Sean Durkin knows his way around the “squared circle.” As a lifelong wrestling fan, he approaches the story of the Von Erichs (and their family curse) with both knowledge and reverence in The Iron Claw, a good movie that doesn’t quite soar, but evokes a distinct sense of time and place. However, the film plays differently to outsiders than it does to wrestling fans, not only because the latter are likely familiar with the real story — which included Nazi origins and an extra brother, both excised from the script — but because it’s an insider saga, about the details of an industry kept secret for decades.
The wrestling landscape, however, is different in the age of social media, since most fans are keenly aware of in-ring sleight of hand, backstage drama, and even contract negotiations. This sense of involvement adds to the enjoyment for long-time viewers, and when it comes to The Iron Claw, that subset is bound to pick up on (and admittedly, nitpick) terminology, classic characters, and real-life wrestlers acting in the film, which most audiences might not.
So, if you’re curious about the who’s who (and the what’s what), here’s a rundown of how the movie plays for wrestling obsessives.
How is The Iron Claw as a wrestling movie?
Kevin Von Erich holds the Tag Team Championship high above his head.
In the long lineage of pro-wrestling films, The Iron Claw is one of the better examples. It also has a narrative leg-up on recent successes like the WWE-produced Fighting With My Family (which stars Florence Pugh as real English wrestler Saraya Bevis, a.k.a. Paige), and this year’s queer lucha libre drama from Amazon, Cassandro (in which Gael García Bernal plays the titular exótico). That’s because Durkin almost always treats wrestling as what it actually is — coordinated and scripted combat — while those other biopics tend to blur the line for dramatic effect.
On a spectrum between Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler and Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man, the aforementioned films about Paige and Cassandro fall surprisingly towards the latter, in which Raimi creates a zany, comic book world where Bonesaw McGraw (wrestler Macho Man Randy Savage) will kick your ass for real. The Wrestler, despite being entirely fictional, is perhaps the gold standard for depicting pro-wrestling with realistic hues — it pairs well with Aronofsky’s ballet drama Black Swan, as films about self-destructive stage artists — and the drama tends to emanate from the question of whether Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) still has what it takes to perform.
In Fighting With My Family and Cassandro, the realistic boundaries of pro-wrestling are well-established at first (the teamwork and precision necessary to pull off high-flying moves), but at key moments, both films suddenly treat the in-ring action as though it were entirely “real” and impromptu, thus shifting the stakes of the drama. In their respective climaxes, both films cease to be about whether artists can overcome personal obstacles to coordinate the best possible performance, and instead become about whether they can win a real fight — a transition that’s confusing at best. The Iron Claw, thankfully, doesn’t have this problem (except perhaps in a single scene), placing it far closer to The Wrestler’s end of the spectrum.
While the movie invents certain historical specifics to add to the drama — like family patriarch Fritz Von Erich being despised by the National Wrestling Alliance (N.W.A.) — this departure from reality exists within a realistic framework, involving the kind of backstage politics that really do go into determining who holds a championship belt. As Fritz’s son Kevin (Zac Efron) explains, it’s akin to a job promotion. The in-ring action has a realistic flair as well, with brothers Kevin, Kerry (Jeremy Allen White), and David (Harris Dickinson) performing coordinated dropkicks and other maneuvers which they discuss with their opponents beforehand. Some of these discussions feel overly explanatory, as though the moves they’re planning are unfamiliar to the seasoned performers (rather than business as usual), but Durkin has the right idea, as he brings the audience backstage and lets them in on the gimmick early on.
The only time the lines get slightly blurred is when Kevin applies the Iron Claw submission hold on World Heavyweight Champion Ric Flair (Aaron Dean Eisenberg) either too forcefully or for too long and gets disqualified by the referee, followed by Fritz admonishing him backstage. However, whether this disqualification was predetermined, or whether it was caused by Kevin going off script, isn’t entirely clear. A bloody Flair soon enters the scene and compliments Kevin on his performance. He seems thrilled about their bout rather than upset by its abrupt ending, hinting that this conclusion may have been part of their plan — which leaves the reasons for Fritz’s disappointment feeling vague in the process. Was it, perhaps, some general lack in Kevin’s performance that angered Fritz? The film doesn’t offer any hints one way or another, robbing this potentially powerful moment of father-son drama of its complete impact.
However, despite this one perplexing moment, The Iron Claw is an engrossing example of the genre, and does a remarkable job of presenting pro wrestlers in their element — both as characters and as actors, given just how many faces familiar to wrestling fans show up on screen.
Which wrestlers show up in The Iron Claw?
The actors playing the Von Erich brothers replicate much of the in-ring wrestling with aplomb. Much of this is owed to their trainer, former WWE superstar Chavo Gurrero Jr., a Texas-born third-generation wrestler, whose grandfather Gory Gurrero was one of the early pioneers of the Mexican lucha libre style in the 1940s.
