Things The Iron Claw Left Out About The True Story

Contains spoilers for "The Iron Claw"

The trailer for "The Iron Claw" advertises that A24's latest film is "based on the incredible true story" of the Von Erich family of wrestlers, and the movie itself opens with a title card that says it's inspired by real events. Sports biopics often take liberties with the truth, whether that means condensing or shuffling the timeline, compositing characters, or embellishing backstories. But biopics about professional wrestling are, in a way, going one step further and narrativizing a sport that's already been narrativized. 

The real Von Erichs mythologized themselves in and out of the wrestling ring for the sake of the family business, so when writer-director and wrestling fan Sean Durkin (whose previous work includes the decidedly less epic and masculine films, 2011's "Martha Marcy May Marlene" and 2020's "The Nest") decided to adapt the infamous saga of the Von Erichs for his next project, he was aware that he was creating a false reality on top of a false reality. 

Yet, the tragedies that make up the framework of "The Iron Claw" are, regrettably, all too real. In fact, what actually happened to the Von Erichs over the course of several decades, in the latter half of the twentieth century, is even more extreme than what's depicted in the film. These are the facts, faces, and formative moments from the Von Erich's sad legacy that didn't make it into "The Iron Claw."

The following article includes allegations and descriptions of addiction, mental health issues, and death by suicide.

Fritz Von Erich's wrestling persona

"The Iron Claw" begins with black-and-white footage of one of the Von Erich family patriarch's wrestling matches. The crowd boos Fritz Von Erich (Holt McCallany), and his wife Doris (Maura Tierney) can't even look on. Afterward, as they walk to the travel trailer where his young family lives, Doris laments that it sounds like people hate him, and Fritz tells her that's the point. While his family really did dislike hearing people in the stands rooting against him, what the film omits is why, exactly, fans loved to hate Fritz Von Erich.

In the docuseries "Dark Side of the Ring," Kevin Von Erich explains that his father, whose real name was Jack Adkisson (pictured above, on the right), wrestled in character as a Nazi from Germany. Even though he had no German heritage, he looked the part and was paired with a faux brother, a fellow wrestler named Walter Seiber, who was given the stage name Waldo Von Erich. Portraying a bad guy — and there were no worse bad guys than Nazis in postwar America — got Fritz attention and opportunity. 

As for the origin of the name "Von Erich," in "The Iron Claw" this was said to have come from Fritz's mother's side of the family, but there's no record of that being the case.

The controversy surrounding David Von Erich's death

The audience gets clued to Fritz Von Erich's toxic parenting style when he ranks his children at the breakfast table. After Kevin Von Erich (Zac Efron) struggles to hold his own against world champ Harley Race (Kevin Anton), third-born David Von Erich (Harris Dickinson) steps in and inadvertently upstages his big brother. David — who's taller, blonder, and better with a microphone — becomes his father's new favorite. His reward? He gets to leapfrog Kevin and travel the world, making a name for himself in the sport and culminating in a title match. 

However, his rapid rise in the National Wrestling Alliance (NWA), and his eagerness to please his father, directly lead to his death. David is found dead in his hotel room in Japan after his intestines ruptured –  director Sean Durkin includes a disturbing scene in which he's vomiting blood into a toilet just before his departure. The official cause of death was listed as acute enteritis, and, as is shown in the film, thousands of locals and fans attended David's funeral.

But "The Iron Claw" leaves out the rumors that swirled in the days after David's passing, and which continue to plague the Von Erich family to this day. As former referee and promoter David Manning explains in "Dark Side of the Ring," David's friend, wrestler Bruiser Brody, found his body. The nature of the scene led some to surmise that David may have overdosed, and Brody may have hidden the evidence. However, Kevin maintains that the Von Erich family wasn't powerful enough outside of the wrestling world to have staged a cover-up, especially one outside the U.S.

The Lance Von Erich Debacle

For a short while, a cast member of the Von Erich family existed, which "The Iron Claw" left out. After his son David's death, Fritz Von Erich needed a replacement, and since his other sons weren't yet old enough or physically ready, he hired someone to play the part. A 24-year-old wrestler named William Vaughan had the talent and the look, and began to join Kevin Von Erich and newly-belted world champion Kerry Von Erich (played by Jeremy Allen White) in the ring, where he was known as Lance Von Erich. 

As Kevin tells it in "Dark Side of the Ring," he and his brother were adamantly opposed to the ruse. They suspected their loyal fan base would catch on to the lie and feel betrayed, and they were proven right. Lance and the real Von Erichs had a falling out, which complicated the storyline that their company, World Class Championship Wrestling, had been selling to the public. He was written out of the family, and as a result, their brand took a credibility hit. 

