Written by Chad Derdowski
This year, World Wrestling Entertainment reaches the half-century mark and celebrates in pretty much exactly the same fashion my family did when we honored our parents 50th wedding anniversary: with a documentary. But where our version consisted of an elegantly 45-minute video montage of old photographs set to old pop songs that my niece whipped up over the course of a weekend, the WWE has chosen to go a slightly more extensive route and has released a two-disc Blu-ray set complete with a two-hour documentary chronicling the rich history of this global entertainment phenomenon and a handful of important matches from said time frame. No offense to my niece, but the WWE kind of made her version look a little shabby.
The matches included are well chosen, if a bit predictable. Key historic moments such as the Wrestlmania III match pitting the unstoppable force that was Hulk Hogan against the immovable object known as Andre the Giant, the first Royal Rumble, and the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” match between Bret “Hitman” Hart and Shawn Michaels are mixed in with clips from the March 26, 2001 episode of Raw in which Vince McMahon announced the purchase of WCW and CM Punk’s seminal “pipe bomb” promo from 2011. Since this is supposed to be a 50-year retrospective, it would’ve been nice to see a few matches from prior to 1987, but all we get is the 1977 match in which “Superstar” Billy Graham defeats the legendary Bruno Sammartino for the WWE (then WWWF) Championship.
Seriously? I understand that the WWE tends to put more emphasis than ever on the storylines and drama which take place outside the ring, but when putting together a history of a professional wrestling organization, it seems logical to pay a bit more attention to the action within the squared circle itself. And with a half century of history to draw from, couldn’t the WWE archivists scour the library for more than one solitary event that took place between 1963-1987? Perhaps those in charge were afraid that modern fans who aren’t accustomed to the slower paced matches of yesteryear wouldn’t appreciate a grainy black and white contest from the late 1960’s, but in the interest of history (which is allegedly the entire point of this venture), it would’ve been nice to get more than a cursory glance into the past.
But enough with the matches. The real meat and potatoes of this collection is the documentary. And for the most part, it’s a good one. Yes, it’s produced by the WWE so it does give a fairly slanted look at history, but as someone a lot smarter than me once said, history is written by the victors. And since Vince McMahon’s sports entertainment empire has effectively decimated anything even remotely resembling competition, history is his playground to rewrite as he sees fit. For better or worse, it is what it is and we get what we get. But it’s not like anyone else out there is clamoring to produce a feature-length documentary about the history of the world’s most prominent wrestling organization, so we have to be happy with what we have here. And what we have here is actually pretty awesome and not much to complain about, giving us a look at the rich tapestry of wrestling history, warts and all. Granted, the warts are few and far between and they’re given a bit of polish to spruce ’em up a bit, but in all fairness, they’re there.
The documentary opens with a profile of the McMahon family, who have captained the ship formerly known as the World Wrestling Federation and even more formerly known as the World Wide Wrestling Federation, painting them as a family of visionaries and geniuses and elevating them to a level somewhere between saint and demigod. We learn about their split from the National Wrestling Alliance and their rise to prominence with Bruno Sammartino as their standard bearer. Madison Square Garden is presented as being akin to the Coliseum of ancient times, where near-mythical combatants laced boots and met on the battlefield to test their mettle and determine who was the superior warrior. The interviews and soundbites from many of the grapplers who have graced the squared circle lends a fair amount of gravitas to these assertions of glory and the amazing footage showcased seals the deal.
We are introduced not only to pro wrestling’s territory system, in which various tribes of combatants and promoters carved out niches across the map, but also reminded of the days before cable TV and the internet, when the printed word was the top means of communication. As a kid who grew up reading Pro Wrestling Illustrated, The Wrestler, and so many other classic wrestling magazines, it was a treat to see this documentary shine a spotlight on them. These magazines allowed fans around the country to familiarize themselves with a wrestler who may not have found his way into their local promotion just yet and served as a means through which a grappler’s personality and story could be conveyed.