Gurrero Jr. also has a role in the film, as the first opponent we see Kevin Von Erich’s face in the ring, Edward Farhat a.k.a. The Sheik (not to be confused with WWE villain and Twitter personality The Iron Sheik). The Mexican-American Gurrero playing the Lebanese-American Farhat is arguably a case of Hollywood’s interchangeable casting of brown actors, but it fits perfectly with the wrestling industry on numerous fronts. For one thing, Farhat was a Mennonite Christian, while his character was a keffiyeh-sporting Arab “wild man” who knelt on a prayer rug to draw the crowd’s ire; for better or worse, casting Gurrero Jr. matches this flagrant trans-ethnic modus operandi. For another, there’s an interesting legacy story to be found in this decision as well, which mirrors The Iron Claw.
The Iron Claw submission was passed down from Fritz to his sons (and subsequently, from Kevin to his sons, Ross and Marshall, who are active wrestlers), and the legacy of such maneuvers is relevant to the Gurrero-Farhat connection too. Gory Gurrero invented the famous wrestling submission “The Camel Clutch,” though it wasn’t until the move was adopted by Farhat that it became popular and widely known. In which case, who better to embody Farhat than someone connected to that legacy?
A few other familiar faces show up as well. AEW star Ryan Nemeth plays “Gorgeous” Gino Hernandez, who teams up with the fearsome Bruiser Brody (played by non-wrestler Cazzey Louis Cereghino) in a tag team bout against Kevin and David. AEW World Heavyweight Champion (and one of the film’s executive producers) Maxwell Jacob Friedman has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role as Lance Von Erich, the infamous “fake” Von Erich cousin introduced by Fritz when Kerry was out of action, though this character isn’t named in the film.
Like Brody, N.W.A. World’s Champion Harley Race is played by a non-wrestler too, Kevin Anton, who’s the spitting image of the legendary brawler. Non-professionals playing these familiar characters isn’t a problem for the most part, except for Eisenberg’s Flair, whose extended monologue during a pivotal moment is likely to draw laughs from seasoned wrestling fans. Flair is one of the most recognizable figures in wrestling history — every wrestler seems to have a Flair impression in the chamber — so to cast an actor who not only sounds nothing like him but fails to capture his iconic, pompous cadence, is perhaps the one big mistake the movie makes from a pro-wrestling standpoint.
How does The Iron Claw compare to Dark Side of the Ring?
The go-to tragedy encyclopedia for any modern wrestling fan is the Vice TV documentary Dark Side of the Ring. Across its four seasons, the series from Evan Husney and Jason Eisener has chronicled everything from WCW’s record-breaking show in North Korea to the infamous “plane ride from hell,” a chaotic, drug-fueled flight full of pro wrestlers, in an episode that also had real-world fallout for the likes of Flair, with sexual harassment allegations coming to light.
In its first season, the series covered the events of The Iron Claw as well, in the episode “The Last of the Von Erichs.” Durkin’s film runs 2 hours and 20 minutes but doesn’t include the fifth and youngest brother, Chris. The writer-director claims “the movie just couldn’t withstand another brother’s death,” but the episode covers the entire history of the Von Erich family, in all its despondent detail, in a mere 44 minutes, and it does so rather effectively, with Kevin as its central subject drawing us into the story’s drama.
The show’s re-enactments involve actors donning wrestlers’ familiar costumes, but it shoots them out of focus, to evoke iconography above all other details, but also to make each recollection feel like a hazy memory — as opposed to the archival footage the show also employs. Despite its cast of actors bearing little resemblance to their real-world counterparts (especially in terms of size), The Iron Claw does a similarly stellar job of evoking the broad look and feel of the Von Erichs and their Dallas success in the 1980s.
However, when it comes to depicting the many tragedies that befell the Von Erichs, the Vice series is much better at creating a sense of causality between each event (and thus, making Chris feel indispensable to the narrative), and it also takes a far more honest look at the Nazi origins of the family’s moniker and Fritz’s original gimmick. In sanding down these details, some of the unsavory facts from the real story are lost in Durkin’s screenplay, resulting in a film that pulls its punches on occasion and turns each tragic event into a sudden turn, rather than an inevitability set in motion by their brothers’ relationships and Fritz’s parenting.
However, the one thing The Iron Claw seems to borrow from Dark Side of the Ring is its impactful final scene, in which Kevin — sitting barefoot on the grass — watches his young sons roughhouse on the family ranch. A similar image set in the modern day closes out “The Last of the Von Erichs,” with Kevin, seated similarly, watching his adult sons practice wrestling moves out in nature, offering a sense of serenity and closure, as the last living Von Erich brother reflects on his family history. For everything the movie gets wrong, it captures the soul and tragic story of Kevin Von Erich in vivid and moving hues, which is perhaps its most important achievement as a pro-wrestling film.