Ironically, the film adaptation wound up mirroring real life. A professional wrestler, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, who goes by MJF, was cast as Lance Von Erich in "The Iron Claw." He's also listed as an executive producer. However, this subplot was cut from the final version of the film. Friedman can only be seen on screen for a matter of seconds without any context, and there's no mention of the names William Vaughan or Lance Von Erich.

The sixth Von Erich brother, Chris

The movie acknowledges the life and death of the oldest Von Erich boy, Jack Jr., who was electrocuted near a trailer and drowned in the snow when he was only 6 years old. Four more Von Erich boys lose their lives over the course of the movie's two-hour-and-12-minute runtime. But by far the biggest omission is that there was a sixth Von Erich brother, who also died under horrible circumstances. 

Chris Von Erich was the youngest of Fritz and Doris Von Erich's six boys, and the least well-suited to a wrestling career. He was 5 feet, 5 inches tall, about 175 pounds, and he'd also been diagnosed with asthma, the treatment for which made his bones brittle. As "The Iron Claw" shows, via captions that underscore the wrestling matches, his brothers all stood at 6 feet tall or taller and weighed in at more than 220 pounds. Nevertheless, Fritz gave Chris a chance to join the family business, and Kevin Von Erich trained him. But after quickly breaking an arm, Chris began to realize he wasn't wrestling material, and depression set in. In "Dark Side of the Ring," Kevin recounts how he found his youngest brother still conscious after he'd fatally shot himself.

Chris' death by suicide at age 21 means that the real Von Erichs lost five of six sons. Writer-director Sean Durkin told Entertainment Weekly that cutting Chris from the film was one of the hardest decisions he had to make. Instead, some elements of Chris' personality were fused with the characterization of Mike Von Erich. 

The other Von Erich wives and children

At the heart of "The Iron Claw" is Kevin Von Erich's loving relationship with Pam (Lily James). The couple's wedding is one of the major set pieces, and Kevin and Pam's two boys, Marshall and Ross, are minor characters. Kevin's domestic life is shown in stark contrast to the personal lives of the other Von Erich brothers, who are portrayed as alternately wild and lonely. For example, near the end of the film, Kerry Von Erich brings a girlfriend home for Christmas, only to tell Kevin in despair that she means nothing. 

In real life, all four of the Von Erich sons featured in "The Iron Claw" married young, and three of the four had children, though their wives and kids were largely kept out of the public eye to make them more appealing to their female fanbase. However, the romantic lives of David, Mike, and Kerry Von Erich were just as tortured as their wrestling careers and their relationships with their father. 

David's first marriage to Candy L. McLeod ended after their baby daughter died only 2 months old, and his second wife, Patricia Matter, was widowed by his death in Japan. Mike was a newlywed when he suffered brain damage from toxic shock syndrome in the aftermath of his shoulder surgery ... only hinted at in the film. And lastly, Kerry was recently divorced with two young children when he died by suicide.

Brushes with the law

"The Iron Claw" is darker than the average sports drama. On-screen, the Von Erich brothers give themselves injections (which are implied to contain human growth hormone), while Kerry Von Erich takes cocaine and crushed prescription pills. And when the men of the Von Erich family gather, alcohol is usually consumed in large quantities, represented by a plethora of empty bottles. All the drugs, booze, pride, and recklessness eventually catch up with the Von Erichs, but surprisingly, Sean Durkin glosses over some of the thornier details from the real story. 

According to Texas Monthly, after a nearly fatal injury, Mike Von Erich began abusing alcohol and prescription pills. He was arrested for driving under the influence twice, and vandalized a car after the first incident. Kerry Von Erich's legal troubles were more severe. In 1983, he was caught at an airport on the way home from Mexico with a large quantity of drugs. 

Curiously, Durkin's film cuts away before Kerry's motorcycle accident: In real life, an impaired Kerry crashed his bike into a police car, after which he became addicted to painkillers. He tried rehab, to no avail, and subsequently received a 10-year probation sentence for forging prescriptions. The day before Kerry died by suicide, he was indicted for cocaine possession, which violated his probation and could have resulted in serious prison time. His autopsy revealed that there was alcohol and cocaine in his system when he died.

The timeline

One of the most common ways that film adaptations play fast and loose with the truth is by tampering with the timeline. While Sean Durkin's script leaves out Mike and Kerry Von Erich's arrests and their brother Chris' entire existence, it plays up the sequence of events for maximum drama. 