The documentary highlights the end of Bruno’s era and the rise of the stars of the 1970s, along with a heartfelt look at Andre the Giant and the rise of Vincent Kennedy McMahon, who would take the WWF to unprecedented heights, swallowing up or simply burying his competition and transforming rasslin’ into sports entertainment.
Obviously, there is a great deal of attention to the 1980s’ expansion, when names like Roddy Piper and “Macho Man” Randy Savage became household names and pro wrestling embedded itself so deeply within the public’s pop-culture consciousness that the letters WWF became synonymous with the business as a whole. The “rock n’ wrestling connection”, the partnership with the USA Network and the mainstream’s attention to the phenomenon known as Hulkamania all get a bit of attention as the WWF becomes a global brand, complete with ice cream bars, cartoons, vitamins, pillowcases, video games, and so much more.
There are a couple of elephants in the room occupied by this documentary that could not be ignored, and to its credit, The History of WWE pays a fair amount of attention to the infamous steroid scandal that rocked the McMahon family and the organization, as well as the death of Owen Hart in 1999. Viewers learn about the rise of WCW, which saw many WWF stalwarts defect to the competition, and we are treated to yet another rehashing of the Montreal Screwjob and the Monday Night Wars, in which the lines between fantasy and reality were blurred and the WWF got an injection of attitude. A lot of history is glazed over, a few tragedies and scandals are outright ignored, and toward the tail-end of the program, it feels more and more like we’re watching a commercial or promotional video the WWE might show to potential stockholders.
Is it biased? Of course it is. Vince McMahon is presented as a genius living out the All-American Dream as he gobbles up wrestling promotions in the 1980s, yet he is presented as a victim when WCW begins to encroach upon his territory in the 1990s and many of his longtime stars begin to leave him for greener pastures. While several scandals are mentioned, the McMahons and the WWE are never presented in a light even remotely resembling less than stellar, even with Stephanie McMahon’s assertion that her father “was no saint” when he sat her down and explained the steroid scandal. But again, this wasn’t an epic Ken Burns-style documentary stretching over 12 parts on PBS, showcasing every story from every angle; this was a WWE-produced piece of promotion, so a bit of bias is to be expected. Simply put, it is what it is and you have to know that going in. And now that I’ve told you, you can’t say that you don’t know.
At the end of the day though, The History of WWE is well worth your time. I’m a lifelong pro wrestling fan who was there during the ’80s expansion as well as the renaissance of the Monday Night Wars and the then-revolutionary, now embarrassing Attitude Era, and yeah, I still watch Monday Night Raw (almost) every week. As someone who considers themselves something of a wrestling historian, it’s hard for me to be too negative about this documentary, despite my complaints. It’s absolutely worth watching just to see the old footage, especially the behind-the-scenes stuff. The old commercials and products filled me with a wave of welcome nostalgia and the interviews are priceless. Hearing the Undertaker speak out of character was worth the price of admission and I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t touched by ‘Taker’s words regarding Owen Hart’s death. And there are so many superstars from past and present interviewed, I found myself smiling the whole time I watched it.
The Blu-ray features a bunch of extra segments. It would’ve been cool if the DVD shared these features, but it would’ve been cool to get a few more matches included too. Oh and speaking of Blu-ray, it looks and sounds amazing. The old footage is cleaned up and looks better than ever and being completely honest, the modern-day footage is under no uncertain terms the absolute best picture I have ever seen presented on my television. Seriously, it’s like this stuff was sprinkled with fairy dust or something – it just looks unbelievable.
Despite its flaws, I would say that The History of WWE: 50 Years of Sports Entertainment is a must-have for the WWE completist and a must-watch (or at the very least, a “you probably really will dig it”) for any wrestling fan. And with the holidays coming up, it’s absolutely perfect gift for the pro wrestling connoisseur on your shopping list too!
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