The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

The Voice of Bates College Since 1873

The Bates Student

A Gripping Film: The Iron Claw

A Gripping Film: The Iron Claw

To be completely candid, I never was a “sports person.” So, when my dad asked me to come and watch a movie about professional wrestling with him and his high school best friend, I immediately sensed a trap. Perhaps this was a last-ditch effort, a Hail Mary (I think that’s a sports term) to get me to like something athletic. These were the circumstances that I saw “The Iron Claw” under, and funnily enough, it turned out to be my favorite movie of the past year. 

“The Iron Claw,” directed by Sean Durkin, follows the true story of the Von Erichs, a 1980s pro-wrestling family phenomenon. Specifically, it follows the four Von Erich brothers: Kevin, David, Kerry and Michael, and the “curse” that is to ruin their family. Zac Efron, Jeremy Allen White, and Harris Dickinson are the dramatic crux of the film, each of them bringing what I would call career-best performances — certainly true of Efron (let’s get him his Oscar!). It would be a mistake to say this movie was only made so spectacular by its male actors. Maura Tierney and Lily James play a spectacular supporting cast, each with their own incredibly striking moments and scenes. 

Perhaps most fundamental to the story of the Von Erichs is the father, Fritz. A former wrestler turned promoter of his sons’ careers, Fritz is the instigator and catalyst for much of the drama in this story. To play someone so domineering and insidious is no small task, and frankly one that actor Holt McCallany lives up to. Fritz is equal parts uncaring and overbearing to his children, putting them all (literally) into the ring to vicariously live out his own failed wrestling career. This leads to an almost perfect story of tragedy, as one by one the Von Erich brothers are destroyed mentally and physically by the sport of wrestling. 

This film is full of hyper-masculine men: lots of big muscles, physical violence and domination. This too, is the world of pro wrestling. Coming into this film, I had no prior knowledge of wrestling, past and present. What “The Iron Claw” does so well is make this wrestling both accessible and dramatic to an unacquainted audience. By knowing the brothers outside the ring first, the stakes for each bout are wrenched up. The film has no doubts about the performative nature of the sport: The audience is shown the backstage, untelevised portions of fights, the brief rehearsals between fighters. Nevertheless, the damage is very real; the violence is real. 

Where this impact really affected me was watching the introduction of Michael Von Erich into the ring. Played by Stanley Simons, I saw myself in Michael. Michael is less of an athlete and more of an artist, secretly playing gigs and playing in a garage band with the help of his brothers. However, when tragedy strikes the family once again, Michael is essentially forced into the ring. With no motivation or real prowess like his siblings, Michael is gravely injured in one of his first on-screen matches. This leads to an eventual downward spiral that was harrowing to watch. It was at this point in the movie that Fritz was truly villainized for me, as his total disregard for his son’s safety is absolutely chilling to watch play out. Fritz, as well as much of society, continually values his sons only by their ability to perform.

This theme of masculinity being inherently tied with physical ability is visited once again in Kerry’s (Jeremy Allen White) storyline, as he loses a majority of his leg in a motorcycle accident midway through the movie. Kerry perseveres through his disability in what should be seen as a moment worthy of admiration. But, under the surface, he is coping with chronic pain and deteriorating mental health. Kerry Von Erich, in reality, had one of the most successful careers out of the brothers, despite his missing leg (my dad was eager to share that he had seen Kerry at a match at TD Garden). His story in the public sphere is one of overcoming disability and adversity to go on to succeed. Durkin hesitates to depict this as so triumphant and would much rather show the costs that Kerry’s return to wrestling caused. Because his identity was so inherently tied to wrestling at this point in his life, Kerry was willing to risk his life and well-being to compete. This ultimately ties into what I felt was the most compelling discussion of gender in the film, that being masculine identity being tied to utility. A good movie would portray Kerry’s struggle back into the ring through pain and disability as a moment of overcoming the odds, but a truly great film like The Iron Claw depicts the reality of what dealing with physical disability and chronic pain without proper support really looks like. We see many scenes where Kerry fights through excruciating pain, time and time again as he gets himself back into shape to enter the ring; all the while being supported by his brothers. Kevin even questions if Kerry should return to the ring, to which Kerry only responds by pushing himself harder. This, unfortunately, leads him to great success, but at a severe cost to his well-being emotionally. The Von Erich family, as in many masculine-dominated circles, often refuse to acknowledge these invisible challenges: be it disability or mental health. 

