Retro Review

The Wrestler (1974) – Retro Review

Adam Van Winkle reviews the original 1974 movie of ‘The Wrestler’.

The Wrestler, a 1974 made for TV movie starring Ed Asner, has little in common with the Oscar-nominated, award-winning 2008 movie, The Wrestler, starring Micky Rourke.

The latter is not a remake, and if you’ve ever seen 1974’s The Wrestler, you’d see no one would ever remake it.

That said, it is available on your Amazon Prime Video account, though inexplicably it’s awesome 70’s carnival style movie poster has been replaced with a generic masked wrestler, and if like me you’re a fan of the old days of territory wrestling, when each region in the United States had it’s own promoter and world champ and cast of characters, well by gawd it’s a must watch.

1974’s The Wrestler has a (generous) 5.1 rating on IMDB, and I imagine that’s largely a result of two things.  First, everyone loves Ed Asner, the curmudgeon boss of Mary Tyler Moore. Second, you won’t find more old school territory wrestlers shown or mentioned together in one place.  For both of these reasons, I’m sure both sets of fans are generous in rating. And quite frankly, though some say so, it’s not terrible, not like the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 object-of-ridicule about female pro wrestling, 1951’s Racket Girls (future review coming?).

Where The Wrestler struggles is in weaving a coherent plot.  It doesn’t seem to want to decide what the movie is about. Three distinct agendas is filmmaking play out in the course of the movie.  

At first blush it is, as funded by Verne Gagne and the AWA, a showcase of the popular territory wrestlers and promoters of the day: Dusty Rhodes, Dick Murdoch, Dick the Bruiser, The Crusher, Wahoo McDaniel, Superstar Billy Graham, Larry Henning, Vince McMahon Sr., Joe Dusek, Nick Bockwinkel, Hard Boiled Haggerty, Ray Stevens, Don Moraco, Jim Brunzell, Mike and Eddie Graham all appear as themselves.  Hell, even Ric Flair (credited hilariously as Rick Flair) is featured in long shots as a rookie. Video highlights are shown of named territory champions Pedro Morales and Dory Funk.

Verne Gagne though clearly wasn’t just happy with showcasing his AWA talent, he has a message about wrestling.  The entire movie maintains that wrestling is indeed a sport and even sportswriters think it’s theatre, there are plenty of wrestlers that have died in the ring showing its real competition (a sick exploit).  The champions are shoot fighters in the movie, the ones with the most devastating manoeuvres and understandings of the science of wrestling. Further, in a long-winded address to his “rookies” in the movie (utilizing Gagne’s famous real-life stable of wrestling camp graduates from 1974 including Flair) about the legacy of wrestling from the Egyptians to the Greeks to the Romans to the modern professional wrestling in America.  He delivers the speech with the same acting chops he shows throughout the rest of the movie, mustering all the same enthusiasm of a DynaPowder pitch (seriously, look it up). He rattles off the great wrestlers of the previous generation, showing their pictures in a slide show while doing so (the likes of Fritz von Erich, Bruno Sanmartino, Danny Hodge and Frank Gotch). In all, it’s the least interesting part of the movie, clearly Gagne’s own deluded version of himself and his “sport,” an opinion he clearly wants the viewer to come to.

Third agenda?  Why, to create a hardluck, hardboiled mobster love story.

Somewhere in there, this movie had a writer and director and I’m sure some kind of creative force.  As such, the movie does strive for a plot, though it’s mostly shoehorned in between the previous two agendas.  Ageing champ Mike Bullard (played by Gagne) is seen as too old by the promoters. They want to create what they are calling a “super bowl of wrestling,” though hilariously they drop this descriptor in the course of the movie and just start calling the planned event the Super Bowl, making for some confusing imagery.  Ed Asner plays Frank Bass, the Minneapolis promoter pressured by the other territory promoters (and “mobsters” looking to bet against Bullard) to find a younger wrestler who can beat Bullard before the Super Bowl. That way, the Super Bowl will feature the youngest and coolest. Bass is caught in between, loyal and respectful of his champ Bullard, though he does bring in the young Billy Taylor (played by Billy Robinson, a much better wrestler than actor) to challenge for the title.  Oh, oh, an hour and seventeen minutes into this hour and forty-two-minute movie, they decide to give Frank Bass a love story, setting him up with his secretary—a constant object of sexual harassment from the wrestlers—as both reveal they have loved each other for years.

After not committing to any direction of the three, but instead cutting between them (and including an absolutely surreal scene where Odd Job from James Bond shows up as Odd Job to challenge Dusty Rhodes and Dick Murdoch in a bar fight to prove what is more dangerous, karate or wrestling), the movie just sort of ends.  No really. They get Taylor and Bullard into the ring together after some hesitation on Bullard’s part and the Bruiser and the Crusher beat up the mobsters harassing bass, and all watch the spectacle of the youngster against the champ. It appears Gagne is getting the upper hand when in super slow motion he comes off the ropes right at the camera and drop kicks the camera lens.  The last shot we get is of the stained bottom of Gagne disgusting wrestling boot before it fades to black (perhaps the one way it is like 2008’s The Wrestler as Randy the Ram does his off the top move before a fade to black).

We do not know if old school or new school wins out, if the mobsters (because presumably the mafia is made up of more than the three guys that got beat up by the wrestlers) will come back to seek revenge, if Bass and his secretary will work out (he reveals earlier in the movie he’s flopped twice at marriage and is “too big a bastard to be with”), if the Super Bowl of wrestling will even happen.

In many ways, this is the movie that Vince McMahon Jr. would never make.  It takes wrestling seriously, insists it’s a sport, admits to the existence of multiple promotions, and provides a slew of wrestlers, one after the other, as themselves.  When you look at No Holds Barred on the other hand, you’ve got wrestling owned by TV stations, an American Gladiators like presentation, real wrestlers wrestling under other gimmicks, and post-apocalyptic presentation style.

Though, I think Jr. might have been a fan of this one.  When Frank Bass is revealing his love to his secretary 3/4 into the movie with no hint of it before, he tells her there is only one way to love, “all the way…no holds barred.”  No small coincidence there.

So, as many of us sit in quarantine, social distancing and cycling through all the movies we always meant to watch or have taken too long to rewatch, give The Wrestler that you haven’t seen a chance.  I don’t think you’ll love it, but it’ll hit that 70s nostalgia sweet spot just fine, and, save perhaps Bruiser Brody or Stan Hansen, it can’t help but feature your favorite territory rassler of the day.

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You can find me on Twitter @gritvanwinkle.

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