Rocky is a 1976 film directed by John G. Avildsen and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. It also stars Talia Shire (who is also known for being in The Godfather trilogy), Burt Young, Carl Weathers, and Burgess Meredith.
Rocky was the highest-grossing film of 1976, and it received critical acclaim for Stallone’s writing and acting. Rocky received ten Oscar nominations, including ones for Stallone for Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay; it won three of those–Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It has been ranked by many as one of the best films of all time, spawning five sequels and two spin-off films, Creed and Creed II. Creed III is planned to come out in 2023, and there have been discussions about a prequel film about Rocky’s younger life.
The film’s enduring appeal, as is true of all the films of the Rocky franchise, is of course its portrayal of a sympathetic underdog boxer, Rocky Balboa (Stallone), who gets a chance to beat the world heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Weathers)…and Rocky almost does. We all love to cheer for someone prevailing against impossible odds.
What should be emphasized, however, about this first, and best, film in the franchise is that our underdog and champ are much more than what we see and hear on the movie screen. Great stress is put at the beginning on how poor and starving of confidence Rocky is, and how proud, overconfident, and smug Apollo is.
This contrast is significant because, since Apollo wants to promote a bicentennial boxing event to reel in lots of money in an appeal to American patriotism, we can see Apollo–wearing the colours of the American flag on the night of the fight and saying, “I want you!” like Uncle Sam–as personifying American capitalism. Working-class Rocky, on the other hand, personifies the struggling global proletariat. Now the masses really have reason to chant his name.
The film begins with his name in big letters on the screen and Bill Conti‘s “Fanfare for Rocky.” Normally, a fanfare is music played on brass instruments to introduce someone of the importance of, say, royalty. This music, however, is a kind of ‘fanfare for the common man,’ a raising of the proletariat to a dignity normally reserved for the ruling class.
We see a shot of a large picture of Jesus holding the Holy Chalice and the Host. The camera goes down to show us Rocky receiving punches from Spider Rico (played by Pedro Lovell). It’s a juxtaposition of two struggling proletarians with an icon representing the opium of the people up above. Eating the flesh and drinking the blood…isn’t that what boxers do, in a way?
This “opium of the people” should be kept in mind when we remember not only Rocky’s Catholic leanings (e.g., doing the Sign of the Cross before a fight, or wearing a crucifix), but also how “Apollo Creed” sounds like a pun on “Apostles’ Creed.” The capitalist class has always used religion to control the people, and the reciting of the Apostles’ Creed is a lot like the automaton-like way the Pledge of Allegiance sounds. Control the people’s creed, what they recite and are therefore indoctrinated to believe, and you control them.
Though Rocky wins the fight against Spider after being enraged by a head-butt, and Rocky tries to be as proud of his win as he can, always saying, “You shoulda seen me,” he is repeatedly called “a bum,” or a fighter of little to no worth, the lowest of the low. Even when Rocky later boasts of his win to trainer Mickey Goldmill (Meredith), Mickey dismisses Spider as “a bum,” too. Bum sounds like derelict, the lumpenproletariat, whom Marx and Engels considered lacking in revolutionary potential.
When Rocky and Spider are paid for the fight, we also hear the deductions taken from their pay: for their lockers, shower, taxes, etc. One is reminded of how the pay of the working class in general is brought down to a minimum.
As he walks home that night in his trademark black hat and jacket, bouncing his ball, he passes by the pet shop where his love interest, Adrian (Shire), works, all while the movie credits are being shown. Then he walks by a group of street singers, led by Frank Stallone, singing “Take You Back“…doo-doo-doo-doo. Rocky encourages them, just as he’s tried to win Adrian’s heart by charming her with corny jokes. In the alienating working-class slums of the Kensington section of Philadelphia in late 1975, Rocky tries his best to connect with people.
In his home, he feeds his turtles, Cuff and Link, and brings over the fishbowl of “Moby-Dick” so his turtles can have some company. If only he could do something about his own loneliness.
He goes up to his mirror, where he has photos of himself when much younger. He practices a new joke he’ll tell Adrian the next day, but he gets frustrated with his clumsy delivery and gives up; then he takes one of the photos, one of him as a kid, presumably a school portrait from before he dropped out. He looks at it and frowns; now that he’s thirty and getting nowhere in life, he’s wondering what he’s done with it.
