Why does Sylvester Stallone's Rocky Balboa occupy such a treasured spot in the public imagination?
Words by Edward Weech
"But then what is your myth – the myth in which you do live?" ~
Why does Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) occupy such a treasured spot in the public imagination? Originally starring in six films between Rocky (1976) and Rocky Balboa (2006), before featuring in a supporting role in the blockbuster spin-off series Creed (2015 - ), Rocky has proven to be an enduring box-office draw and continues to find admirers among a new generation of film lovers. Yet the version of our world which Rocky inhabits is hardly one designed to satisfy our craving for casual escapism. To use Rocky’s own words, his reality is one where “the world ain’t all sunshine and rainbows.” Rocky suffers defeat, severe injury and illness, betrayal, the loss of wealth and status, the death of loved ones. His journey initially leads from rags to riches, but ultimately back to the same working-class Philadelphia neighbourhood in which he started. The times when things go well – the all-too-brief days when Rocky reigns as heavyweight champion – are skipped over. It’s as if the writer (Stallone) understands as well as audiences that these times are of comparatively little importance. Instead, time and again, we see Rocky respond to suffering and adversity – it is the franchise’s leitmotif. So if the Rocky films are renowned as “feel-good” movies, it's not because they’re free from pain and tragedy. On the contrary, it’s Rocky’s response to adversity which has touched and inspired so many people over the past five decades.
"Each of us comes to learn, as the theologians and philosophers teach, that suffering is a basic reality of human existence."
In Rocky Balboa, the last film to portray the “Italian Stallion” as the pugilist, Rocky encapsulates the vision of the whole preceding series in a moving speech to his estranged adult son:
It ain’t about how hard you hit. It’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving forward. That’s how winning is done!
Films like Rocky Balboa resonate with audiences because, deep-down, people recognise the fundamental truths about our lives. As Hemingway said, “Good writing is true writing.” Each of us comes to learn, as the theologians and philosophers teach, that suffering is a basic reality of human existence. For that reason, all human cultures have emphasised its importance, and have formalised behaviours, or rituals, that not only help people endure suffering, but to be ennobled and strengthened by it. As the sociologist Emile Durkheim explained:
In fact, it is by the way in which he braves suffering that the greatness of a man is best manifested. He never rises above himself with more brilliancy than when he subdues his own nature to the point of making it follow a way contrary to the one it would spontaneously take.
When facing great pain or tragedy, the path of least resistance is often the road to resentment and despair. Rocky is not predisposed to resent the success of others, an important character trait indicated early in the first film. We meet Rocky at his lowest ebb, wasting his life as a “bum” on the streets of Philadelphia, making ends meet by working as an overly-sympathetic enforcer for a local loan shark. His boxing career is in the doldrums: fighting no-hopers for a few bucks, he’s lost his locker at the local gym because the owner thinks he’s a loser. Killing time in a local bar, Rocky sees the heavyweight champion, Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), appear on the news to talk about his next fight. The bar owner disparages Creed, which provokes the usually mild-mannered Rocky. “He took his best shot and became champ. What shot did you ever take?”
Still, Rocky is only human, and there are times when he struggles with despair and depression. Then, it’s the strength of his bonds with family and friends which help him pull through. The first Rocky film is as much a love story as it is a sports film, and it’s touching to watch Rocky’s tender but persistent courtship of the painfully shy Adrian (Talia Shire). Rocky and Adrian are humble creatures, and both struggle with inarticulacy: their fumbling for words is not the usual stuff from which Hollywood romances are made. In the hands of another writer, the emotional simplicity underlying their relationship could have proved mawkish and embarrassing. That Stallone’s script avoids this pitfall testifies to the exceptional depth and sincerity of his compassion. Nobody could ever doubt that Stallone, like Rocky, is in earnest. His story evinces a Wordsworthian power to transcend barriers of language and class, and leads us not only to believe, but to feel that “we have all of us one human heart”.
As their love grows, Rocky and Adrian each undergo a transformation: he is socialised, while she develops confidence and assertiveness. The iconic ending of the first film sees Rocky, indifferent to the pending result, battered almost to senselessness, desperately seeking Adrian to declare his love. Their union is a true partnership. Of course, the inevitable tragedies that befall them put pressure on their life together, and it isn’t always plain sailing. But they “become one flesh”, and their mutual love and respect, their synthesis, helps them to overcome.
