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The American Gladiators Documentary – Hot Docs 2023

The American Gladiators Documentary Hot Docs 2023
An enjoyable look back at the 1989-1996 Crash TV series, which takes a stranger-than-fiction turn in Part 2

The American Gladiators Documentary – Hot Docs 2023

Release Date: May 30, 2023
Runtime: 02:50
Synopsis:
The American Gladiators Documentary, a two-part 30 for 30 ESPN film directed by Ben Berman, takes an unconventional approach to the epic tale of the famed reality-competition show. From its humble beginnings in small-town Erie, PA to international stardom, the show’s most charismatic figures finally tell their stories. But what begins as a traditional sports documentary soon gives way to bigger themes of greed, divergent narratives, and ultimately questions how history itself is written.

The rise and fall of the 1990s “Crash TV” series is told in The American Gladiators Documentary. One of the earliest reality TV series, The American Gladiators, was a part sport, part game show, pitting amateur athletes against the titular gladiators. The show began in 1989 as the brainchild of former Elvis impersonator Johnny C. Ferraro and the reclusive “Apache” Dan Carr. On-screen, The American Gladiators was criticized for being the epitome of a new era of mindlessness and for the competitions not being exceptionally safe. However, The American Gladiators' behind-the-scenes drama is much more enjoyable.

Synopsis

The American Gladiators Documentary is a 2-part documentary produced for ESPN 30 for 30, directed by Ben Burman and his co-director Kirk Johnson. Part One is a more traditional biography of the history of the 1989-1996 syndicated television series. While a handful of the Gladiators agreed to be interviewed, such as Deron “Malibu” McBee, Michael “Gemini” Horton, and Lynn “Sabre” Williams, most declined to participate, presumably due to a dislike of self-described creator Johnny Ferraro. The question of “who are the true brains behind The American Gladiators” becomes the focus of Part Two of the documentary, which includes an effort by Ben Burman to get the other side of the story from Dan Carr.

My Thoughts on The American Gladiators Documentary

I have memories from my childhood watching The American Gladiators on Buffalo's WUTV Fox 29, accessible over the airwaves in Toronto, which scheduled the show on Saturday afternoons after WWF Superstars of Wrestling. While 9-year-old me was entertained by the show, The American Gladiators would not stick with me later in life like my professional wrestling fandom. However, The American Gladiators Documentary is still a fun trip down memory lane of a show that was considered quite trashy at the time. The documentary focuses primarily on the original syndicated series that ran for seven series from 1989-1996. However, there is a brief mention of the single-season 2008 revival hosted by Hulk Hogan, with it being noted that both versions of The American Gladiators came about due to stations programming replacement shows due to WGA strikes.

By part two, the focus of The American Gladiators Documentary becomes less on the show itself and more on the highly contentious relationship between credited creators Johnny Ferraro and Dan Carr. Johnny Ferraro is the closest the documentary has to a villain since the focus of Part Two becomes all about how Ferraro essentially stole the idea for The American Gladiators from Dan Carr. As the latter is entirely withdrawn, and has his appearances heavily regulated by Ferraro, most of Part Two uses reenactments using an unearthed manuscript of Dan Carr's autobiography to illustrate his side of the story of The American Gladiators. In part two, director Ben Burman becomes much more of an on-screen character as he attempts to attract Dan Carr's attention while in his home of Erie, PA.

Despite missing the presence of most of the original Gladiators, including the tops ones such as Dan “Nitro” Clark and Galen “Turbo” Tomlinson, The American Gladiators Documentary still ends up being the definitive look back at this show described at the time as Crash TV. In fact, the stranger-than-fiction drama that dominates part two makes this nearly three-hour documentary worth checking out.

Trailer for The American Gladiators Documentary – Hot Docs 2023

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Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly
Sean Patrick Kelly is a freelance film critic and blogger based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.
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