The juxtaposition of seeing himself in the mirror and trying–and failing–to tell the joke reflects the contrast Lacan noted between the ideal-I in the reflection versus the awkward person looking at himself. As a struggling, working-class boxer, he’s alienated from society; he’s also alienated from himself, from the man he wants to be as reflected in the specular image, from the man who can tell witty jokes and win Adrian’s heart.
The next day, he goes to the pet store to tell Adrian the joke. His desire is the desire of the Other, for the recognition of the Other, for what he believes the Other desires, to have the Other want him as much as he wants her. This is what he wants from ever-timid Adrian, just to have her look back at him, like the ideal-I in the mirror reflection, to be united with that person over there. He likes her because, in her shyness, he sees a reflection of his own lack of self-confidence. He sees himself, his own lack, in her.
At the gym, he’s annoyed to learn that Mick has emptied his locker of six years (to give to another, more worthy boxer, in his estimation) and put his things in a bag on “skid row.” This is the contempt Mick holds Rocky in: not because of a lack of talent, for Mick acknowledges that Rocky has “heart,” but because as we learn later, he has wasted his talent as a fighter by working as a collector for Tony Gazzo (played by Joe Spinell), a loan shark, which leads to the next point.
Rocky’a alienation from himself, as we observed from his inability to measure up to the ideal-I in the mirror (as successful boxer and charmer of Adrian), extends to his alienation from his species-essence as a leg-breaker for Gazzo, a job Rocky has to do to live, but one that he, with his sensitive heart, doesn’t want to do. Small wonder he doesn’t break the thumbs of Bob, who’s failed to pay Gazzo back the full $200 he owes.
Gazzo’s annoyance with Rocky only encourages Gazzo’s driver, who despises Rocky, to mouth him off all the more. Gazzo as a mafia man represents capitalists, as I’ve observed before: here we see all the more alienation for Rocky.
Rocky’s impoverished self-worth (further compounded when 12-year-old Marie [played by Jodi Letizia] says “Screw you, creepo!” to him after he tries to give her advice about avoiding hanging out with bad influences) must have been a semi-autobiographical element from Stallone, who in 1970 suffered homelessness and, desperate for money, ended up starring in a softcore porno film called The Party at Kitty and Stud’s. (Years later, it would be renamed The Italian Stallion upon the success of the Rocky franchise.)
With not only Stallone’s success but also Rocky’s in his defeat of Apollo in Rocky II and afterward, we see a change in the erstwhile underdog in regards to his place in the capitalist world. We see Rocky’s acquisition of wealth and property in Rocky III, then his symbolic defence of capitalism against Soviet boxer Ivan Drago in the blatantly anti-communist propaganda of Rocky IV (despite its liberal critique of over-the-top American jingoist Apollo), his loss of his wealth in Rocky V, and his re-emergence as the owner of a restaurant in Rocky Balboa (with the film’s embrace of petite bourgeois Christian values and a ‘You shouldn’t blame others for your difficulties’ attitude, a neoliberal attitude of the 2000s as I described it in this post). In the sequels, therefore, we see the evolution of ‘left-leaning liberal’ (which actually meant something back in the 70s, if not very much) to the Reaganite right-turn of politics from the 80s to the present day; this is in a way fitting, given Stallone’s somewhat Republican leanings.
To get back to the story, Rocky meets up with Adrian’s brother, Paulie (Young) in a bar, asking him why his sister is so unresponsive to him. Paulie dismisses her as “a loser,” and it’s clear from his abrasive manner that he emotionally abuses her–small wonder she’s so shy and terrified of the world. He’s mean to her because it’s the only way he can feel less shitty about himself…already a hard thing for him to do, especially in an alienating capitalist society.
Meanwhile, Apollo is trying to find a boxer to replace Mac Lee Green (who has injured his hand) for a fight in Philadelphia for the United States Bicentennial on New Year’s Day, 1976. All other contenders are either booked or unavailable for some reason. Apollo proudly points out that they’re all just too scared to fight him, since they haven’t a hope of “whipping” him. The overweening pride of Apollo, who recall personifies American capitalism, thus represents the hubris of ‘exceptional‘ US imperialism, the belief that “there is no alternative,” and that the West can’t be defeated.