"Rocky is subject to the necessity for periodic spiritual renewal in order to face the challenges posed by an ever-changing reality."
Rocky’s transformation in the first film is just one of several throughout the series. As we all are, Rocky is subject to the necessity for periodic spiritual renewal in order to face the challenges posed by an ever-changing reality. These challenges come not just in the form of new opponents, but new responsibilities (like fatherhood) and personal tragedies. Rocky calls on the support of others, most notably his wife and son, to meet these challenges. But he must also absorb the wisdom of his elderly mentor, Mickey (Burgess Meredith), who entrusts him with the experience of the older generation. After his first bout against Apollo Creed, which he lost, Rocky suffered an eye injury which impaired his sight and threatened to end his career. With Mickey’s help, Rocky reinvents himself and learns to rely on the vision of his other eye in order to win. This speaks to an existential reality which has been represented in diverse mythologies. Horus, son of the Egyptian God Osiris, lost an eye in a battle against his uncle Set; after recovering it, he offered it to restore the life of his father. Odin, the Norse All-father, sacrificed an eye in order to drink from the Well of Knowledge at the base of Yggdrasil. Through his suffering and encounter with adversity, Rocky develops the same capacity to understand and integrate ancient wisdom into his own personality. But Rocky also learns from his adversaries. In the third film, after Mickey’s death, Rocky’s retired rival Creed trains him, and Rocky integrates Creed’s fighting style and the lessons of his life in order to defeat Clubber Lang (Mr. T). Rocky doesn’t simply vanquish his opponent: his rivalry with Creed leads to friendship, and raises them both in their own eyes.
Rocky’s punishing training schedules, immortalised in the famous montages, speak to another truth at the heart of the series: that genuine success is won by work, sacrifice, and renunciation. The extremes of physical and mental endurance which heroes like Rocky undergo might appear excessive, but they play an important social role: as Durkheim observed in relation to great religious ascetics, “It is necessary that some exaggerate, if the average is to remain at a fitting level.” Preternatural sacrifice by some gives the rest of us an ideal to aim at, a mythology to contend with. Even if we are unlikely to conquer the same heights of physical or moral purity, we’re better off, at least, for having tried.
Since the release of Rocky in 1976, most of the highest-grossing film franchises have been aimed at children or teenagers and set in fantastical universes. The Rocky franchise stands out as one aimed squarely at adults and older teens. Gladiatorial contest is at the heart of these films, but there is a meaningful context for the violence which helps explain its peculiar power, dignity, and even beauty. A taste for the martial arts is part of our evolved nature: a fact memorably captured by writer William Hazlitt in "The Fight" (1822), one of the earliest examples of modern sports writing:
[B]ut to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies; and then, before you recover from the shock, to see them rise up with new strength and courage, stand steady to inflict or receive mortal offence, and rush upon each other, “like two clouds over the Caspian”—this is the most astonishing thing of all: this is the high and heroic state of man!
The entire Rocky series is framed by Apollo Creed’s belief in the power of the “American Dream,” which is one of meritocracy and social mobility. Creed’s decision to pluck a contender from total obscurity breathes new life into a notion that is already embedded in the public consciousness. Rocky gives everything to try and live up to this ideal and become a worthy opponent for Creed. He also wants to do justice to the opportunity presented to him, mindful of the fact that he has been wasting his potential hitherto. In working towards this end, he transcends his own limitations and eventually does, in fact, come to embody this ideal.
"His patriotic, charismatic ring entrance brashly celebrates the achievements of American culture, but this time Creed does not bring to bear the qualities of sacrifice and humility upon which those achievements were based."
