The Iron Claw History vs Hollywood: What Was Fact and What Was Fiction?

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Summary

  • The Iron Claw is a breakout hit that faithfully tells the emotionally authentic story of the Von Erich family, highlighting the cruelty of their father and the tragedies they faced.
  • The film accurately depicts the deaths of Kevin’s siblings, their struggles, and the “Von Erich curse” while taking some dramatic liberties for storytelling purposes.
  • Director Sean Durkin made changes to the timeline and omitted certain details, like the existence of another brother, to consolidate the narrative and keep the focus on Kevin’s defiance of the curse.


Spoiler Alert: Spoilers follow for The Iron ClawNormally, an emotionally grueling wrestling drama wouldn’t be a likely breakout hit, but alas, The Iron Claw has already cemented itself as one of the holiday’s most surprising successes. Director Sean Durkin tells the story of famed wrestler Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) and his brothers, gracefully depicting the world of wrestling and the broken family at its center. The film tracks the devastation they faced over the course of a decade; within that time, all the sons but Kevin had died, two by suicide, leading many outsiders to speculate whether there was a curse on the Von Erichs.

By and large, Durkin’s film is faithful to the true story regarding its emotional authenticity. However, Durkin has been open about taking dramatic liberties to suit the needs of his story. We’re taking a deep dive into The Iron Claw and examining how the dramatized tale of the Von Erich family compares to the real-life tragedy.


What Was Fact in The Iron Claw?

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The details may differ significantly, but the overall arc of the story Sean Durkin tells is faithful to the true story of the Von Erich saga. As depicted in the film, family patriarch Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), himself a former wrestler, was incredibly cruel to his children, forcing them to compete against one another so that one of them could go the distance and win the NWA Heavyweight Championship that he never could. An early scene depicts Fritz openly ranking his own kids over breakfast, which he was known to do regularly.

But the most widely known part of the story is obviously the “Von Erich curse,” and Durkin largely accurately depicts the tragedies that befell the family. As Kevin explains in an early scene, Fritz had changed his last name from Adkisson to his mother’s. Although Kevin himself doesn’t believe in “the curse,” many outsiders fear it wasn’t an accident that shortly after Fritz changed his name, he lost his youngest child, Jack Jr., in an accidental drowning.

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The deaths of Kevin’s siblings, as depicted over the course of the film, are also true in the broad strokes. David (Harris Dickinson), who had flown to Japan to compete against Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair for the title, died of a medical issue shortly before his match. Mike (Stanley Simons), the youngest of the family, suffered from toxic shock syndrome after a shoulder surgery went wrong, resulting in brain damage and affecting his ability to compete in the ring. As shown in the film, he eventually took his own life.

Golden child Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), who had successfully taken the Heavyweight Championship title for a brief time, lost his foot in a motorcycle accident, hiding it from the press and continuing to compete. Eventually, the trauma got the better of him, and he, too, took his own life. Only Kevin, who quit wrestling and sold his father’s company, managed to get away and live a normal life, and the real-life Kevin himself endorsed Efron and the film and said it was true to the bulk of his story.

What Was Fiction in The Iron Claw?

That said, Sean Durkin wasn’t shy about taking dramatic liberties in order to serve the story he wanted to tell. Most of the deviations come from compressing the story’s timeline or for dramatic effect; while Kerry did lose his foot shortly after defeating Flair, in real life, it was two years after his victory, rather than the subsequent night, as depicted in the film. Similarly, while Durkin shows Kevin being the first to find Kerry’s body after his suicide (which could lead to an Oscar for Zac Efron), in actuality, it was Fritz.

Durkin also omits some of Fritz’s wrestling background, much of which provides important context that led many to speculate about a curse in the first place. As a professional wrestler in the ’50s and ’60s, Fritz was usually the “ring villain” and, as such, would wear a Nazi uniform as his costume during his performances. Playing such an overtly villainous role was a large part of what led Fritz to take back his mother’s German surname.

The most significant change, however, is the fact that the Von Erichs had an additional brother who wasn’t included in the A24 movie. Chris Von Erich, the youngest of the family, also became a wrestler, and he was known to struggle with depression, devastated by Mike’s death and frustrated at his inability to reach the same level of success that his brothers did. He also died by suicide a year after his debut in the ring.

Durkin’s decision to cut Chris from his screenplay was difficult, but ultimately, he decided it was best for his story. Since the Von Erich saga spanned well over a decade, he had to consolidate various facts to keep the film under three hours. But more importantly, he decided that Chris’s fate was too similar to Mike’s and Kerry’s and that it would be too much tragedy for audiences to take. As a result, he incorporated elements of Chris’s story and personality into Mike’s arc.

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Everything Serves the Story in The Iron Claw

By and large, Sean Durkin is faithful to the emotional truth of the Von Erichs with The Iron Claw, correctly depicting it as a cautionary tale of parental abuse and the dangers of forcing children to compete in a notoriously dangerous profession while also touching on masculinity in an unexpected way. But Durkin still understands that he’s a dramatist first and foremost, and his alterations to the real story all consolidate the narrative and avoid feeling like a condensed Wikipedia article. Ultimately, he wanted to keep Kevin as the emotional center of his tale and to illustrate his successful defiance of the family curse. Regarding that truth, he was completely factual. The Iron Claw is in theaters now.

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