Allied to this hubris is the fake modesty assumed in the notion that America is “the land of opportunity,” that with grit, hard work, and determination, supposedly anyone can succeed and become stinking rich. Therefore, Apollo decides to give a local Philadelphia boxer a shot at the Heavyweight Championship of the World.
George Jergens (played by Thayer David), the promoter of the fight, likes Apollo’s idea, calling it “very American!” Apollo correctly says, “No, Jergens. It’s very smart.” One should not confuse Rocky with any endorsement of “the American Dream”: like The Great Gatsby, Rocky exposes the myth of The American Dream. Rocky almost wins the fight against Apollo not as a vindication of that fantasy, but in spite of it. He almost wins out of his own personal volition and determination. Apollo and Jergens never take seriously the idea that Rocky might win, just as the American ruling class, while promising wealth and abundance to the lower and middle classes if they work hard enough, have done everything they can to thwart such hopes for the great majority of the American population.
It’s significant that Rocky’s first date with Adrian is on Thanksgiving. On their date, Rocky and Adrian essentially save each other, that is, from lives of loneliness and self-hate. In keeping with the American theme of this film, we know that the origin of Thanksgiving is in the Native Americans’ having taught the white settlers how to prepare for and survive the harsh winters of a place the Europeans weren’t used to, that is, having saved their lives. (How the white man eventually ‘thanked’ the aboriginals is, of course, another story for another time.)
Rocky wants to show his sensitivity and thoughtfulness to Adrian by paying to give her ten minutes to skate on a rink that’s closing for the night. We see him grab her arm when she’s about to fall, and her enjoyment of the skating helps her to relax and open up to him as he tells her of his boxing and being a southpaw. In such a chilly place, the two are warming up to each other.
The most difficult part of the date, of course, will be Rocky getting her to trust him alone with her in his home that night. She–a timid, petite girl in the home of a large, muscular man, a boxer!–has every reason in the world to be afraid of him. He, having a sexual/romantic interest in her, is groping (pardon the expression) to find reasons for her not to be afraid. Since he knows he’s a nice guy–but she has no way of knowing that, beyond his considerateness at the rink–he can only hope she’ll trust him anyway.
On a date, one should never be expected, let alone pressured or forced, to be sexual, but one does explore sexual possibilities when dating. She’s afraid, but she does find him attractive…especially in his sleeveless shirt with his muscles showing. Being a good man, he’ll never force himself on her…all he wants her to do–all he needs–is for her to accept him. The scurrilous, misogynist violence of incels is of course never to be tolerated, rationalized, or in any way sympathized with–they certainly have no right at all to demand sex from a woman–but the pain emanating from their hearts (which, again, should never be translated into violence) is from their loneliness and sense of rejection, a universal pain felt by incels and non-incels alike.
Rocky, not having the bent towards violence against women, but feeling that loneliness and fearing that rejection from Adrian, just needs her to accept his love. His tactful and sensitive overture to her is to say he’d like to kiss her, though she doesn’t have to kiss him back if she doesn’t want to. For a guy who takes it and dishes it out so brutally in the ring, he is beautifully gentle with his frightened but fascinated date. The beautiful song “You Take My Heart Away” is playing during this scene; it shares a similar theme or two from “Gonna Fly Now,” suggesting the same sense of encouraged aspirations to something better, which leads to the next point.
Her acceptance of his kisses, her kissing him back, marks the turning point in the film. Both of them, instead of seeing their self-confidence continue to wither, are seeing it begin to come back to life. All those self-help books, and all that pop psychology, tell us about the importance of self-love, of building self-esteem from within; but it can only grow from ‘other-love,’ if you will, from receiving the love of others. We are social beings, and we can only grow in love by being together and supporting each other in communities, in loving solidarity.
Right after this date, Rocky receives the news about facing Creed. His self-love is only beginning to grow at this point, so doing anything more than being a sparring partner for Creed–especially fighting him for the heavyweight title!–seems way out of Rocky’s league. When he initially refuses the opportunity offered by Jergens, you vividly see the frown of self-loathing on his face.
Jergens talks him into fighting Apollo, though, and we see the two boxers on TV, with Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie watching the broadcast in her home. Apollo, of course, isn’t taking the fight seriously, and so he makes an ethnic joke against Italians about their stereotyped cooking skills. Naturally, Rocky, Adrian, and Paulie, being Italian-Americans, are not amused.
