Wrestling with Shadows (1998) is a critically acclaimed film, produced by Paul Jay and Highroad Productions. The 93 minute offering documents a year in the life of Bret Hart.
Filming began in the fall of 1996 at a time when the ‘Hitman’ was weighing up his options. The documentary is loaded with WWF footage which must have been approved. However, the best WWF footage was backstage. This is the stuff we’re not usually meant to see.
WCW had offered Hart a three year deal, which according to Bret was $3 million per annum. Vince McMahon with the WWF had counter-offered with a twenty year deal, worth $10 million. As Bret stood in his swimming pool, he explained how he didn’t want to leave Vince, but that $9 million was a lot of money. Ultimately though, he had decided at this point to chose loyalty over money and to stay with his boss of twelve years. I doubt I’d be that loyal.
After Bret talked about the politics of professional wrestling, in regards to losing his WWF Championship to Shawn Michaels, he claimed that wrestling is far more real than people think. Here, ‘Shadows’ reverted back to Stampede week in early July. In Bret’s home town of Calgary, Stampede week is an exciting time, especially as the WWF were in town for a pay-per-view, where the local heroes, the Hart Foundation would headline. Backstage at the Calgary Saddledome, where the event was being held, the cameras showed an insight into how an event takes shape, before it is presented to millions of fans across the globe.
Bret and Jim ‘the Anvil’ Neidhart were shown talking about what Jim could say during the live promo. Head road agent, Pat Patterson, stood with some of the Hart Family, discussing how the main event would go down. Clips of these details were shown, while their earlier conversation could be heard over it, to demonstrate how these plans were put into motion. Getting the opportunity to see this was absolutely fantastic. It’s hard to believe Vince McMahon allowed such openness on what happens backstage. Without that, I can’t imagine this documentary would have been half as interesting. Its scores a ten out of ten for just that.
Hart introduced viewers to other characters from the WWF and described their roles. He spoke about Shawn Michaels being a great athlete, but someone who got on his nerves. Sunny was another character that was mentioned. Bret emphasized that while she is flirtatious, he and her were just good friends. This emphasis was more than likely to do with Michaels’ accusation that Bret had been sleeping with her. What a heel Shawn was in real life! Pretty sure I’d have hated him too. In reference to himself, the ‘Hitman’ described his character as a role model for kids, as someone who would never lie to his fans.
There is no denying it, the Hart Family are a legendary wrestling family, in my opinion the most legendary. It was only fitting that Paul Jay’s cameras paid a visit to the Hart House. It started with the whole family gathered for Stu’s Birthday. Bret made a speech about always aspiring to be like his Dad. The documentary provided a short background on Stu’s life, from his life of poverty as a child, to becoming a shoot fighter. Stu wanted to learn how to torture men and that he did. The basement of the Hart House is notorious for being where Stu trained and tortured many wrestlers. Known as the dungeon, Bret and his brothers were disciplined by their father. Although goodhearted, Stu was feared by his sons.
He ran Stampede Wrestling out of Calgary until Vince McMahon bought it and Bret went to the WWF. During the Hart’s sibling’s childhood, they were bullied about being from a wrestling family and it being phony. The ‘Hitman’ and his sisters described a fight Bret got into against a much bigger boy while defending his sister Alison. Bret prevailed. After seeing the Hart House in the background, you realise just what a special place it was. I would still love to go and have a look at it. Unfortunately, you could probably only get to the front gate. I’d still do it though.
Over the course of the documentary, you get to see Hart’s life on the road and how he dealt with being a villain in the United States while simultaneously being a beloved hero to the rest of the world. While travelling in the car with his son Blade, he expressed his regret for insulting the city of Pittsburgh. I enjoyed this part. Bret spoke about a match he had with Dino Bravo in 1989. It may have been one of the more simpler parts of the documentary, but it was nice to see him bonding with his son. Bret Hart admitted to not being the greatest husband to Julie and not being there enough for his children. Julie, his wife, freely admitted that she had long had enough of the wrestling business and wanted Bret to come home. Earlier in the film, Bret’s mother had said the same thing about Stu, but poor Helen could only watch as it continued on with her children.
August 3, 1997 was the day that Hart regained his WWF Championship from the Undertaker. Before the event, outside the Continental Airlines Arena, cameras caught up with many conflicting fans. It seemed that it had become all too real for some of them. One man was incensed by the jabs the Hart Foundation had been making at the United States. A woman credited Bret for being her inspiration and it was because of him that she went back to school and was going to graduate. I personally think some of these fans were way over the top. The patriotic guy is on the verge of crying for the love of America, while the college woman is a brick short of a full load.
After the match, you see Bret posing for pictures with Blade. The beautiful song that played over it continued through to the next scene, where Bret is training hard in his gym. He talked about being in wrestling for ten more years would be like a prisoner in jail, but with the nicest cell. Little did he know that the wall in his cell would crumble.
On September 22, around seven weeks after Hart’s victory at SummerSlam 1997, Vince McMahon approached him before a show in Madison Square Garden, where he said that he wanted out of their contract. Vince recommended he try and get his old contract offer at WCW as the WWF couldn’t afford to keep him on.
