as it was which culminated with the Montreal Screwjob on this very day fifteen years ago to the day.
To those unaware, the Montreal Screwjob occured on the 9th of November 1997 in Montreal at Survivor Series in a match for the WWF title between The Heartbreak Kid Shawn Michaels and Bret “The Hitman” Hart. Bret had agreed a DQ finish with Vince McMahon before the match before being placed in the Sharpshooter by Shawn Michaels when Vince McMahon came out and forced the referee, Earl Hebner, to ring the bell even though Bret never tapped out.
Debate rages on to this day about who was right and who was wrong. Some argue that Bret should have bowed to Vince’s request and lost to Shawn Michaels in Montreal and that Vince could not allow an undefeated champion to jump ship to Ted Turner’s WCW, while others maintain that Bret’s anger was righteous and justified.
Regardless of your opinion on the matter, “Wrestling With Shadows” is the definitive documentary on the events leading up to Survivor Series 1997. We see the last year of Bret Hart’s career in the WWF, where Bret grants the cameras almost unrestricted access to events and his personal life.
Along with Montreal, it also provides a bit of an insight into the transformation of the WWF. 1996 going into 1997 was the year where the WWF began the transistion from being a family orientated product and evolving into a far more risque programme which ushered in what has become known as “The Attitude Era.”
Given that Hart was one of the major stars of the previous era, it’s interesting to guage his feelings and opinions on the direction the WWF was headed in at the time of his leaving. Hart does at times come across as a traditionalist who is stuck in the past. However, a lot of his points do make sense. Is it right to have kids copying DX in the playground (I’m not saying this for shock value, I was 8 in 1999 and I know we imitated what we saw) or to expose a young audience to Bra and Panties “matches”?
One of the fascinating aspects of the DVD that relates to the changing of the times is Bret’s feelings about turning heel. Up to that point, by and large Bret had been the stereotypical WWF-style good guy who always did the right thing. It’s fascinating to hear how Bret rationalised turning heel for his character and for himself while keeping true to his belief that his character’s fundamental quality was that The Hitman would never lie to his fans or turn his back on them. We’re effectively seeing a guy in his 40s reinvent himself to a new time and a new era, which is fascinating to watch.
Moving away from the ethics of the attitude era however (another debate for another time), we’re also given an insight into Bret as a man. He talks about his father and the relationship and history he enjoys with him, as well as what it was like growing up in a family with 12 children and as a member of the Hart clan. His mother makes an amusing comment that she wanted none of her sons involved in the wrestling business and especially for none of her daughters to marry wrestlers. All her sons became involved in wrestling and all her daughters went on to marry wrestlers!
The film looks at Hart’s reasons for leaving the WWF. We see the immediate aftermath of Bret getting home and informing his wife that Vince can’t afford to keep him because the WWF was in “financial pearl” and that “no-one wnated Bret Hart to stay in the WWF more than Vince McMahon.” We also hear from Bret just after he sends his completed WCW contract to the company and you can tell how big a decision it was for him in his life after spending nearly 14 years with the WWF.
The film’s climax is in Montreal. Hart becomes more strained as the film goes on and to exit. Due to personal problems between himself and Shawn Michaels, Bret didn’t see how he could drop the belt to Michaels in Canada. Bret said he was willing to do a DQ, meaning that Michaels wouldn’t be beat, or they could have him drop the belt at a house show of which there were several. Bret had a clause in his contract which stated that for the final 30 days of his contract he had reasonable creative control of his character, which is essential in understanding the tension that was present.
To cut a long story short, Bret and Vince agreed to do a DQ. Ultimately, this never transpired, as Michaels put Hart in the Sharpshooter and the match was ended and the rest is, as they say, history. We are shown the aftermath and Triple H and The Heartbreak Kid denying all knowledge of events, as well as a dazed looking Vince McMahon walking away from the dressing room after being floored by Bret, which was the last act of Bret’s career as an employee of the World Wrestling Federation.
In conclusion, “Wrestling With Shadows” is an essential watch for anyone who consider themselves to be a wrestling fan. We are treated not only to a fantastic insight into not only one of the most controversial events in the history of wrestling, but also into the minds of one of it’s most iconic figures.
This wraps up another edition of Ringside Review. Thanks for reading!
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