Tuesday, March 20, 2007

When ten years feels like ten days...

Montreal. Every wrestling fan knows the story but perhaps more importantly, every fan has an opinion. Even if you never saw it happen, the "You screwed Bret!" chants every time the WWE goes to Montreal would probably tip you off that you were missing out on something pretty big. And I'd say the Montreal Screwjob is bigger than big, but the real question is why? Now that's a fairly vague question to ask, but I'm going to give my take on it now while Wrestling with Shadows and the reactions we heard in class are fresh on my mind.

Now I'd seen this documentary before, but it was probably in 1999 or early 2000, somewhere around there. I didn't know a whole lot about the backstory of what was going on but I remember getting enough vibes from the documentary to understand that Bret got screwed and he didn't deserve what happened on his last official night with the WWE. And that's the only thing I remembered (besides the visual of Stu Hart stretching guys until they were beat red in the face - that's tough to forget). I'm glad we got the chance to watch it in this class and that I could go back to it with a much different perspective than I had when I was around twelve.

I think in order to understand why the story of the Montreal Screwjob is still popular today and still being talked about, you have to understand the allure of the story to begin with. Ten years later, it's become this legendary story that's a part of WWE's history. It's become natural for fans in Montreal to despise Shawn Michaels, Vince McMahon, and Earl Hebner, to the point where no matter how much of a fan favorite Shawn is, he pretty much always has to be ready to be showered with the "You screwed Bret" chants that are practically tradition now. It makes you wonder how much of that is legit emotion from Bret's fans who refuse to forget that night, or how much of that is due to the fans being expected to act that way towards anyone that was involved with the Screwjob. I know that personally, when I see that they're in Montreal, I'm pretty much expecting to hear the chants. More often than not, I'm rarely disappointed.

The most curious part of all of this is how some fans think it was all planned from the beginning. I admit, I always thought it was strange how Vince pretty much seemed to push Bret right into the hands of his competition, even when Bret was willing to take a pay cut to stay with the WWE through thick and thin. You would think that during the Monday night war with WCW, Vince would do whatever he possibly could to keep Bret on his side. Instead, it seemed like he just served Bret up on a platter and handed him over to WCW, like he didn't want to deal with him anymore. That's the very strong impression I got from watching Wrestling with Shadows, and that's something I still can't completely understand. There doesn't seem to be logic in this, and that only fuels the fire for those who keep thinking it was all planned from the get-go.

It would make sense. The timing of the release of Wrestling with Shadows, the phenominal longevity of the story of Montreal, the explanation that seemed like an excuse for Bret to leave, it all sides with this all being planned. I would think that if Bret had just forfeited the title like he originally wanted to do, his exit from WWE would be nowhere near the level that was garnered by the Montreal Screwjob. In a time when storylines are forgotten by the month and dropped for no reason, and remembering things that happened a year ago seems like decades ago, the fact that Bret's story is still so strong in everyone's memories makes his exit from the company that much bigger to where it's almost legendary now. Of course, the drawback to this is that for some fans, Montreal is the only thing they remember Bret for and his 14 years of hard work for Vince are sometimes lost in the shadows to that particular night at Survivor Series.

I personally don't agree with that viewpoint. I'd like to think that if Vince truly pulled off such an elaborate storyline and planned this from the beginning, he would've cashed in on a huge comeback for Bret a long time ago. That screams of money in the bank, and being the shrewd businessman he is, Vince doesn't seem like he'd pass that up. And to think how long it took for Bret just to agree to appear on WWE TV again at all for the Hall of Fame makes it hard to believe that what happened wasn't legit.

I've always been torn on this controversy since I happen to be a huge fan of both Bret and Shawn, so I'm going to try and avoid getting into personal "so and so was right" viewpoints. It's just interesting how there are fans who want this story dropped already, but it's apparent that the WWE brings it back because the fans themselves bring it back. After all, if the fans haven't let it go ten years after the fact, why should they? It reminds me of 2005 when Shawn was doing his storyline with Hulk Hogan, and he came out to a hostile Montreal crowd and started off with, "Who's your daddy, Montreal?!" He then proceeded to insult the crowd and brought up that infamous Survivor Series match, only to get practically booed out of the building. And then, they cued up Bret's music, and the place exploded. For a moment, everyone thought he'd be coming out... but of course, it was just a ruse. Even so, there were some fans who were crying from the disappointment that Bret wasn't really there.

With that kind of emotional investment, it's no wonder the Montreal Screwjob is still talked about. As much as Bret, Shawn, and Vince would love to forget it and move on, maybe it's the fans that are making that particularly hard to do.


Jackie Roe said...

Interesting read. Though I can't speak for them, I'm fairly certain that Vince and Shawn don't care to forget the incident, as it remains a point of controversy, and, as we all know, controversy creates cash. And I don't even mean that in a negative way. However, I would think that Bret has put the incident far behind him, especially in light of all that has happened since (Owen's untimely death, his stroke, etc.).

