Although he’s now mostly regarded as just another ‘action man’ there was a time when Stallone represented a major light in American cinema. With a few unimpressive roles behind him—a silent subway thug in Woody Allen’s Bananas and a now somewhat infamous debut in a porno— Rocky was the film that made Stallone and, above all else, Stallone was the man that made Rocky. Writing the script himself he refused to sell it to any interested party unless they accepted the condition that he take the lead role. It was a savvy move and it paid off in ways Stallone probably couldn’t have imagined as the film not only scored big at the box office but also walked off with three Oscars that year alongside a host of other nominations1. It only makes it all the more romantic that the story of Rocky must have held the same ring to Stallone in reality; a nobody boxer gets a chance and takes it and a nobody film actor does the same. There’s romance all through the film. It’s shot through with a dizzying mix of the ingredients that have made film such a popular pastime for so many. It’s hardly a coincidence then, with all this affection, that the burly Italian seemed to be taking his cues from none other than Charles Chaplin2. It’s a different era of cinema but that only goes to show that some rules never change. The Tramp is still a tramp, just a little bulkier and less able to walk off any damage he took.
The story is about as simple as it gets. Filling his days with small-time fights between other odd jobs, Rocky Balboa is just another nobody on the streets of Philadelphia. They say he had talent in the ring but he never got his chance and now, pushing thirty, he’s got to make ends meet some other way so, for the time being, debt collecting and running other errands will have to do. Finding his locker at the local gym emptied, the proprietor, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), apparently having lost all faith in him, things just don’t seem to be going Rocky’s way. To add to that his best friend Paulie (Burt Young) is giving him trouble and the object of his affection, the mousy but kind Adrian (Talia Shire) won’t respond to any of his advances either. Unknown to Rocky in an office somewhere far away a twist of fate will give him the chance he has always hoped for. Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), world heavyweight champion of the world, has a big fight lined up but it turns out that his opponent is injured and can’t perform. It’s too late to cancel but no one else is up to Creed’s standard. So, in a clever marketing ploy, Creed decides to mark the occasion by giving a nobody a shot at the title. As luck would have it, the nobody he decides on is none other than Balboa.
If it all sounds like a fairy tale that’s because it is. Creed himself even admits it as he plans his event. It’s a gimmick to enrapture the audience. Turning the potential weakness of the story into a strength by acknowledging it and fitting it into the narrative, Stallone’s screenplay cleverly turns the hook for the boxing audience in the film into a hook for the audience in the movie theatre. The fates really do align on this title, shrugging off so many of the pitfalls of such a sentimental subject matter and rising triumphantly. It can only help that the sport at the centre of it all is boxing. It’s the perfect glue to cement the entire project together. Perhaps it’s the sport’s working class roots; that it can genuinely make success stories out of people from the very poorest of neighbourhoods. Perhaps also it’s the sport’s dependence on the individual. Training and management are all a part of it but once you step into the ring there’s only one person who can win the fight. Finally perhaps it’s because the sport carries such connotations of pain and toil. It makes it rife for dramatic showdowns just as all these reasons also make it rife for comedic gain3. Following in the footsteps of some of cinema’s great comedians Stallone crafts a similar character. Though he’s less of a clown than those characters what’s of vital import to the success of this film, as was important to those earlier men’s personas, is the vulnerability Stallone affords himself.
At times diving headlong into self-deprecation, Stallone’s Rocky Balboa comes across as a genuine, struggling artist. He lost his way, his craft somewhere in the mix and he knows there’s something terribly wrong with the way things have worked out, but he’s never given up even as the distractions in life overshadowed the real goal, the boxing. Though physically stocky and muscular, Stallone’s mumbling, sheepish demeanour downplays his impressive frame just as Chaplin’s Tramp hid his physical dexterity behind apparent clumsiness. He’s built for boxing. It’s just the rest of life that causes him trouble. It’s a welcome trait, one that Stallone unfortunately lost later into his career as the blinkered demands of action cinema called for invulnerable supermen rather than hopeful outcasts. Even in those later films there was often an attempt to generate sympathy for the character through one painful memory or some such weakness. It always felt false and hollow within those vessels; hindered by the obvious overriding need for spilled blood to sate the audience. Stallone’s other defining role, John Rambo, also began as a genuinely haunted and damaged soul. Both that film and Rocky were built on downtrodden, everyman sensibilities. The characters were never supposed to be geniuses or even heroes but they were portraits of men who wanted to be taken seriously, who should have been taken seriously and who were not. Obviously Rocky took a more positive route than his Vietnam-oriented counterpart. Unfortunately as the sequels piled on for both franchises the humanity was killed off like so many Viet Cong henchmen.
