The Iron Claw: The Impossible Task of Adapting Wrestling’s Most Tragic Family

Dustin Waters
Dustin Waters is a writer from Macon, Ga, currently living in D.C. After years as a beat reporter in the Lowcountry, he now focuses his time on historical oddities, trashy movies, and the merits of professional wrestling.

Content Warning: This post discusses suicide

It’s ironic that a film featuring the absurdly muscular physiques of Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White is so bare bones. And that seems somewhat intentional.

As an adaptation of the real-life tragedies that befell professional wrestling’s Von Erich family in the ’80s and early ’90s, The Iron Claw is a film forced to pare back some major facts. Some of this is possibly due to requests from the surviving family members. But a bulk of it is likely due to structure required in crafting a film. 

For a bit of background, the Von Erichs were Texas wrestling royalty during the sport’s territory days. Father Fritz Von Erich adopted the last name during his days as a Nazi heel character in the ring. This is the first of many facts glossed over in the film, but could be attributed to the filmmakers not trusting general audiences to differentiate between in-ring gimmicks and real-world ideologies. Not that there have been any shortage of popular wrestlers who aligned a little too closely with their villainous in-ring personas. 

The Iron Claw shows Fritz as father to only five sons. We’ll get to the missing Von Erich brother a little later. 

Much of The Iron Claw and what is known as the Von Erich curse takes place between 1984 and 1993. The film does mention the death of the first Von Erich brother, who passed away in 1959 at the age of six. In the film, Efron’s Kevin Von Erich describes the death in vague terms in a moment of bittersweet connection with his future wife, Pam, played by Lily James. 

The full details of the accident that led to the death are likely omitted to avoid distracting from a tender scene between the film’s primary romantic leads. Already you can see how the film adaptation of the family’s story is forcing a change. Not for any dubious reasons. But simply because life is always much bigger than whatever medium you’re trying to squeeze it into. 

Much of the tension in The Iron Claw comes from Fritz’s unrelenting and borderline abusive pressure for his sons to pursue the level of in-ring success that eluded him. This quest first lays claim to David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson), who is said to have died in the film due to a ruptured intestine while wrestling overseas in Japan. Allegations of foul play surrounding David’s death in 1984 have lingered, but here the family’s side of the story and the film align. 

In the film, David’s death is followed by those of his brothers Mike (Stanley Simons) and Kerry (Jeremy Allen White). Mike, seen in the film as the sensitive Von Erich brother more interested in music than wrestling, is pressured into the family business to fill the void left by David. 

Injuries in the ring and complications due to shoulder surgery caused Mike’s body temperature to skyrocket and led to toxic shock syndrome. Gaunt and seemingly affected by damage to his brain, Mike overdoses on sleeping pills. The film shows his body discovered nearby the family’s ranch. Similarly, Kerry Von Erich also kills himself on the family ranch, this time as a result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. 

But between these two tragic deaths depicted in The Iron Claw, another was left out. There was Chris Von Erich, the youngest and smallest of the brothers. Despite his desire to pursue an in-ring career like his brothers, Chris struggled to find success due to health issues and small stature. 

Just as his brother Kerry would do two years later, Chris died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on the family’s ranch. But why would he be excluded from the film based on the Von Erich curse entirely?

As was confirmed by filmmaker Sean Durkin, the film simply could not sustain itself through another nearly identical tragedy. Moviegoers aren’t going to accept seeing Zac Efron as the last-surviving brother discover the dead body of another one of his siblings on the farm where they grew up together. 

It’s at this point that the true-life tragedy of the Von Erichs becomes so grimly routine that any right-minded viewer would likely reject it. Or at the very least feel hit over the head by its unrelenting grimness. The truth is just too sad and repetitive to fit neatly into something like a film where there are rules. 

So the next time you’re watching a movie “based on a true story” or those YouTube videos with titles like “10 Things The Iron Claw Got Right and Wrong,” don’t think about what parts of the truth are missing or changed. Instead ask yourself why. And think about all the other ways the real world is remolded when we place it into our various branches of fiction. 

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