At Odds with Wrestling Homework: Hitman Hart Wrestling with Shadows

Once again it is time to give my thoughts on the almost weekly homework assignment from the At Odds with Wrestling podcast. It’s a new month which means this discussion is now over on their Patreon page. So if you want free thoughts, keep reading. That reminds me, I need to sign up over there at some point. Anyways, this week we all watched the infamous wrestling documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows. WWF Superstar Bret “the Hitman” Hart was being followed by a Canadian film crew for a year. He’s an icon in his home country and this was probably originally meant to be a look at him and the entire Hart family. Instead this crew happens across one of pro wrestling’s most legendary events. The Montreal Screwjob. Bret takes offers from WWF and WCW, he signs with WWF, the deal is broken, he is about to leave for WCW but is still the WWF champion, and then the 1997 Survivor Series happens in which all promises are broken and wrestling fans are still divided to this day. On to the film. 

First off, this is a well edited movie. They have a story to tell and they cut a year plus of footage to get that point across. Bret isn’t perfect, but most viewers will be full of empathy and understanding as this story progresses. The movie starts with footage of Bret visiting children in India. He says it’s “like a god coming to school” and the reaction of the kids upholds that. On the flip side we hear Bret say “tomorrow is Montreal” and then Vince McMahon’s line “Bret screwed Bret”. We know the story, but how did we get here? Let’s go back one year earlier. 

We see Bret at a WWF event, probably a Raw but I don’t remember. He’s only 40 here which is crazy for me to think of now that I’m older than that. The news reporter is flirting with him so hard. The Hart Foundation are all goofing around, and granted it’s been 25 years but they’re all dead and so are many more people seen in this movie. Vader sounds nothing like one would expect. Sunny, “just a good friend”, is absolutely gorgeous. The movie jumps to show the whole Hart family together. Helen looks absolutely broken by life. She didn’t want this wrestling life for herself or her children. Stu Hart’s origin is told and it gets a bit uncomfortable. Bret believes in don’t get hurt and don’t hurt anybody. Yet Stu was “anxious to be a bully”. Stu would bring young men home from the gym to stretch and if my younger self didn’t pick up on this my current self is sending up alarms. Wrestling is full of secrets and people being taken advantage of and this moment made me feel like there’s a whole unspoken thing happening here. 

That also might lead to a better understanding of Bret. This movie is about fathers and sons. Bret and Stu of course but also Bret and Vince McMahon. Bret is loyal to a fault to his father figures. He ignores their flaws, he looks the other way, and ultimately wants to be loved and feel validated. Every framed magazine cover, every appearance on a cartoon, is little Bret bringing home an A on his report card. Hey Stu/Vince, look at what I did, are you proud of me now? This is countered in Bret’s own relationship with his son Blade, which is seen throughout the movie. Blade is right there next to his dad, he wants to be part of all of it, he wants his dad’s love. Probably because his dad is gone so much. Everything I see from Bret in this movie shows that his son doesn’t have to do anything. I love you more than anything because you are my son and you don’t have to do anything to earn that. Different generations. Last week I watched most of the Jake “the Snake” Roberts documentary on A&E which shows the damage when the son repeats the sins of the father (not all of them, but you know what I mean). 

WCW offers Bret 9 million over 3 years. WWF offered him a 20 year contract. Most likely finish his in ring career and then become an agent or announcer. I imagine he would have made more than 9 million over the course of this contract. Bret says he’ll “be with the WWF forever” and “it would have been like leaving my dad”. And there it is. He craves his father’s love and will hurt himself to please his fathers. Literally. Footage is shown of Bret vs Dino Bravo in which Bret cracks his sternum and breaks his ribs. To paraphrase: they promised they would take care of me but the checks were only a couple hundred a week so I came back sooner. Maybe he’s realizing his work dad isn’t that good of a person. 

