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READER ALERT: For all the latest wrestling happenings, check out our News & Rumours section.

Documentary follows Canada's favourite wrestler behind the scenes during his WWF days


By RICK CONRAD -- Halifax Herald
For fans, it was the biggest rob job in the history of professional wrestling.

For filmmaker Paul Jay, it was an intriguing struggle between one man who enjoyed playing the hero and another who cherished loot over loyalty.

On a November night at Montreal's Molson Centre a year ago this week, Calgary's Bret "The Hitman" Hart stood in the ring and spit at Vince McMahon, World Wrestling Federation owner and Hart's boss of 14 years.

Hart was supposed to bow out of the WWF gracefully in front of his adoring Canadian fans in this, his final match.

But McMahon changed the script at the last minute, costing Hart the World Wrestling Federation title that he had won five times.

It was one of the few times that real life intruded onto the wrestling stage.

And Jay was there to get it all on film.

"Bret's misfortune was our amazing good fortune," says the writer/director of the High Road-produced documentary Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows.

"The morality play at the theatrical level of wrestling was crossing into real life and there was a real conflict of values and beliefs taking place between Bret and Vince McMahon, between this guy that believes in heroes and believes in playing one and a guy who essentially believes in the bottom line.

"In many ways, that mirrors a lot of the conflict that's going on in society now. So it was just the gods of documentary filmmaking that smiled on us and we jumped on it.

"Of course, we wound up with a way better story than we ever thought were gonna have in the beginning."

Hitman Hart follows the wrestler from early 1996 to early 1997, a year he began at the top of the WWF heap and ended without a title and in a rival wrestling organization.

Airing Saturday on ASN at 8 p.m., it's a surprisingly fascinating and restrained behind-the-scenes look at Hart and the WWF and how the two affected each other.

"The wrestling world generally has a great inferiority complex about what they do," Jay says. "They really crave mainstream recognition and attention. So for Bret this was a way he felt to get the non-wrestling audience to have some respect for the art that he practises. He wanted people to take him seriously."

To do that, Jay and his crew were granted almost free rein with Hart and the WWF.

"(Hart) said we could film anything we wanted, unless we were violating other wrestlers too much," Jay says.

"If we were going too far in exposing the business, we would pull back some."

In return, Hart agreed to give Jay final say in how he and his family are portrayed.

As a result, Hitman Hart - co-produced by the National Film Board - is worlds away from NBC's recent cheesy "expose" on professional wrestling.

Jay's previous work has included the critically acclaimed documentaries Never-endum Referendum, Albanian Journey, End of an Era and The Birth of Language.

He also created Newsworld's now-cancelled Face Off and the new Counterspin.

Jay was not a wrestling fan himself before he began filming, but was intrigued by Hart and his immense international popularity.

"I'm a filmmaker, I'm on the lookout for a good story," he says.

"I knew Bret was very famous and I was actually a little bit surprised that nothing had ever been done on him before. He arguably for a while was probably the best-known Canadian in the world."

The 90-minute documentary (two hours with commercials) follows Hart in his last year with the WWF and how he's respected by his fellow wrestlers, his interaction with fans, his wife Julie, their four kids Jade, Dallas, Beans and Blade and the relationship he and his seven brothers and four sisters have with his father.

"To me, you need to be a wrestling fan to watch this film in the same way you need to be a boxing fan to watch Raging Bull," Jay says.

"It just happens to be about a wrestler, but it's a human story about basic human values."

Some of the film's most interesting, and disturbing, moments come when it focuses on the Hart family, headed by former wrestler Stu Hart, now 82.

The elder Hart wrestled when it was more sport than theatre, when combatants sometimes used real submission holds on an opponent.

Stu Hart's moves involved stretching the opponent's body so that he would almost pass out from the numbing pain.

Jay brings the viewer into Stu's infamous Dungeon, the basement of his house where he practised those holds, sometimes on his own sons.

"In the wrestling world, Stu Hart is a legend," Jay says.

"And the Dungeon and the stretching of guys down there is a piece of wrestling mythology.... In the end, I think we tried to show Stu as a complex character. But he has this weird, bizarre, dark side.

"On the other hand, Bret's completely the opposite kind of father. He's totally the kindest, gentlest father. He's going every way he can not to be Stu."

The film's climax occurs when Bret decides to make the leap to the rival World Championship Wrestling, owned by billionaire Ted Turner.

WCW initially offered him $9 million over three years, which Hart refused because he felt loyal to McMahon and the WWF and signed a 20-year deal for less money.

But McMahon soon told Hart to reconsider the WCW offer.

Jay skilfully shows Hart's shock and rage at that fateful night in Montreal, and how McMahon and some of the other wrestlers were in on Hart's humiliation.

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows shows that while what goes on in the ring might be artful fakery, the business of wrestling and its results are all too real.

"In the final analysis, it's all about making money as much as everyone huffs and puffs about other things," Jay says.

"In fact, in this whole story, the only guy who wasn't just about making money was Bret."

Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows airs Saturday, November 14 on ASN at 8 p.m.

RELATED LINKS

  • Hitman Hart: Wrestling With Shadows in the SLAM! Wrestling Movie Database
  • More on Bret Hart