Last week, I had the great good fortune to watch a special showing of THE WRESTLER, produced by Verne Gagne in 1974 (he also is the main star.) My husband worked on this film as a sound mixer and his name shows up on the credits. He was involved in the shooting around the time I met him, and it made a huge impact on him. As far as I know, it was only shown briefly in theaters before disappearing from sight. So my husband was super excited to get a chance to see it all these years later and we made a night of it.
At this point, I want to interject that the 2009 movie THE WRESTLER starring Mickey Rourke is one of my favorite films of recent years. I never thought for a moment that the films would be particularly comparable given the 1974 version was pretty much an amateur production even though Ed Asner (who was a big name at the time) was on hand as a main character.
Having said all that, I am not and never have been a wrestling fan. In 1974, wrestling was barely a blip on my radar, other than hearing my boyfriend at the time talk about this movie. Sure, I knew a few people who watched it but they were usually somebody’s redneck grandparents. Wrestling was something to be made fun of, usually by chanting the timeless line: “Good God! Somebody call the paramedics!”
My kids went through a (thankfully) brief phase of watching pro-wrestling and so I wound up catching the show a few times. This was during the reign of Steve Austin and Chyna, who wound up doing porn a few years later and then in celebrity rehab even later than that. There was some entertainment value in the flash and noise but I found it fairly tedious and my boys lost interest. I give this history of my relationship with pro-wrestling as an admission that I am pretty much ignorant on the subject, its history and lore.
That didn’t stop me from going to see THE WRESTLER in 2009 when it came out. Not only was it a well-written, finely crafted, beautifully acted piece of work, but it left me with an appreciation of wrestlers and their unique skill set as athlete-performers. The Rourke movie was the dirty underbelly of WWE and its ilk, showing the lot of the aging and broken performers who hadn’t made a fortune, or been able to hang on to what money they did make in their heyday.
If Rourke’s movie was the underbelly, then Vern Gagne’s 1974 film is the golden tribute and idealization of what professional wrestling was supposed to be. The story itself is pretty incoherent and the plot doesn’t appear until about the last 20 minutes or so. A friend of my husband worked on the crew and watched with us. According to him, the film was recut into something totally different then the scenes they shot.
The version we saw involved Ed Asner playing a wrestling promoter who has a secretary with a heart of gold named Debbie. (Debbie looks disturbingly similar to Mary Tyler Moore, whose show Asner starred in at that time.) A lot of dialogue takes place broken up by random appearances of actual wrestling stars but nothing seems to happen. Still, the film is fascinating with its obvious 1970s sets and costumes and no matter what you think of wrestling, it is so bad it’s good. What seems to emerge for the story is that Vern Gagne is irritated that pro-football gets all the attention. Even though wrestling has millions of fans, they get no respect. Gagne’s character seeks to right this wrong by holding his very own Super Bowl of Wrestling. Meanwhile, Ed Asner’s character wants to put Gagne up against his latest wrestler, a lethal new kid from England, of all places.
Throughout the movie, there are many, many scenes of professional wrestling of that era. While a chair or two get broken, it is a very different sport than you watch now. For one thing, less time is spent posturing and more time actually wrestling, not brawling. Still, in Gagne’s presentation, there is no admission of tampered with outcomes or rehearsed moves. He maintains that wrestling is a sport and the outcome is determined by the match, not the promoter.
Rourke’s movie tears away that illusion but exposes how extreme it is physically, regardless of pre-planning. The outcome may be fixed but the performances are painful and physically demanding. One of the sharpest differences between wrestlers then and now is their physical appearance. In Gagne’s movie, very few wrestlers are “buff” by today standards. They are large and muscular, but have enormous guts and the muscles are not necessarily defined, much less bulging. A number of them bleach their hair but there are no costumes in the ring. The most flamboyant ones might affect cowboy hats and sunglasses, but they are positively subdued compared to today’s counterparts.
The real kicker, and I mean this literally, comes at the end of Gagne’s film. His signature move is a dizzying drop kick, followed by some sort of choke hold. At last, he comes up against the English kid (after some obscure machinations) who has famously said: “I ain’t never bit hit by no drop kick”. We see Gagne remembering that quote just as he flies into the drop kick and the camera closes in on the bottom of his shoe, just before it connects with the Brit’s face. End of film, roll credits.
SPOILER: If you’ve seen the 2009 movie-and you should if you haven’t-then you know how much the end mirrors the Mickey Rourke movie, ending with his signature move just before he hits the mat. I don’t think that Rourke was influenced by the 1974 film since it is doubtful that he ever saw it. But it really dovetails beautifully – the films are completely different but in the end, both are homages to a the sport of wrestling.