The world of professional wrestling is a mysterious one; part sport, part performance art, part soap opera and part carnival side-show. While it’s now led by an international, multi billion dollar organisation, it was made up of many regional enterprises, particularly in North America, and it is this world in which Andre The Giant became a star.
This documentary, made by HBO Sports but in association with WWE, charts the life of the so-called ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ from his childhood in rural France to his somewhat tragic early death, in part caused by the acromegaly that made him the literal larger than life person he became.
Given the secretive nature of professional wrestling, particularly during Andre Roussimoff’s heyday in the 1970s, much of his life has been left open to debate, though documentaries have explored it in the past.
Though billed as being from ‘The French Alps’ and supposedly having been found in the woods as a lumberjack, he was actually from Moliens, a small town near Paris, and had a relatively normal childhood growing up on his family’s farm.
The documentary speaks to his surviving brothers and other relations, leading to one of the film’s most interesting sections as we see not just childhood photos of the man who would be The Giant.
We also see footage from his early years as a wrestler in France when he was a far leaner and more agile version of the character he became and showing the similarities between ‘catch’ in France and its American pro-wrestling cousin.
The mid section of the film, tracing his rise through the American territorial wrestling scene, is fairly by the numbers with some of the usual talking heads popping up to give comment.
This includes Memphis based wrestler/promoter (and WWE star) Jerry ‘The King’ Lawler, multiple time world champion Ric Flair (not at his most lucid) and a rare on-screen appearance by wrestling journalist and chronicler Dave Meltzer amongst others.
Concurrent with this we hear about the growth of WWE (then WWF) from a regional territory in New York to a national brand led by Hulk Hogan on-screen and Vince McMahon behind the scenes.
This part of the story is largely the usual version told by WWE’s corporate propaganda machine, but here straight from the horses’ mouths with McMahon and Hogan featuring heavily along with a few other TV personalities and off-screen employees.
Where this gets most interesting is in the interview with former WWE referee Tim White who, before he worked in the ring, acted as ‘handler’ (a slightly non-PC way of saying road manager) for Andre.
Along with soundbites from others (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) this gets most to the heart of who Andre was away from the ring.
While the focus on this in the past has often been in regard to the legends about his ability to drink vast amounts or his physicality, there is a more sensitive side to him as well that is presented here and, while it plays on the gentle giant motif, rings true largely due to the presence here of the cast and crew of movie The Princess Bride who’s views seem more believable as they are not part of the WWE machine.
The other fascinating part is where we hear about the match between Andre and Hogan at WrestleMania 3 in 1986 at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan in front of a purported crowd of 93,000 (actually nearer 70,000 but impressive non-the less, and the biggest WrestleMania audience until WrestleMania 32 in 2015).
Here both Hogan, White, McMahon and others completely brake the facade of pro-wrestling in a way rarely seen going in-depth about how the match was put together, particularly in light of The Giant’s worsening health at the time.
The final part of the film goes into Andre’s health and the winding down of his career leading to his death.
While this is still interesting, particularly as when we again hear from his family, as a fan who knows some of the history of his wrestling career it’s hard to avoid the fact that it seems a lot is glossed over in regard to his continued in-ring appearances for WWE, even when it was clear he was becoming less and less mobile and more in pain.
Given WWE’s involvement in the production this isn’t a surprise but feels like something of a missed opportunity and the company trying to save face and avoid yet more claims of exploitation.
None the less the end of film leads to some truly emotional responses from all the talking heads, including Vince McMahon which is genuinely surprising to see as he rarely allows himself to be seen entirely ‘out of character’.
While it does skip over a few things and tidies up some elements to ‘protect the business’ of pro-wrestling more than might be ideal, this remains an interesting portrait of a genuinely fascinating man while shedding something of a light on the sometimes shady world of professional wrestling in a way that is rarely seen.