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A Melvillian Review of Durkin’s 2023 The Iron Claw

January 10th, 2024

The Iron Claw is a film written and directed by Sean Durkin. Told from the perspective of Kevin Von Erich, it follows the obsession of his father, Fritz Von Erich, with wrestling greatness and his menacing power over his young sons. In the film, we meet four of these sons: Kerry, the hyper-focused athlete who turns to grappling after political fortunes scuttle his chances at representing the USA; David, the affable, eloquent star of the family in the early days; Mike, the melancholic musician who has a different dream; and of course Kevin, our implicit narrator and who talks of, struggles with, and lives out his fraternal duties.

The film is nothing if not tragic, sadly echoing the real life story of the Von Erichs. Three of the brothers, Kerry, David, and Mike, all perish, increasing the family’s heartbreak – and their belief in the Von Erich curse. David is killed by a sickness that bursts his insides while he is at the peak of his career. Mike takes his own life after a wrestling accident and botched procedure leave him handicapped – unable to strum a few chords on a guitar that use to be his life blood. And Kerry shoots himself in the head with a weapon he bought for his father, undone by years of neglect and pain.

Throughout the devastation, the film focuses on Fritz’s unceasing obsession with glory in the ring. He is constantly raging around his family’s ranch and in the Sportatorium’s office. They have been wronged; the title belt has been taken from them; the men in charge cannot keep getting away with this.

The movie does an excellent job of handling the subject of wrestling’s integrity. Pam bluntly asks Kevin about this on their first date, wondering how people can love the sport so much if it’s prearranged. Kevin explains that it’s worth working hard because you are really auditioning for the audience’s adoration. It’s an explanation that is enough to satisfy wrestling skeptics, but it’s main purpose is to set up a contrast to Fritz’s monomania.

Everyone knows the sport is fake. Pam, far from an expert, knew this before she was ever with Kevin. Kevin admits that it is a performance and not strictly about athletic prowess. Regardless, Fritz rages about the invisible hand of arbiters that we never meet. We hear of their decisions through word of mouth and through phone calls. Never once do we meet a flesh and blood human who stands in the way of the Von Erichs.

The closest we get to meeting a manifestation of their frustration is in the wrestlers who hold the world championship belt. We meet two of these characters. First is Harley Race. Harley’s appearance on screen is meant to make you chuckle and to make you weep. Here is the world champion; here is the man who is at the absolute peak of World Class Championship Wrestling; here is the lone actor who spits in the face of the dreams of the Von Erichs. And here is a portly, balding man who looks more fit to be a professional bowler than brawler. How can anyone respect the integrity of an institution that selects this as their sporting champion?

Next we meet the world famous Ric Flair. Ric Flair matches up against a Von Erich twice in the film. Immediately following David’s death, the white-haired stallion faces Kerry Von Erich. Kerry finally achieves his father’s life long dream of wearing the belt into their home. Yet there is so little celebration – the film only gives you the emotion of crestfallen sadness that comes the night after grasping a vapid dream; the achievement of which only serves to instruct that putting your worth into a physical accomplishment is a hollow way to live. Kerry, back on top in the family rankings, goes on a midnight cruise on his chopper. Eschewing scenes of the ensuing catastrophe, the film cuts to Kerry walking about the house on crutches with only a single leg remaining.

In the second encounter with Ric Flair, Kevin enters the ring. Embattled by tragedy and loss since the start of the film, he faces Flair with an uncharacteristic rage. He goes off script and takes the milky-locked man, the man embodying his family’s curse and the death of his brothers, into the grips of the iron claw. So filled with fury, he ignores the referees warning and is disqualified from the fight. Immediately after this emotional brawl, Flair struts into the locker room of the downcast Kevin and compliments him on his prowess before asking the best place to get a beer nearby. His nonchalance casts a light on the depressive mood on the other half of the locker room. This family has fought and battled for literally decades to achieve the same success as this man next to them and he only wants to get drunk. But this should serve as no surprise – Ric Flair is not a manifestation of a family’s suffering; he is just a performer like them. His wrestling and the accolades he have achieved are an illusion that only have meaning because Fritz has imbued them with such.

