Content Warning: This article may contain spoilers as well as sensitive topics such as suicide, which are portrayed in the film.
With the release of the new A24 film The Iron Claw, we are presented with a story based on true events of a wrestling family from the 1980s and 90s. This tragic film, directed by Sean Durkin, highlights the celebratory moments of the Von Erich clan as well as the tragic lows that result from what is known as the “Von Erich curse.” For those who may not be aware of the “curse,” should strap in for a wild ride when watching the film and further reading.
Durkin opens the film with a flashback wrestling scene which portrays Fritz Von Erich (born Jack Barton Adkisson) portrayed by actor Holt McCallany wrestling an opponent whilst performing his signature finishing move, the iron claw. This finisher consisted of putting a palm to an opponent’s forehead and squeezing the temples hard. The illusion was meant for the opponent to falter and pass out, allowing a successful pinning, if their opponent did not tap out first.
Whilst pursuing his career in managing World Class Championship Wrestling, originating in Dallas, Texas in the 1980s, he went on to book matches in the Dallas Sportatorium that consisted of a different production style. This style included new camera shoot features which captured close-ups of the in-ring action and adding microphones in the ring to pick up the sounds of the wrestlers striking each other. New instant replay was added to this style of production as it highlighted the stiffness of Texas wrestling. Fritz’s signature move follows him not only throughout his career and life, but also through his son’s wrestling careers.
Fritz went on to marry Doris Smith, and they had six children together, all of which were boys. The curse of the Von Erich’s was believed by fans, to begin with Jack Adkisson Jr. and his death at age 6 in 1959. While Fritz was in Cleveland for a wrestling event, their eldest son Jack Jr. had been electrocuted by an exposed trailer tongue that rendered him unconscious and he fell face forward into a puddle and he drowned. Others also believed the curse began way before this tragic event. During his career as a professional wrestler in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA) he was known as a “heel” character which is an individual who has a storyline of being a villain and his character was a nationalistic German Nazi officer. The film does not mention Fritz’s Nazi heel character due to its controversial nature.
In the film Kevin the second eldest Von Erich (portrayed by Zac Efron), is on a first date with his current wife, Pamela J. May (Lily James) and this is where we hear of the Von Erich curse for the first time. Kevin mentions to Pamela who is unaware of the rumored curse, that it began with Jack Jr., and Kevin believes it has followed the last name Von Erich, which was originally Fritz’s mother’s birth name, but the ‘Von’ was created to fit Fritz’s Nazi character. The film then proceeds to introduce the sons of Fritz and Doris, Kerry Von Erich (played by Jeremy Allen White) is away training for the shot-put event for the 1980 U.S. Olympics, David Von Erich (Harris Dickenson) also wrestles with Kevin as a tag team pair, and Mike Von Erich (Stanely Simmons) whose true passion lies within music and video production rather than wrestling. As mentioned, Fritz and Doris had five remaining sons and the film does not mention Chris, the youngest of the Von Erich’s, but we will come back to this.
The film then continues by showing the family gathered around the television as they see the U.S. has boycotted the Olympics because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, this causes Kerry to come back home and return to the family business of wrestling. The three sons: Kevin, Kerry, and David are then shown in a montage as a wrestling trio as they begin training and working hard to fulfill their father’s aspirations of winning an NWA World Heavyweight Championship belt. Little did the family know reaching this goal would result in devastating tragedy and death.
David Von Erich aka ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ was the next son, who would be facing the dreaded curse of the Von Erich’s. In the film we are shown the wedding of Kevin and Pam as the family is gathered in a moment of celebration and happiness. This happiness is short lived as Kevin finds David throwing up blood in the toilet. He worries about his brother’s health and his upcoming trip to Tokyo as he was the chosen son by Fritz to wrestle for the NWA title. However, this event did not transpire as David was found dead in his Tokyo hotel room, on February 10, 1984, from acute enteritis, which is a gastrointestinal blockage. Many co-workers and friends of David also believed drug use was to be considered for his death.
Almost immediately after David’s death, the film has Fritz look for his replacement wrestler as he grows even more aggressive and agitated to win the NWA title. He looks to Mike Von Erich the second youngest son to follow in David’s footsteps to winning. Despite not being completely invested in wrestling as his brothers were, Mike was still willing to comply with his father’s wishes. Mike’s true passion was in music and video production as the film showed the brothers sneaking away to see Mike play in his band and this is where can see all the boys at their happiest. During a wrestling event in Israel Mike sustained a dislocated shoulder injury which required urgent surgery. The Von Erich’s were then informed Mike had reached a fever of 107 degrees and a staph infection which would turn into a rare ‘toxic shock syndrome,’ which left him in a coma. Not long after his coma he began to wrestle again, he also exhibited signs of erratic behavior and his mental state drove him to taking his own life by overdosing on Placidyl and drinking alcohol.
If the curse has not been as evident and heartbreaking enough, the film does not mention the youngest Von Erich son, Chris Von Erich. Chris had the drive and passion for wrestling like his father, however, his physical build, asthma, and his brittle bones prevented him from accomplishing his goals and depression took a hold on him and he shot himself on a spot on a hill near their family home. The film decided to combine Chris’ story with Mike’s story, Durkin revealed why they decided to cut Chris from the film and script. “I just didn’t believe the movie could sort of withstand one more tragedy.” Durkin was nervous to present this idea to Kevin as he was not sure how he would take the news. According to a Today show interview Durkin, Kevin stated, “Well, I totally understand. You don’t want the film to be about grief, and you don’t want to be stuck in that grief too long. And so I understand.”
The final death of the Von Erich family was Kerry Von Erich aka ‘The Texas Tornado.’ This death struck particularly the hardest, because of the way it was executed within the film and the struggles Kerry faced before his last moments. Kerry was the champion, he was the one to bring home the NWA title for his father and family to see, while I wish this moment had been celebrated more the film seemed to portray the character of Kerry feeling almost bittersweet about winning the title. Kevin tells Kerry how proud he is that brought home the title to which Kerry tells him he is going for a ride. This is not shown in the film, but Kerry is in a motorcycle accident by hitting the back of a police vehicle, and he injures his right foot which eventually leads to it being amputated. Wanting to hide his ‘disfigurement’ Kerry goes back to wrestling with a prosthetic foot without anyone suspecting which is not the easiest challenge and this takes a toll on Kerry as he wrestles in pain and took pain killers. It was not until February 18, 1993, that he shot himself in the heart with the gun he had given his father for Christmas.
This film is not solely intended for wrestling fans as those who are not aware of the story of the Von Erich’s enjoyed the film. The actors who portrayed the Von Erich brothers were not familiar with the events that took place within the family. Regardless their performance was accurately portrayed well as it highlights the brother’s special relationship. Wrestling fans, such as my boyfriend, grew up watching wrestling and he knew of the Von Erich family, and this film struck an emotional chord through the both of us as you see this family’s life flip upside down throughout the span of nine years all within two and a half hours of film.
Durkin as well as the exceptional cast does an outstanding job at depicting the story of the Von Erich clan. Despite the rumored curse and the tragedy that looms over the family throughout their wrestling careers, we can still see the love that existed between the brothers and the family itself. Kevin Von Erich is the last surviving member of the Von Erich family and the legacy of the Von Erich family lives on through him and his two sons, Marshall, and Ross Von Erich, who have continued to follow in their father’s footsteps and wrestle for Major League Wrestling.
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