Breaking Holds, Breaking Hearts: The Von Erich Saga Wrestles with Fate in ‘The Iron Claw’ Epic

'The Iron Claw' is a captivating film that brings to life the Von Erich family's tumultuous journey in wrestling and their enduring legacy
The Iron Claw (2023)

Glory and fame, then tragedy and suicide. One name binds them all: Von Erich. Now, their fateful journey hits the big screen in The Iron Claw

by Roberto Croci

LOS ANGELES. This story is as real as it gets. The Iron Claw chronicles the saga of the Von Erich clan, the Texan family that became a wrestling world phenomenon. Four brothers from Dallas shot to stardom in one of the most thrilling international sports, only to be struck by a string of personal catastrophes that spared just one, Kevin; the others perished before their 35th birthdays. Their battles, triumphs, and misfortunes, both in and out of the ring, seemed so cursed that they believed in a familial hex, tied to the stage name their father, Jack Adkisson – portrayed by the ever-compelling Holt McCallany – had chosen: Fritz von Erich, renowned for his signature “Iron Claw” move, a grip on the opponent’s head until they either blacked out or begged for mercy. Helmed by Sean Durkin, the film’s cast includes Zac Efron as eldest son Kevin and Golden Globe winner Jeremy Allen White from The Bear as Kerry; Harris Dickinson as David and Stanley Simons as Mike. Lily James and Maura Tierney also star.

“As a kid in the early ’90s, I was wrestling-obsessed,” says director Durkin. “Living in England, I devoured every TV show weekly. For years, I nagged my parents to take me to the live matches in London, to no avail. Instead, I consumed every magazine I could find – Pro Wrestling Illustrated was the bible – and watched every NWA VHS tape I could get my hands on. Years later, I finally saw my first live match, and it was with the Von Erich brothers at Dallas’s legendary Sportatorium. I’ll never forget that arena, the electrifying crowd, the music, the shouts, the sweat, the dust, the cigarette smoke haze. Wrestling became my world, a place to cheer my heroes, jeer the villains, and scream in a way I couldn’t anywhere else in real life.”


In scripting the movie, Durkin uncovered not just incredible events, but a story of familial trauma and toxic masculinity. “It’s one of those truth-stranger-than-fiction cases. Tragedy first struck with the death of the first son, Jack Jr., at six, followed by David in Japan, rumored to be from painkiller abuse. Mike and Kerry took their own lives, and a sixth son, not in the film, did so at 21. They paid a steep price chasing their father’s dreams. ’80s wrestling was a far cry from today’s scene. Wrestlers earned their keep self-promoting, selling merchandise, and posing with fans. But they weren’t raking in the cash – if you weren’t a fan, you wouldn’t know them. Fritz, as a father, was demanding. Part of this ‘curse’ may stem from the machismo, the inability to cry or express emotions despite pain and suffering. This family’s story is a slice of American history, and ultimately, a tale of triumph, as Kevin breaks the curse and finds peace for the clan’s legacy.”

Jeremy Allen White sees the Von Erichs’ story reflecting broader social issues still prevalent in conservative U.S. states: “The Von Erichs tried to fit into the era’s professional wrestling scene, especially in a homophobic state like Texas, where men can’t be vulnerable or show emotions other than anger or strength. It was taboo then, and maybe even now, to be honest, cry with other men, show feelings in public. Seen as weakness, it was certainly despised by their father.” Durkin didn’t push his actors for physical transformations, although for Efron, metamorphosing into Kevin was key. “We trained to play real people with distinct quirks and well-known wrestling styles. I spent hours in the gym on an extreme diet to gain 15 kilos of muscle. Few in the world matched Kevin Von Erich’s size – a ring legend and a giant. It wasn’t about mimicking his physique but getting close to his silhouette. The Von Erichs were athletes, not actors. This physical transformation was crucial: by achieving the right look, we better understood our characters. For Sean, capturing these men’s spirit, their brotherly bond, was vital, so we built a deep connection by eating and training together. Understanding their relationship not just as men but as athletes was key to our story.”

For Jeremy Allen White, embodying Kerry’s pain was crucial: “Every role has that one scene where you wonder if you can pull it off as envisioned. There’s a fine line between anxiety and healthy role preparation – it’s a learning curve. There’s a phone scene between Kerry and Kevin that I wasn’t sure about – phone scenes are tough, you’re essentially acting alone. It was emotional, but I think we nailed it.”


Zac Efron was the only one to speak with the sole surviving brother, deeply moved by Kevin’s resilience. “Working closely with Kevin, I aimed to honor his strength and determination. His journey, family bond, perseverance through tragedies, and never-give-up attitude speak volumes about his immense bravery. Somehow, his qualities took hold of me in unexpected ways. There’s a positive message in this film that can significantly impact how we view life, and I’m incredibly grateful to have told it.”

Sean Durkin hopes to convey a message of salvation amid tragedy: “This film is about family dynamics, triumphs, and misfortunes. We’ve all had similar experiences, maybe not as dire, and in these times, some families grow closer, others apart. Sometimes, how we face adversity makes us a family; sometimes, sharing DNA isn’t necessary. The Iron Claw is a sports movie and a modern American Greek tragedy.”

Returning to his real surname with the birth of his first child, Kevin Adkisson retired from wrestling in 1995. His sons, Ross and Marshall, have carried on the dynasty since 2012, and Kerry’s daughter, Lacey, fought from 2007 to 2010.

Il Venerdi di Repubblica, January 19, 2024


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