He most vividly inhabits this persona in Rocky IV (1985). Creed has retired, but his patriotism is provoked by the challenge of a Soviet boxer, Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren). Creed sets up an exhibition fight against Drago, but his preparation is inadequate. His patriotic, charismatic ring entrance brashly celebrates the achievements of American culture, but this time Creed does not bring to bear the qualities of sacrifice and humility upon which those achievements were based. The consequences, inevitably, are tragic, and the arc of Rocky IV suggests the moral of Matthew 23:12: “For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” Creed’s arrogance is uncharacteristic and can most favourably be interpreted as an example of the idea that whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. His death, however, is at least put to dramatic use, as Rocky completes the moral triumph which Creed envisaged.
Accepting a fight against Drago – in the Soviet Union, no less – seems to be a death sentence, considering the physical mismatch between the two fighters. (Lundgren’s aggressive physicality landed the much smaller Stallone in intensive care during the film’s production.) Drago has the full weight of Soviet science behind him, and he prepares in laboratories surrounded by the latest machines and teams of scientists who monitor every facet of his physical development. He’s also the beneficiary of doping and illegal enhancements. Rocky, on the other hand, detaches himself from all of society and science, prepares on his own like an isolated, monkish ascetic, and follows a naturalistic, functional training regimen based around chopping wood and pulling sleds amid the snowy wastes of Siberia. His primitive training routine helps him rediscover his fighter’s instinct. But the different training routines also speak to different world views. While Drago’s preparation speaks to a belief in the scientific perfectibility of man, this encompasses only the physical domain. Drago’s moral development is (at best) ignored, while we learn nothing of his inner life. His handlers do not consider him to be an individual: he has been selected as a representative for the collective, chosen because his physical properties make him the man best suited for the job. But for Rocky, his fight against Drago is part of a deeply personal mission. Despite his objective disadvantages, his moral purpose provides depths of courage and perseverance which enable him to go toe-to-toe against a far stronger opponent.
In the end, Rocky is, once again, able to inhabit the persona of the heroic individual, and by doing so he ultimately wins over a hostile Soviet crowd. But it’s not just the crowd whose heart Rocky helps to change: it’s Drago, too. When people start cheering for Rocky, the Soviet authorities are humiliated, and Drago’s handler tries to “motivate” him with verbal and physical abuse. This is too much for Drago, bloodied and exhausted, to accept, and he’s provoked to assert his individual agency, proclaiming, “I fight to win… for me!” This is not the only time that Rocky, win or lose, helps redeem his opponent by eliciting their best through his own suffering.
The same thing happens when Rocky comes out of retirement to fight heavyweight champion Mason Dixon (Antonio Tarver). At sixty years of age, it’s easy to be sceptical about Rocky returning to the ring. But Stallone handles this elegantly, first with Rocky’s impassioned speech to the bureaucrats of the boxing Board of Control, and then by his conscious and convincing efforts to adapt his style in line with his older age. Moreover, Rocky doesn’t deliberately seek a fight against the champ: he just wants to take a few local fights in relative obscurity. It’s he who is sought out by the managers of the uncharismatic Dixon, who has been rejected by the public because all his fights have been against visibly inferior contenders. This time, it’s Rocky who passes down the wisdom of the ages, as he pushes Dixon to the limits of his physical and mental endurance. In proving himself against a worthy opponent, Dixon inherits the mantle of his forebears and is at last accepted as a legitimate champion.
"Rocky’s story is also a timeless myth that speaks to the psychological and religious truths that are not specific to American culture."
If Rocky's story tells us the value of sacrifice and hard work, it also shows how the path to a meaningful life lies in personal responsibility. All that Rocky can do is try and make the most of the opportunities that life provides. In doing so – through striving to improve and giving his all – more opportunities gradually become available until his life is completely transformed. On one level, the film is clearly concerned with the vision of the American Dream, as described by James Truslow Adams:
It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognised by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.
But Rocky’s story is also a timeless myth that speaks to the psychological and religious truths that are not specific to American culture. The stories we choose to believe about the world, and about ourselves, have enormous power to shape us for good or for ill. Rocky provides an enduring example for confronting the unavoidable tragedy of life and, an Everyman and secular hero for the modern era, he shows us how to live.
Edward Weech has a BA in History from SOAS, University of London, an MPhil in History from Trinity College Dublin, and an MA in Library Studies from UCL. His essays and reviews have appeared in publications including Medium, the Coleridge Bulletin and the Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society.