Helping to convince us of this fairytale story is a solid supporting cast and an able hand in the director’s chair courtesy of John G. Avildsen. He’d win an Oscar for his work in this film, ironically something Stallone failed to do even though the film is most representative of his toil. Finding a voice that was in tune with the upcoming American New Wave, Avildsen’s vision is of a gritty, harsh America. If Rocky is a fairytale hero then he is only credible in the smoke and dirt of the real Philadelphia’s inner city. That locale is never oppressive but also never ornate. Often shot by night in a downbeat, muddy palette, it simply suggests the lack of privilege all these characters face. With the tone and setting in place the final piece comes with Steadicam inventor Garrett Brown’s involvement in capturing some of the film’s more famous sequences. The Steadicam, allowing the camera to become involved and to intermingle with actors like never before, proved a hugely popular tool of the American New Wave and, indeed, of cinema generally. For many, Rocky served as its introduction as the camera effortlessly followed the protagonist up the museum steps or danced around him in the ring.
Of course Rocky is not an entirely perfect film. At times, caught up in its own sentiment, the film strays into the insipid. While they couldn’t have known how famous it would become as they shot the sequence, Rocky’s triumphant ascension of the Philadelphia Art Museum’s steps wanders over the line with its use of slow-motion. The image alone is iconic and that’s enough. Elsewhere, although she handles it with a fair amount of sophistication, Talia Shire’s transformation from a mousy introvert spinster to an effusive, charming lady is arguably far less credible than Rocky’s million-to-one heavyweight title shot. It’s perhaps an example of getting the weighting wrong but, despite a few genuinely charming dates, Rocky and Adrian’s relationship never really feels like it’s breathing naturally. It’s mostly there but lacks that little extra room to really impress as the final countdown to the big fight ticks ever closer to its finish.
On that note the final fight is another small triumph. Messy and chaotic it’s abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that it took quite a lot of work to get it right. It also allows for a fine clash of ideas as Creed shows up to delight his fans while Balboa has come only to fight. Predicting a victory in three rounds Creed inadvertently sets the goal for his opponent. Thankfully dancing around the too obvious and too hollow prospect of an outright victory for the underdog what instead unfolds is a boxing match pitched at the most fundamental of levels. It’s not about winning or losing but about staying standing as Balboa refuses to go down, knowing that victory for him will simply be defined by not yielding to his opponent. Creed may well be the better boxer, the more gifted and the more skilled, but what stops him from tackling Balboa until it’s too late is his own sense of comfort. Ironically it’s this very idea, the knowledge of ‘being on top,’ that dogs later entrants to this film series. Once you’re at the top it’s hard for people to really care that much about what you do in the ring and for all the formulaic twists and hoops the franchise jumps through it could never again convince like this early picture. Both in character and production Rocky was a genuine underdog that held tough and made good. Later works could make no such boasts.
While American cinema of the seventies certainly produced greater works of cinematic art it doesn’t dent the knowledge that Rocky represents a superior breed of populist folk tale. In its unusual production story and its lucky combination of so many appropriate elements the film ended up mirroring its own story, a development that can only make it all the more convincing. Even if its core message of standing tough, trying your best and always being yourself seems desperately trite when removed from its immediate context, there’s no denying the infectious positivity of it all. Amidst the American New Wave and its myriad tales of outcasts and losers Rocky emerges as a more upbeat voice. No matter how cynical an individual might be there’s no denying, sometimes it’s good to spin a fairytale.
1 The total tally includes three wins – Best Picture, Best Editing and Best Director – and seven other nominations for acting, music, sound and writing.
2 Furthering connections to Chaplin, Stallone’s Oscar nomination for both ‘Best Actor’ and ‘Best Original Screenplay’ in the same year earned him the esteemed company of only two other men at the time; Orson Welles for Citizen Kane and Charles Chaplin for The Great Dictator. Like Chaplin, but unlike Welles, Stallone went home empty-handed for his efforts.
3 Chaplin’s City Lights, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle’s The Knockout (with Chaplin as referee), Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century, Harold Lloyd’s The Milkman and Buster Keaton’s Battling Butler and so on and so forth. The rule stands, if you’re anyone who’s anyone in screen comedy then you’d better step into the ring.