It's no secret that I'm a devoted Bret Hart fanatic. I'll probably always believe he really is "the best there is, was, and ever will be." Having said that, I've dissected every aspect of his career(!) and watched "Wrestling with Shadows" dozens of times ... and while I'm confident the Montreal Screwjob was NOT planned, I've deduced that some of the editing in the documentary probably contributed to the idea that the timing of the screwjob was "too good to be true." In retrospect, we realize that Paul Jay and Bret Hart were probably just aiming to market the most compelling product possible, thus centering the documentary around the Screwjob, but I wonder if changes were made after the fact to make the incident seem that much more heinous. Example: Did anyone else think that Bret's voiced-over comment about Earl Hebner "swearing on his kids" was added later? I'm not questioning that Earl spoke the words, just when Bret repeated them. (Or maybe I've watched the documentary one too many times and am going crazy. ;))

I spent many a year filled with so much bitterness and sadness over the way Bret's career ended with WWE ... but in recent months, I've considered the possibility that the Screwjob didn't so much take away from his legacy as it drew attention to it. If Bret had made a farewell speech and forfeited the belt the night after the Survivor Series PPV, would we still be talking about him today? (Obviously, I would ... but that's not the issue. ;)) It's likely, too, that those who never saw Bret in action were that much more inclined to catch a classic Bret match on tape or DVD after hearing about the Screwjob. And with his induction in the WWE HOF and the release of the DVD (thankfully not titled "Screwed," as was originally planned), I really feel that everything now is as it should be. As it would have been if the Screwjob never happened. This is what we Bret fans always wanted since his departure from WWE and it came to fruition, so we no longer have reason to complain.

Sam Ford said...

Good points from both Carolina and Jackie here. I think WWE sees Montreal as such a pivotal part of the company's history that they like to bring it up themselves fairly often, but you make a great point about the emotion involved in Bret Hart fandom and how that emotion continues to this day.

Bret insisted that the WWE retrospective on his career did not center on Montreal, and I think it's important to remember his career as a whole. After all, he was in the WWE for 12 years or so before Montreal, and that match was far from the best of his career. In fact, that match with Shawn is ONLY interesting because of all the controversy surrounding it and the way that it ended. As a match in and of itself, it stunk. And it would have completely stunk if they had gone with the ending Bret had agreed on and had a DQ ending shortly thereafter.

Rob said...

I think the fact that so many people seem to believe that Vince McMahon could have, and maybe even did, plan the entire thing from the beginning just goes to show some of Vince's particular brand of brilliance.

It seems to me, that as soon as Vince realized the potential of the situation, he capitalized on it by slowly and subtly, over time, keeping everything as vague as possible and allowing it to appear as though he just might have planned the whole thing.

Whereas I doubt it was planned, I think allowing the possibility that it was planned to remain a possible interpretation most certainly is something that was planned.

And why?

Because it does two things to really strengthen Vince as a character:

1. It makes him seem even craftier and more intelligent by suggesting that he could possibly have thought all of this through.

2. It makes him seem even more evil by suggesting that he would have involved screwing Bret as part of an elaborate plan just to beat the WCW in ratings. Even screwing Bret just to be vindictive feels more honorable than as part of a huge conspiract for ratings.

Even what I'm saying right now just does more to support Vince's character! Even if you don't think he planned it, the thought that he might have reacted to the situation intelligently and allowed people to believe that he planned reinforces the character of Mr. McMahon in precisely the same ways.

Really, I can't imagine crafting a more perfect situation to launch Vince McMahon's character into heeldom, and keeping things so ambiguous only strengthens the character no matter how the audience chooses to interpret things.

Lastly, I think Shawn Michaels coming out and saying that he was in on the situation later down the line very much supports the theory that Vince reacted to the situation by intentionally allowing for people to think that he may have crafted the whole thing.

From the documentary, and just thinking about the situation, I don't think there would be any advantage to allowing Shawn in on the plan to screw Bret over, nor did it feel like he was.

However, Shawn's revelation most certainly would support the notion of some sort of greater conspiracy, such as Vince planning everything from the beginning. I wonder if Shawn wasn't just asked to lie and say that he was involved to help further Vince's character?

Sam Ford said...

Shawn claims that he was telling the truth later as part of his cleansing of his spirit now that he has converted to Christianity. I think the documentary plays all of this very well, questioning who was and was not in on it. Was Pat Patterson, in going over the match? What about Earl Hebner's claiming to Bret that he wouldn't do anything to screw him? As Jackie points out above, what does this mean? Was that edited in later? Did Bret REALLY say that before the match? Even as everyone tells their side of the story, the legend of that night is part of wrestling lore.