This leads us to an interesting point about race and ethnicity as regards this fight, something the news reporter says about this American bicentennial fight being between black Apollo and white Rocky. That Apollo is black, however, in no way detracts from his personification of American capitalism, something we normally associate with white men; one must steer clear from the distraction of identity politics when it comes to critiquing capitalism. As we now know, four decades since the beginning of the Rocky phenomenon, the first black American president, despite all the idiotic complaints from the right that he was a “socialist” or a “communist,” was no less capitalist or imperialist than any other US president before or since.
Similarly, Rocky’s being white doesn’t detract from him being the underdog. Though, as Apollo earlier pointed out when choosing Rocky for the fight, an Italian, so they say, discovered America (Cristoforo Colombo, who subsequently abused the natives)–in fact, America was even named after an Italian (Amerigo Vespucci)–Balboa is still working class as against wealthy Apollo, and Italian-Americans have experienced plenty of bigotry from WASP America, as blacks have suffered. So the skin colours of our two fighters make for an intriguing paradox in terms of how the men represent oppressor and oppressed, and their struggle.
Another interesting point should be made about when Apollo chose Rocky as his challenger. He says, with a chuckle, “Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion: sounds like a damn monster movie.” One might think of those Japanese kaiju films–Mothra vs Godzilla, King Kong vs Godzilla, etc. Godzilla is a metaphor for Japan’s collective trauma after the nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an American imperialist war crime resulting in a pop culture icon that Apollo finds amusing, since this “monster movie” title will make for an alluring promotion of this most profitable fight.
Apollo’s not the only one hoping to make a buck or two off of this fight: Paulie will have advertising of his meat-packing business sewn on the back of Rocky’s robe. Also, Mickey has suddenly warmed up to that “dumb dago,” and offers to be Rocky’s manager. Though Rocky at first is too proud to accept the help of a trainer who’s only treated him with contempt until now, he realizes that Mick’s decades of experience will be a great help to him.
During his jogging down the streets of Philadelphia, Rocky stops by Paulie’s meat-packing place of work. Obviously envious that Rocky and his “loser” sister have fallen in love while he, the real loser, still has no girl of his own, Paulie pries into the more intimate aspects of the couple’s relationship using vulgar language. He further annoys Rocky by saying he ‘stinks’ and by punching a piece of meat, inspiring Rocky to do the same. Paulie later has the local TV news show Rocky demonstrating his punching of raw meat; Apollo’s trainer, Tony “Duke” Evers (played by Tony Burton), watches the demo on TV, anxious to have Apollo watch, too.
Tony tells Apollo that Rocky “means business.” Apollo answers that he also means business, that is, of the literal, capitalist kind: he’s preoccupied with advertising and promoting the fight, getting tax breaks, and ensuring that many luminaries attend, for the sake of making as much money as possible. In this sense, Creed is a pun on greed.
Paulie’s envy of the happiness of his sister (along with his fear that she’s lost her virginity), and of Rocky’s newfound success–while he can’t even get Rocky to put in a good word for him for Gazzo–causes him to lash out at Rocky and her one time too many, driving her to tell him off once and for all. Just as Rocky’s confidence is improving, so is hers.
Speaking of Rocky’s growing self-confidence, we’ve come to the famous moment when we see him vigorously training, and “Gonna Fly Now” is heard. Since I’ve said that Apollo personifies American capitalism, and Rocky represents the global proletariat, the underdog fighting against US imperialism, we can think of this emotional moment as something to inspire us and steel our hearts in our current struggle against the oppressive ruling class and its brutal war machine.
I find it ironically useful in this connection to mention a parody of this iconic scene in the otherwise egregiously Zionist film, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, in which the titular character’s Palestinian nemesis (played by John Turturro) goes through an inspiring training routine like Rocky, with a Middle Eastern variation on “Gonna Fly Now.” In spite of how nauseatingly pro-Israel this piece of Hollywood garbage is, this one scene is like a Freudian slip, reminding us of which people in that hateful conflict are the real underdogs to be sympathized with. It also reinforces my idea that Rocky represents all such Third World underdogs as they try to resist Western hegemony.
