As a kid in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I was obsessed with wrestling. I don’t know what got me into the sport, I just remember being completely consumed by it. I was living in England at the time, and although the popularity of wrestling was growing, it was far from ingrained in the culture. I would watch the weekly shows on TV, the main events that aired a few times a year, and beg my parents to take me to any live matches passing through London.
But it wasn’t enough. I wanted to know everything there was to know about the world of wrestling. I would search for magazines any time my parents stopped at a newsstand. I’d scour book shops for VHS tapes of old NWA matches. And it was in this deep dive that I first saw The Von Erich brothers wrestling together as hometown heroes in the renowned Dallas Sportatorium.
I’ll never forget those first images of that place. You could feel the sweat and the dust, you could smell the cigarette smoke. These guys were fast and exciting and the crowd was wild. Every wrestling show on TV was so polished at that point, verging on cartoonish. But this felt real and raw, this had honesty. I fell in love with Kevin’s bare foot high-flying style; Kerry’s unparalleled power and athleticism; David’s towering stature. A three-headed monster of epic proportions commanding this vibrant stage in my favorite sport. They were rockstars in the ring who revolutionized wrestling. And they just looked like they were having so much fun doing it together. You could feel the love between them.
I remember the day I discovered that Kerry Von Erich had died. I picked up the latest edition of Pro Wrestling Illustrated and read it while we were eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant on a Saturday night, our weekly family ritual. The news broke my heart. By then I had seen Kerry wrestle live a few times in the WWF as The Texas Tornado. I knew he had other brothers who had died, and to think that the family had lost someone else was too much. It haunted me. My thoughts were with them, and they stayed somewhere in my mind for much of my life.
As I started to write the script for The Iron Claw and craft this family’s epic life into a film, I had to find my own personal way into the story. I reflected on my childhood and what it was that drew me to them, and to wrestling in general. I was a quiet kid, sensitive, and often unsure how to talk about my feelings or what I was going through internally. I fell in love with wrestling because it was a place I could express myself. I could cheer on my heroes, boo the villains, and scream in ways I couldn’t anywhere else in life. Watching wrestling live was cathartic in ways I could never articulate back then, but I could feel it. Wrestling fans vicariously experience all those feelings being performed in the ring: the extreme lows of pain and defeat, and extreme highs of elation and victory. As I dug further into the Von Erich’s story and some of the unthinkable events this family suffered, I could see that they were not people who spoke about their feelings or expressed their thoughts and fears. These boys were performing the big emotions in the ring that they were not allowed to express in their day-to-day life. I wanted to get inside what they were like behind the curtain, where they had to keep it all inside.
The Von Erichs have been referred to as the Kennedys of sports. Although there is unthinkable loss within the Von Erich family, The Iron Claw is not about grief and pain, it’s about the absence of grief and what can happen when people refuse to examine their pain. Their family story is a small piece of American history, but it digs up the bedrock of a very American and extremely misguided expression of masculinity, a generational mindset that has harmed our culture in ways we are only just beginning to understand. Part family drama, part gothic horror, part sports movie, The Iron Claw is a true Greek tragedy set in the American heartland. It is a story about family, gods and monsters, fathers and sons. It is a celebration of brotherhood. It is about finding love and learning to love yourself for who you are. It is about battling against the narrow idea of what it means to be a man. It is about chasing glory and the illusions of success. It is about generational strife and questioning the lens with which we are conditioned to see the world in order to find a hopeful new future.
And finally, it is a story of resurrection as Kevin shatters the mold of his family creed and breaks the curse, coming out the other side, wiser, stronger, and at peace. I hope you cry as much, laugh as much, and enjoy being in the ring with these beautiful brothers as much as I did while making this film.
- Sean Durkin