At Bret and Julie’s house a visibly distressed husband told his wife the bad news. She remained supportive despite her desire to see Bret come home. What a treat it was to see inside Bret’s home, especially the part where he kept all of his iconic ring attire. He spoke to Vince on the phone, where Vince said that “nobody wants Bret more than Vince McMahon”, but claimed that he was in financial peril. Vince was so broke that he paid Mike Tyson over $3 million, four months later… money well spent though.
Wrestling with Shadows took an eerie turn from here. Bret had made it clear that he didn’t want to lose at Survivor Series. He had reasonable creative control for the last thirty days of his contract, which gave him the right to leave any way that he wanted. Back at home, he began to suspect that a “screwjob” was coming. Bret said that he wanted to leave with his head held high. Now if I go by what Bret said in his book… had he have just told the viewers that Shawn had disrespected him in the dressing room prior to the Survivor Series and was willing to put anyone else over, the whole losing in Canada thing wouldn’t have seemed so lame.
Jay and his film crew caught up with Bret backstage at the Molsen Centre, three hours before the start of the Survivor Series. While many of the agents and wrestlers expressed their sorrow to Julie about Bret’s leaving, Blade and Bret’s youngest daughter Beans, were entertained by the likes of Sunny and the Headbangers. When asked about his father’s departure from the WWF, Blade didn’t seem to understand why. He just knew that he’d miss all of the wrestlers he’d come to know. This is the part I hate, because you know what’s coming, and it’s something that broke Bret’s heart, with his kids right there too.
Meanwhile, Bret sat with Vince McMahon in his office discussing the conclusion of the match. The ‘Hitman’ secretly wore a wire. Now that was a genius idea by Paul Jay. Although Vince knew the finish wouldn’t materialize, Bret unbeknownst to that seemed happy enough with a double disqualification. As usual, Bret went to see Pat Patterson about putting the match together. He was also unaware of the events that would take place.
During this portion of the film, Bret again spoke about the possibility of being betrayed. He spoke to referee Earl Hebner about it, who swore on his kids’ lives that he would not play any part in any scam, which put Hart’s mind at ease. What?! Unless Earl had a gun his pocket, that little man couldn’t have done a thing and he didn’t. Hebner was cornered just before the match and told he would be doing it. How brave do you think the brave zebra is now?
For the wrong reasons, this is probably the most famous incident in the history of WWE. It certainly isn’t the greatest triumph or tragedy, however. While Shawn Michaels applied the Sharpshooter, Vince McMahon ordered Earl to call for the bell. Bret had been screwed. Following the match, we saw unbelievable tension. Vince had locked himself in his office, while Bret quizzed Shawn on his participation. It’s ironic now and I bet Shawn cringes that he denied all knowledge by using God as his witness. Michaels later admitted that he knew all along. Vince finally appeared, and the camera crew were asked to leave. Meanwhile, Bret’s wife Julie was outside, dressing down Triple H, who also denied any knowledge of the incident (at Vince’s request). She didn’t buy it. When she told him, “what goes around comes around”, I felt the same and I do believe in the saying too. But Triple H has pretty much avoided that nasty little thing called karma, unless he had a terrible past life and is being rewarded now.
The camera sneakily caught McMahon walking out of the dressing room, limping. He had been knocked out by Bret, who took great delight in telling Paul Jay afterwards. It was obvious on the plane ride home that Bret was emotional… heartbroken. Vince deserved it. I enjoyed seeing this. As you can tell by now, I’m a big ‘Hitman’ fan.
Vince appeared on RAW shortly after and threatened legal action against Bret. He said that he had no sympathy for Bret and was sorry that he listened to the people who thought he should have kept Bret a year before. That is rubbish, but Vince knows how to lie. He then justified his actions by saying, “it’s too bad a fourteen year relationship has been destroyed, because one member of that relationship forgot that we’re in the sports entertainment business – forgot where he came from. Bret Hart screwed Bret Hart and he can look in the mirror and know that”.
The film concludes with Bret and Stu walking up to the Hart House. Bret said that he had come home and that he is fine, but that they murdered the ‘Hitman’ character. The soundtrack at the end is a nice country song that gives you a bitter sweet feeling. The film left me wanting to see more of Bret. I wanted to see how he was coping weeks afterwards.
According to Bret in his autobiography, filming of this documentary was due to wrap up in September, but Paul Jay convinced Bret to let filming continue once news broke that Bret would be leaving the WWF soon. It is fortunate for every wrestling fan that we have been able to witness this behind the scenes look at the “Montreal Screwjob”.
Overall, it is arguably the best wrestling documentary ever made. Okay, I’m a Bret Hart guy, but you have to admit that no other documentary has the depth that this one does. Some of you might find it emotional in places. It certainly made me feel sad… no tears here though. I felt, the country music that was used really added effect to this film and pulled at the heart strings.
It’s amazing how long ago this was. It doesn’t feel all that long ago and so many of the people featured in ‘Shadows’ have lost their lives. Unfortunately for the Hart family, I think their last great moment was at the Calgary Stampede. After SummerSlam, things went downhill from there, for over ten years. You may not like Bret or the other Harts, but there is no denying that this guy had star power. I just wish the WWE was as good as the WWF was in 1997. Controversy created cash (thanks Bischoff), but I’m not sure what it takes these days.
Retro Review Rating