A student-operated publication at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The Oak Leaf

A student-operated publication at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The Oak Leaf

A student-operated publication at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The Oak Leaf

Movie Synopsis: “The Iron Claw”

The epic rise and tragic downfall of the legendary Von Erich family
Courtesy of IMBD/A24
The Von Erich family seemed destined for greatness in the pro-wrestling world of the late 1970s and early ’80s — until tragedy struck.

A24’s biopic “The Iron Claw” follows the epic rise and tragic downfall of the legendary Texas Von Erich family in the late 1970s and ’80s, from feuding with the Fabulous Freebirds in the Dallas Sportatorium to failing to overcome the pressures of the game, the fans and Fritz, the family patriarch. Premiering in December 2023, the film received widespread praise throughout the United States.

SPOILER ALERT: The following article gives a full synopsis of the movie “The Iron Claw.”

“Ever since I was a child, people said my family was cursed,” said Kevin Von Erich, the last surviving brother of the famous Von Erich wrestling dynasty. “Mom tried to protect us with God. Dad tried to protect us with wrestling. He said if we were the toughest, the strongest, nothing could ever hurt us. I believed him. We all did.”

The Von Erich brothers epitomized God-fearing Texas men; their charisma captivated audiences during professional wrestling’s territory era. The territory era was a period that lasted from the 1940s to the ’90s when wrestling promotions worked in various regions across the U.S. but were held under one specific brand, the NWA (National Wrestling Alliance). The Von Erichs, who held the Texas territory, seemed destined for greatness until repeated tragedy struck, earning them a reputation of being plagued by misfortune.

The Von Erich family’s mishaps, which led to five of six siblings, all brothers, dying young — with Kevin being the only survivor — later became known as the Von Erich curse. “The Iron Claw,” starring Zac Efron and directed by Sean Durkin, shows Kevin’s perspective and tells how this group of brothers became famous worldwide and went from being one of the biggest attractions in the sport to a cautionary tale.

The movie begins with Fritz Von Erich, the patriarch of the famed wrestling family who is played by Holt McCallany, pursuing his dream of becoming NWA Heavyweight Champion, only to face disappointment. This failure shaped Fritz’s behavior, leading him to project his aspirations onto his six sons.

The first tragedy occurred in 1952 when his oldest, Jack Jr., stepped on the tongue of a trailer. He was electrocuted, fell in a puddle of melting snow face-first and drowned. He was 6 years old.

From Kevin’s triumph in winning the NWA Texas Heavyweight title to David’s training for his debut, Mike’s secret desire to pursue music, and Kerry’s Olympic aspirations halted by the 1980 boycott, each son harbored individual dreams overshadowed by their father’s ambitions.
Fritz instilled the ethos of toughness and stoicism in his kids, fostering a culture where emotions were suppressed and strength was paramount. The boys’ love for their father, coupled with the demanding lifestyle of professional wrestling, took its toll on all of them.

During the 1970s and ’80s, various professional wrestling promotions operated within territorial boundaries across the United States and beyond, with wrestlers traveling the globe for matches in Japan, Puerto Rico, Mexico and elsewhere. Despite the territorial nature of the industry, the ultimate prize was winning the NWA World Heavyweight Championship, in effect becoming the sport’s champion who served as the main attraction, touring territories worldwide.

The movie portrays Von Erich and his sons operating their wrestling promotion, World Class Championship Wrestling (WCCW). In one scene, Kevin attempts to challenge the NWA Champion in a match but falls short, leading Fritz to redirect his focus onto David as the next contender for the title. This scene shows how replacing one son with another reflected Fritz’s unconventional expression of love, akin to a coach making substitutions in a game. However, while on tour in Japan, David succumbs to acute enteritis, an inflammation and rupture of the intestines, dashing the family’s hopes of him winning the NWA World Championship.

Kerry emerges as the new hope for the family, from a coin flip. He opts for the opportunity to face the current champion, Ric Flair, who at the time was the main attraction and the most villainous wrestler of the ’80s. While Kerry didn’t possess the same charisma and ring psychology as his late brother, his determination led to him defeating Ric Flair and claiming the championship.

Yet the Von Erichs’ string of misfortune continues as Mike, attempting to fill David’s shoes, suffers a shoulder injury that leads to complications during surgery, resulting in toxic shock syndrome and lasting brain damage. Mike’s struggles with depression culminate in his tragic suicide, echoing his sentiments of inadequacy in comparison to his deceased brother.

Further tragedies occur with Kerry, in which a motorcycle accident costs him a foot, and a battle with drug addiction ultimately leads to his suicide. Kevin, the sole surviving sibling, endeavors to shield his family from the perceived curse to the point where he refuses to live under the same roof as them, even changing his kids’ last names to protect them.

As the years pass, WCCW struggles financially. This leads Kevin to sell the promotion, a decision that strains his relationship with his father when he learns of Fritz’s selfish motives. The film concludes with a poignant scene of the deceased brothers reuniting in the afterlife, while Kevin finds solace and familial support in his own family’s embrace.

In a touching moment, Kevin tearfully reflects on his loss, expressing his feelings of loneliness, saying, “I used to be a brother. Now I’m not a brother anymore,” only to be comforted by his own sons who reassure him of their unwavering support and love. The scene ends with Kevin finding solace and connection in the simple joys of family life, symbolizing a hopeful conclusion amidst the tragedy that defined the Von Erich legacy.

As the Von Erich story comes to a close, the film answers many questions asked by wrestling fans. Ultimately, Fritz’s method of raising his boys was the sole and true meaning of toxic masculinity. As a promoter, Fritz always told his sons “Men don’t cry,” and “Always make your wrestling event date, even though you hurt.”

Which is the main reason why David passed away — his death was preventable if he’d seen a doctor or gone to a hospital. But he didn’t do that because he couldn’t miss his dates if he wanted to win the title of World Champion.

In spite of his tough ways, Fritz loved his sons. Ultimately his failings combined with the wrestling lifestyle and the pressures of superstardom to destroy the family. Kevin spoke about this with wrestling journalist Chris Van Vliet during the Dallas premiere of the film and expressed that he still loved Fritz in spite of his father’s problems. He also set the record straight that Fritz’s way of raising his kids was the normal way in North Texas in the 1970s and ’80s, and he couldn’t believe the director found an actor who could play his dad.

Kevin’s wife, Pam, played by Lily James, is the unsung hero of the film. While all these tragedies are happening, she comforts Kevin and tries to shake off his belief in the family curse so they can try to live normally. In one scene she comforts Kevin’s mother after Mike’s death. Her role as the positive and strong light in this very conservative family is apparent as she tries to hold the Von Erichs together.

Only four deaths are mentioned in this movie; Sean Durkin expressed that they decided not to include Chris Von Erich in the film due to running time and the film already encompassing too much tragedy.

The film portrays an array of great ’80s and ’90s pro-wrestling visuals. While some of the acting is flawed — the actors who played Ric Flair and Harley Race didn’t give the best performances, for instance — this pro-wrestling motion picture was done right.

Due to the success of “The Iron Claw,” more movies about famous wrestlers are sure to come. Netflix is currently working on a new Hulk Hogan biopic.

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