Originally presented at Canadian Bulldog's World.
When you think about it, there really haven’t been a lot of films about professional wrestling. Sure, there have been more than a few films to star wrestlers but very few that look at the Sport of Kings itself. Not too long ago, I came across a hidden gem of a film with an entertaining and innovative approach to professional wrestling. The film was The Wrestler. No, not the Mickey Rourke film from several years back but a film from the 1970’s.
In the early 1970’s, American Wrestling Association (AWA) promoter Verne Gagne decided to make a sports film about professional wrestling. It relied on the classic story of the aging champion facing the young upstart contender as well as a subplot involving criminals trying to fix the match. The film was a dramatic work and while it featured a little comedy, it took a serious approach to its subject matter.
If you’re scratching your head and wondering how on earth someone could bet on a predetermined bout, I forgot to mention that this film was made as if professional wrestling was a legitimate sport, i.e. it maintains kayfabe throughout the entire film. I have to say that this is a pretty unique approach to things, but bear in mind that this was 1974 when kayfabe was protected like Colonel Sanders’ original recipe.
The film’s cast consists of mostly wrestlers. This could have been disastrous as we’ve all seen films where wrestlers just can’t act (or wrestling matches where wrestlers can’t wrestle, but that’s a story for another time). However, the film skirts this issue entirely because the wrestlers (for the most part) portray themselves. And what a cast of characters. The AWA had an incredible lineup at the time and it’s downright fun to see guys like the Crusher, Dick the Bruiser, Dick Murdoch, and Dusty Rhodes.
The film revolves around wrestling promoter Frank Bass (played by Ed Asner, best known for his role as “Lou Grant” on The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its spin-off Lou Grant). Bass promotes an organization which for all intents and purposes is the AWA. While business is good, he’s always trying to make more money and opportunity knocks when the promoters of the other big two promotions embark on creating a “Super Bowl” of wrestling.
Unfortunately for Bass, his champion Mike Bullard (played by legendary grappler Verne Gagne) is getting long in the tooth and the other promoters don’t see him as a marketable wrestler for their “Super Bowl” concept. To make matters worse, a mobster is trying to get professional wrestling into the sports betting world and he leans on Bass to do things his way, something Bass refuses to do. To paraphrase Jim Ross, business starts to pick up when Bass is introduced to a rising European star Billy Taylor (played by AWA star Billy Robinson). Bass sees his chance to get the young champion he needs. However, when Bullard refuses to defend his belt against Taylor, Bass shows why wrestling promoters are looked down upon by most wrestlers.
The film includes a ton of AWA wrestlers. The lineup of wrestlers in this film is unbelievable and you get to see stars in their early years or in their prime. You get to see them cut promos and even get to see matches. If you never saw the AWA’s glory days, this will give you a brief glimpse at them and a better understanding of why longtime AWA fans still have many great memories of the promotion (as opposed to its dying days and the Turkey on a Pole Match).
The idea of maintaining kayfabe throughout the film might seem difficult to do but to my surprise, this approach worked for the most part. One scene that doesn’t work is when a wrestler is killed in the ring (Ray Stevens delivers a flying kneedrop off of the top rope onto his head, killing him) and Bass is dismayed by the lack of media coverage. When a reporter tells Bass that wrestling is entertainment, Bass launches into a diatribe on the athletics involved for wrestlers, their commitment to their fans, and the number of wrestlers who died in the ring. While this may have gone over with marks, I can’t imagine many non-fans keeping a straight face.
Despite this, the film has a lot of good points. One of them is that it presents a look at the difference between amateur wrestling and professional wrestling (albeit a kayfabe presentation). There’s a scene in the film where Verne Gagne’s character invites Billy Robinson’s character to his wrestling camp (mirroring Verne’s real-life wrestling camp where he trained a who’s who of stars). There, an Olympic wrestler demonstrates some holds on an aspiring pro (played by real-life wrestler Mike Graham, the son of wrestler and promoter Eddie Graham). Then there is a demonstration between two professional wrestlers which helps you suspend your disbelief that the pro matches aren’t a mix of choreography and athleticism.
The Wrestler is an entertaining film regardless of whether or not you’re a wrestling fan. It’s a great time capsule if you are a wrestling fan and want to see what the big-time looked like back in the 1970’s. The film’s plot is entertaining and although the acting is good enough that you wouldn’t know if Gagne or Robinson were actors or wrestlers. The film’s only weakness is a romantic subplot that seems forced.
My only regret about this film is that I was unable to find out what was going on behind the scenes. I do know that the premiere was big event in the AWA’s home city and that it was attended by the promotion’s wrestlers. I don’t know if this was seen as a one-time production or something Verne Gagne thought might lead to other films. If anyone has any information, please email me.