Near the conclusion of the film, Kerry takes his own life at the family ranch. Enraged by the loss of another brother, Kevin turns to their father and spits his rebuke, blaming him for the family’s pain. He tackles the once-wrestler and takes his neck between his hands. Fritz is powerless under the iron grip of his son and only survives by Kevin’s slackening.

This movie is overtly about masculinity. Men are the heroes and villains of this story – in no way taking away from the tragic and true lives of Pam and Doris, but in this movie they mainly serve as foils for their partners. Men are the heroes and villains not because of what besets them, but by how they react to their trials. You can rage against the walls that have been built around you or you can learn to be happy in your box. Such is the story of Fritz and Kevin.

But this film also focuses on a specific vice of masculinity gone amok, namely obsession – monomania. Monomaniacal is befitting a word of the character of Fritz Von Erich and it is also how Captain Ahab is described in Melville’s 1851 American novel Moby-Dick. That story has been renowned for its many faceted plot, serving as an allegory for as many human stories as it has pages. Some see it as a tale of man’s search for meaning. Others read it and find a political story – either one rooted in American imperialism of the 1800s or one looking to the globalism of modern times. Whatever shape the myth takes, it is certainly a story of obsession.

The parallels between The Iron Claw and Moby-Dick are quite striking when viewed through a Melvillian lense. Of course we have our Ahab – strutting around Texas as Fritz Von Erich. Ahab would be of little import without his tireless crew, stirred up to hunt the whale alongside him. Fritz’s sons take on the role of the sailors of the Pequod.

Not only does Fritz’s obsession mirror Ahab’s, but so does his propensity for articulate speeches. Both characters have noteworthy orations, either to huge audiences or to members of their crew one on one.

And how will Ahab kill Moby-Dick? With a harpoon of course. A harpoon that he forges on the decks of his ship, dousing the thing in the blood of his crew, shouting “Ego non baptizo te in nomine patris, sed in nomine diaboli!” Despite his Latin outburst, it is comic to consider Ahab’s impotent ploy to kill the greatest whale in the seven seas, no matter the weapon.

Fritz Von Erich has his own implement that he will use to hunt his whale: the iron claw. And in this case it is undeniably farcical to consider that his means of achieving the top of the wrestling world is by pinching a fellow wrestler’s head. In addition to the ineffectiveness of the weapons of choice of our captains, it is notable that another famous character based on Ahab had a tool explicitly described as an iron claw. The first introduction of Captain Hook in Peter Pan concludes with the following excerpt:

In dress he somewhat aped the attire associated with the name of Charles II, having heard it said in some earlier period of his career that he bore a strange resemblance to the ill-fated Stuarts; and in his mouth he had a holder of his own contrivance which enabled him to smoke two cigars at once. But undoubtedly the grimmest part of him was his iron claw.

Opposite Ahab, we have the whale, an embodiment of the pointlessness of the world; of the universe’s apathy to man. And opposite Fritz, we have Ric Flair, a flashy showman who wants to drink booze after the show and who is more of an actor than an athlete. (And, perhaps out of sheer historical luck, Ric Flair has flowing, white hair). Just as in the story of the whalers, a limb is lost following the initial encounter with the object of their obsession. And how does the second encounter go? Boiling with rage, Kevin fails to defeat Flair, just as Ahab screams at the earless creature, “for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee,” before being noosed by his own rope and dragged to the bottom of the sea. The fate of The Iron Claw’s Fritz is similar – strangled to near death not by a rope but by the hands of his son.

Ishmael ends his story as an orphan, rescued by the crew of the Rachel somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Kevin’s final scene in The Iron Claw has him contemplating his own lost family, remarking that he “used to be a brother.” But the film does not conclude with our narrator lost in the sea of his life, but, instead, he is uplifted by the company of his own sons. Kevin has given up his life-long pursuit of his father’s dream for simple happiness with his wife and family on his own ranch. Did Ishmael also return to the shores of Nantucket and turn his back on whaling, seeking a quite life in the countryside of New England? Sean Durkin says he did.