At the 49th Academy Awards in 1977, some of the most iconic films of the 1970s competed against one another for Best Picture. These included Scorcese’s ‘Taxi Driver’, Alan J. Pakula’s ‘All The President’s Men’ and Lumet’s ‘Network’. Each of these films is arguably Best Picture-worthy, each a mighty film that leaves a significant legacy in the history of film. However, none of them were to be the winner in the end. When the Academy chose their best picture of 1976, it went to a film that typified the idea of popular filmmaking, one that flew in the face of the pessimism that had defined the 70s just as it defined all these films. It would have been seen as an upset today if the film that did win wasn’t an absolute classic in its own right. Rather than a film that captured the United States in a state of crisis, it was a little film about a simple man who dreams of being a better man - a simple young boxer named Rocky Balboa.
‘Rocky’ is really one of those "little-films-that-could". It burst from the mind of then-unknown actor Sylvester Stallone, who responded to his frustration at not being able to find work by writing a role perfectly suited to him out of his own experiences. It was raw, rough, innocent and sentimental, but it possessed a strange, powerful passion that unknowingly captured the wider hopes and dreams of a country still reeling from the Vietnam War and Watergate. It found its supporters in producer Irwin Winkler and director John G. Avildsen, who both identified the potential in the screenplay to be something greater than just a boxing movie. At a time when the American Dream seemed to be collapsing, ‘Rocky’ attempted to put that dream back together.
The film tells the story of Rocky Balboa (Stallone), a young working-class Italian-American who collects debts for a local loan shark in Philadelphia. In his spare time, he trains as a boxer at a small gym, but is given a shot at the big leagues when he’s plucked from obscurity by heavyweight champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) as his opponent in a commemorative bicentennial fight. Rocky turns to cantankerous trainer Mickey Goldmill (Burgess Meredith), who pushes Rocky to stop wasting his potential. As he prepares for the fight, he also begins to develop his relationship with Adrian (Talia Shire), a shy pet shop girl, and as the pressure begins to weigh down on him, they begin to cling to each other for survival.
There’s no question in my mind that ‘Rocky’ is the finest sports film ever made, but calling it a sports film seems false and reductive. It’s less a film about boxing than a film with boxing in it, one that uses the sport as a means to explore the developing relationships between the characters. ‘Rocky’ acts more like a character study, and it’s a credit to Stallone’s unexpected skills as a writer that each and every character is so intricate and beautifully developed. There’s a charming simplicity and clarity to each of them, a simplicity that Avildsen carries over into the direction. The film takes its time, carefully rests on its moments, allowing the drama to develop organically.
What makes the film so endearing and affecting forty years later is the integrity of its characters. Rocky is the ultimate everyman, the kind of person who disappears into the crowd and whom you would never expect greatness from. This is what makes his struggle so powerful - the need to be counted as someone by someone, to leave even the smallest mark on the world around him and overcome the restrictions of his circumstances. It takes a lot of convincing (and the challenge from Creed) to force him to aim for that potential, but once he does, he finds a fire within him that drives him to try and achieve his dreams, not just in making him a better boxer but in making in a better man. ‘Rocky’ is such an iconic crowd-pleaser because you can’t help but fall in love with your hero. There isn’t really an antagonist or villain in ‘Rocky’, the force he’s fighting against coming from his own fear. Seeing him grapple with that fear is heartbreaking; seeing him conquer it is exhilarating.
However, the film doesn’t place its focus entirely on Rocky’s struggle. That struggle is reflected in all its characters, and in the extraordinary final fight, all that comes to a head. Adrian doesn’t believe she has any self worth, Mickey thinks the best years are behind him, even Apollo is trying to find a way to define himself as a champion and a man of colour in America, and when Rocky steps into the ring, we see the possibility for each to get what they want. The relationship between Rocky and Adrian is the absolute heart of this film, and watching as she finds her self-worth and opens up to Rocky’s love for her, and seeing the undiluted joy in Rocky at being allowed to give her the love he knows she deserves, is so incredibly moving and very real. There’s an unexpected emotional violence to this film, and it bubbles to the surface through Adrian - while Rocky navigates through his adversity, her only choice is to violently fight against it. She makes it clear what the stakes are in this film - if these characters don’t find a way to become something and break out of this working-class prison, they simply won’t survive.
At a time when the American Dream seemed to be collapsing, ‘Rocky’ attempted to put that dream back together.
The focus on ‘Rocky’ is its characters, and it's a credit to the craft that the film itself so consciously gets out of the way of them. Avildsen’s direction is gentle and simple, capturing intricate and delicate moments rather than showing off. Tone and rhythm follows Rocky’s journey, charting his highs and lows, his strength and vulnerability. Most moments are captured in simple, unbroken shots by cinematographer James Crabe, who finds a rough beauty in Rocky’s world, beautifully capturing the work of production designer Bill Cassidy. However, when the film reaches its sublime, inspirational height, the film breaks out in its iconic training montage that, no matter how many times it’s parodied, still sends shivers down your spine and has you cheering. It’s an extraordinary sequence, the moment where all the elements fall into place and the film enters the sublime. And nothing captures that more than Bill Conti’s extraordinary, emotional score, one that reflects the film’s delicateness and hopefulness. That main theme has become an icon of inspirational anthems, and no matter how many times I hear it, I still find myself moved to tears.
As always, the last stage of my praise belongs to the cast, and there’s not much to fault in them. Stallone is extraordinary as Rocky, giving a performance that sparkles with its honesty and integrity. He channels his own needs and dreams into Rocky, and so much of my love of this film is linked into the goodwill you feel towards Stallone for achieving something so great. Talia Shire tears you apart as Adrian, as perfect a piece of casting as I can think of. Her performance is detailed, contained and heart-breaking, holding everything in until it erupts with so much need and pain. She and Stallone are magic together, and this just makes you love them more.
Just writing about ‘Rocky’ brings up all the emotions I have watching it. There are few films that prove that popular entertainment and artistic integrity can go hand-in-hand as well as this one, and remind us that sometimes you just want to feel as much as you can. The legacy of ‘Rocky’ is enormous - sports films have followed in its footsteps ever since, and the genre at its best has learned from it that character is always more important than the sport itself. It has also spawned six follow-ups, the most recent, ‘Creed’ (2015), proving to be as explosive an experience as the original film. Rocky Balboa is an American fairytale, a figure that continues to inspire people to dream big and fight for what they want.
The final minutes of ‘Rocky’ doesn’t play out as you would expect, but plays out exactly as it should. Those who have seen it know exactly what I mean. Those who haven’t are in for one hell of an experience. They encapsulate the enormity of the ideal called the American Dream: that anyone can achieve anything and be anyone, but the great struggle that it takes. They also represent the culmination of this extraordinary film and one of the most inspirational moments in American cinema. I honestly don’t think it’s possible to watch it without standing and cheering with your eyes full of tears. The human spirit has rarely been captured, like lightning in a bottle, as beautifully as this.