So let us be moved when we see Rocky run up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and he holds his arms up triumphantly at the top. In spite of all the alienation he’s experienced as a poor man in this city, we can be reminded that Philadelphia means “brotherly love,” and thus we can remember the importance of solidarity.
Recall Che’s words: “At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love. It is impossible to think of a genuine revolutionary lacking this quality.”
Rocky visits the arena where the fight will take place, and he notes how on his poster, the colours of his boxing shorts are reversed, a careless oversight reminding him of how no one is taking him seriously as a challenger. Jergens is there, noting how the error “doesn’t really matter.” All of the confidence Rocky has built up to win has just been deflated.
He goes back home to tell Adrian that he has to be honest, that he has no hope of beating Creed. He does, however, still have one significant hope: that he can go the distance, something no boxer has ever done with Apollo. Sometimes, setting a more realistic, attainable goal for oneself is better than dreaming the big dream.
Because sometimes, the realistic goal pulls one much closer to attaining the big dream than we expected it would.
Recall Lenin’s words: “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.”
Recall also that this is Rocky’s dream, not the ‘American dream.’ Here, he achieves great things not because he lives in the ‘land of opportunity,’ but because he has chosen to set those achievements for himself, of his own accord.
Now, for those who may still not accept my idea that Apollo personifies American capitalism, consider his entrance on the night of the fight, and try to deny it. First, he’s dressed like George Washington while the “Marines’ Hymn/Yankee Doodle” is heard; then, he’s dressed like Uncle Sam, shouting, “I want you!” over and over.
Apollo’s pride is therefore the arrogance of “American exceptionalism,” and just as Rocky’s confidence is rising, so is Apollo’s pride about to fall. The commentators note that this fight will be “the caveman against the cavalier,” contrasting Rocky’s slow, brutish, “goddamn ape” fighting style with Apollo’s quick, skillful, and graceful style–Dionysus vs. Apollo, Romanticist Rocky’s “heart” against Apollo’s Classicist technique.
In Round One, though Rocky is slow and awkward with his swings, easily dodged by Apollo, he gets one lucky punch in and knocks Apollo down for the first time in his career. Apollo’s ego is as wounded as his face. His pride is further wounded when, contrary to his smug prediction that he’d “drop him in Three,” he finds Rocky going the distance, something else that’s never happened to Apollo before.
Rocky was made just a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, when the Viet Cong were the underdogs fighting the behemoth of the American army. Charlie, too, went the distance, and proved to the world, just as Rocky is doing to Apollo, that the US war machine isn’t the invincible juggernaut it seems to be.
Rocky sustains some terrible injuries, including swelling over his eye that makes it hard to see, prompting him to tell Mick to cut the skin where the swelling is. Apollo, too, has sustained terrible injuries, including a broken rib. Such injuries are comparable to, on Vietnam’s side, the napalming and trauma of people like Phan Thi Kim Phuc; and on America’s side, all those veterans with PTSD. Small wonder the commentators say we “are watching a battle,” and in Round Fifteen, “They look like they’ve been in a war, these two.”
The last round ends with Apollo saved by the bell after Rocky has pounded his face so hard, it seems as if, had Rocky been given a little more time, one or two more hits would have knocked Apollo down for a KO.
The split decision gives the fight to Apollo, though as Mickey says at the beginning of Rocky II, Rocky was the real winner of the fight. The split decision reminds one of how some patriotic Americans might try to save face by saying, as Otto (Kevin Kline) did in A Fish Called Wanda, “We did not lose Vietnam. It was a tie.” But Archie (John Cleese) knew better, as we all do.
In any case, Rocky doesn’t care who’s won the fight: he’s gone the distance with Apollo, and has come a split hair away from winning–good enough. He just wants to have Adrian by his side. Hearing her tell him she loves him is all the victory he needs.
We, the global proletariat that he represents, likewise don’t need to win all at once. We can enjoy every small victory, one at a time, before the final great revolutionary victory comes. In the meantime, our mutual love and solidarity, like Rocky’s and Adrian’s love, will keep us going.
When that final victory does come, though, we must beware against letting it make us so comfortable that we become the liberal Balboa in Rocky IV, out to propagandize against all that was fought for, however symbolically, in this first great film of the franchise.