In "The Iron Claw," David Von Erich's death occurs mere days after brother Kevin's wedding to Pam. David's happy when Kevin tells him that he's going to be an uncle, and Kevin, seeing that his brother is sick, suggests he skip his high-profile match. David really did have gastrointestinal symptoms prior to leaving for Japan, but Kevin and Pam married in 1980, and David died in 1984. Similarly, Mike's perhaps intentional overdose happened nearly two years after the surgical complications that forever changed his life. In the movie, he swallows the pills in the next scene. 

Kerry's on-screen timeline is also sketchy. He decides to go for a late-night ride on his motorcycle immediately after winning the belt his father so desperately coveted. The real Kerry really did win a championship title in 1984, as the character does in the movie, but he didn't wreck his motorcycle until 1986. The changes don't make the horrors that befell the Von Erichs any less horrible, but nor did they happen in such rapid succession or on such momentous occasions as "The Iron Claw" makes it seem. 

Kevin Von Erich's family

As played by a physically transformed Zac Efron in "The Iron Claw," Kevin Von Erich establishes himself as the moral center of the Von Erich family. He's the most emotionally well-adjusted of the four brothers, and that's even before he meets the love of his life, forward-flirt and wannabe veterinarian, Pam. Kevin is honest with his brothers, Dave and Kerry, about his jealous feelings, but doesn't hold it against them. He talks openly to his mother and father when he's worried about his siblings. And he perseveres through grief while remaining a doting husband and father. In the film, Kevin and Pam have two boys, and she's pregnant with a third child when the movie proper crossfades into real-life stills of Kevin's actual family. 

Anyone paying close attention to those closing photos and titles may have noticed Sean Durkin made some minor changes to Kevin's biography. Kevin and Pam had four children and 11 grandchildren, just as the postscript says. However, their two daughters were born first, while their two sons, David Michael, who goes by the nickname Ross, and Kevin Marshall, were born after their sisters, in 1988 and 1992, respectively.

Kevin's mental health issues were also worse than is suggested in "The Iron Claw." In "Dark Side of the RIng," he admits that amidst all the pressure and trauma, he found himself in a crisis, too. Kevin tells a story in which he attempted to steal a gun, hoping he'd be sent to prison. Instead, the store owners embraced and forgave him. He also credits the love of his wife and children for keeping him alive. 

Fritz and Doris Von Erich's divorce

The Doris Von Erich of "The Iron Claw" isn't particularly happy with her husband, Fritz, as the film concludes. Midway through, she recalls to her boys and Pam how well-rounded he was back when he was known as Jack Adkisson. Later, she tells one of her children that she used to paint, but doesn't anymore. After Kerry Von Erich dies, in an act of defiance, Doris gets out her brushes and canvases again in lieu of making dinner for Fritz. The audience is left with the impression that theirs is — and has long been — a broken marriage. 

The real Doris was more decisive than her on-screen counterpart. After Chris Von Erich's death in 1991, she divorced Fritz, though they continued to live on the family property together. Kerry's suicide in 1993 strained their now non-binding relationship even more. In the docuseries episode about the Von Erichs, Kevin Von Erich claims that Doris blamed her husband for the loss of five of her six sons. 

Fritz passed away in 1997, tortured by the fact that he'd outlived so many of his children and isolated from his ex-wife and his surviving child. Doris moved to Hawaii, where Kevin and his family had set up a homestead of their own, and remained close to her second-born until she died in 2015. 

Kevin Von Erich's final showdown with his father

"The Iron Claw" closes shortly after Kevin Von Erich comes to terms with the loss of all of his brothers, following Kerry Von Erich's funeral. The film ends on two hopeful notes. The deceased Von Erich boys are reunited in the afterlife, where Kerry meets his oldest brother, Jack Jr. Meanwhile, Kevin cries to his own sons about his immense sadness, who assure him that it's okay for boys to cry, as they do all the time. The lesson his young children teach him is the inverse of the dangerous wisdom of his father ... to never show weakness. 

In real life, Kevin and Fritz Von Erich's relationship ended on a much more disturbing note. As Kevin explains in "Dark Side of the Ring," his father acted even more erratically in the final months of his life. On one occasion, he pulled a gun out and aimed it at his son's head. Fritz — who, as it turned out, had brain cancer — told Kevin that he didn't have the guts to shoot himself. Kevin replied, "It takes guts to live, not guts to die." When his father refused to lower the gun, Kevin escaped through the door. 

Though this tense confrontation isn't included in Sean Durkin's film, which plays both like a love letter to wrestling and an indictment of outdated standards of masculinity, it's a heartbreakingly perfect encapsulation of the real Von Erich father figure's failures. 

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