The genius of this film hit me about two-thirds of the way through, with a brief appearance of another famous ‘80s wrestler: Ric Flair. A small role, but far from a small personality, Ric Flair embodies the absurd macho-ism of pro wrestling. I couldn’t help but smile and chuckle at his gaudy leopard robes and stupidly massive hair. Flair stands in as a foil for the theme of this movie: the presentation of masculinity. Kerry Von Erich encounters Flair at the film’s climax, aligning with the narrative conflicts of masculinity. Why I laughed at first was just how ridiculous the whole persona was. I asked my dad afterward, “You thought this guy was cool?” I found it so preposterous that someone so abundantly false and showy was seen as a paragon of masculinity at that time. 

Pro wrestling, the WWE and the WCCW, are full of these kinds of performances of masculinity: brolic men who tackle and slam each other and keep getting up. In a moment that particularly struck me, as Flair comments on the downfall of the Von Erich family and the grief they have to persevere through, he says something along the lines of, “It’s not about the man who gets knocked down and gets back up. A real man doesn’t get knocked down.” 

This struck me as the crux of the gendered discussion of this film. The sport of pro wrestling in this film stands in for masculinity itself: destructive, violent, and ultimately performative. Fritz Von Erich was a man who was far too entrapped in his own vision of masculinity, for himself and his sons. Once a football player who fell short of pro-level play, Fritz turned to wrestling as a new venture in physical prowess. He further imparts this notion onto his sons, that to be a man means to destroy oneself with performance. It’s this will to meet an impossible masculine ideal, while under the stress of an abusive and demanding patriarch, that curses the Von Erich family. But it is escapable, as shown with Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron). As his father weighs down upon him with his expectations, instead of tearing himself apart, Kevin is able to see beyond the world of wrestling — the world of masculine performance. Durkin importantly frames this escape as a matter of circumstance, as Kevin was only able to see a world beyond his family with the help of his wife, Pam Adkisson (Lily James). The film’s ending was deeply stirring, as it shows what remains of the real Von Erichs today.

All of this tragedy in the film is compounded by knowing that this story was based in reality, which the ending reminds the audience of. What I find so striking about “The Iron Claw” is how it truly feels like a Hollywood blockbuster drama, while functioning as more of a biopic. A well-crafted genre-blend, the film works in a lot of directions and plays for a variety of audiences, be they wrestling fans, biopic drama viewers, and even fans of High School Musical, like myself. 

My only gripe is when I felt my immersion in the film was broken; specifically later in the film with some jarring dialogue and delivery from some child actors. But I feel that speaks to the greatness of the film, that up until then, I was fully entrapped into the story of the family. 

All in all, I highly recommend this film. It takes a phenomenal yet true story and forms a convincing discourse on the state of masculinity from it. “The Iron Claw” is able to bring a story that started almost 50 years ago with Kevin Von Erich entering the ring, and make it relevant to the wider conversations of competition, toxic masculinity, and performance. And more than anything, it made me really glad my dad never tried to force the “sports thing” on me. 

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About the Contributor
Max Olson
Max Olson, Staff Writer
Max is a Junior from Beverly MA. He is a double major in English and Philosophy. In his free time, you can find Max around the table with his friends at the Discordians Board Game Club or accruing overdraft fees of movies at the library.
Max has been writing for The Student since freshman year, covering primarily Arts and Leisure. He is also an officer of the Students with Disabilities Club and a frequent of the Bates Robinson Players.
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