Maybe he’s also seeing his father change and he doesn’t know how to process this. Many of us try to predict how our parents will react to things and are shocked when the opposite takes place. We grow and change but don’t expect those older than us to do so. I can’t imagine Stu changed too much over the years. But Bret is seeing his other father who for years was all about good guys vs bad guys change his tone as the Attitude Era begins. How can Bret stay true to his father’s teachings when now his father is teaching the opposite? 

All good villains can justify their own actions. More on that later. Bret has now become a heel in America but cheered in the rest of the world. Bret cuts a promo on what’s wrong with America and 25 years later… nothing has changed. Well, that’s an extra moment of depression in this movie. 

We’ve all had moments that we couldn’t enjoy because we were stressed out over other things. Too in our own heads to stop and smell the roses. The Canadian Stampede PPV happened at this time and it feels like if Bret could calm down he could also be having a ton of fun as this dual character. Certain fans still love him, even American ones. Bret wins the WWF title at SummerSlam and this feels like a big mistake. If anything, he should have taken a vacation. The angle is hot, the rest of the Hart Foundation need him as the leader. But three months at home would have done him a world of good. “I’ve missed two days in 14 years.” But what did that get you? 

There are a lot of interactions backstage that are interesting. The kids playing with everyone. It’s really heartwarming to see the “family” of wrestling. Even Shawn Michaels playing with Blade. Hey, the two men might not be best friends but that doesn’t mean be a jerk to the kid. Even seeing Sunny talk with Bret’s wife. His wife is at her breaking point but she loves and supports her husband. She’s part of the wrestling family, even when that family includes an alleged other woman. 

Why the hell is Honky Tonk Man in the limo with the Harts? Was he at the airport and just bummed a ride to save himself some money? Also, who is the big guy that appears to be some sort of WWF employee? I can’t place him. 

We now arrive at the breaking point between Vince and Bret. Vince says the company is in “financial peril”, Bret asks Vince to talk him into staying. Bret feels his character is shot because he’s now no longer the number one heel or face. He has to be number one in his father’s eyes. Maybe this comes from being one of a hundred children. Bret says he’s leaving for morals. Vince says he’s leaving for money. Both of which is spin. Bret is being told to leave and hoping when he turns around Vince is there with outstretched arms saying I’m sorry, please don’t go. 

Poor Blade is trying to have fun playing hide and seek in the middle of all of this. When the documentary crew talks to him, it’s breaking my heart. He’s about to go through a divorce. All of these wrestlers that are his best friends. This is the last time he’ll see so many of them. Blade is 32 now and while he did do some wrestling I’m glad he overall avoided the path of trying to gain his father’s love by copying his choices. 

We’re at Montreal and Vince is absolutely checked out. “Whatever you want.” He knows Bret can say anything and it doesn’t matter. The screwjob is planned. I have debated who knew what when for years and I don’t feel the truth will ever be known. However, I absolutely think Hunter knew because he will not look Bret’s wife in the eyes. He will stand there and take the beating but will not look at her. Probably because of guilt. 

I get a kick out of Vince’s freshly knocked out walk to this day. 

Vince starts his spin. Bret says he is fine. They murdered the Hitman character. Putting a mental break between his personas so he can deal with this betrayal. 

I’m stunned WWF allowed so much footage to be used. This doesn’t paint them in a good light at all. I wonder if the initial contract was so tight there was no way out of it. Or again, maybe it’s that guilt. Let both sides be out there. 

Watching this now as an adult, as a dad, as someone who has been torn in decisions, I ache for Bret. All Bret thinks is show me you love me as much as I love you. And that doesn’t happen. Instead of loving himself so much he doesn’t need that validation from anyone else, he tries harder. “I’ll do anything, just don’t leave me.” Maybe he catches more shit because of that. He was seen as reliable and a good soldier. Taken for granted. He’s given Vince everything, ‘where is my reward’? Wrestling took everything away from him and, was it worth it? Vince still thrives yet Bret has suffered. Countless have suffered. The only way Bret screwed himself was by giving his love to the wrong person.

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