On a recent trip to Philadelphia I discovered, amongst many other wonderful things, the Rocky cultural phenomenon, which surprisingly until now I was ignorant of, despite growing up in a movie-obsessed household, with an action-film obsessed brother. After a quick online search of Sylvester Stallone’s filmic oeuvre, I realized I have seen almost everything else he starred in except for the Rocky films, which tilted my perception of his image as just another one of those action actors.
I was also surprised to find out that Stallone had not only written the script for the first film, but also had to fight hard to be able to star in it. Then he wrote and directed the three following films, and finally one more after Rocky V to close off the series. As it turns out, he performed these artistic achievements on top of transforming his body into that of an athlete and boxer, almost literally embodying the title character’s struggle from oblivion and poverty to athletic discipline and international stardom. The first film brought him two nominations for his acting and script writing, and went on to win three Oscars for best film, best director, and best editing, out of ten nominations in total. Not to mention, it helped popularize the Steadicam, which was invented that same year in 1976 and used to immortalize the famous museum-steps scene.
Even during a particularly bad heat-wave this July, the Philadelphia Museum of Art steps, also known as the Rocky Steps, were mounted by tourists recording each other running up and jumping victoriously at the top of the stairs in imitation of Rocky’s famous gesture. Known as the most famous monument in Philadelphia (never mind the Independence Hall and the National Constitution Center), the Rocky statue that was unveiled in Rocky III (1982), and which has since been moved next to the steps, had a line of tourists waiting to be photographed next to it. At the time of its unveiling, City Commerce Director, Dick Doran, claimed that Stallone and Rocky had done more for the city’s image than “anyone since Ben Franklin.”
So, naturally, I was curious to fill this gap in my cultural knowledge, and also to see how the city of Philadelphia was portrayed in the six films (a minor fascination of mine that has lead me to participate in the World Film Locations: Berlin project). What I came away with is a new philosophy of motivation, personal triumph, and the psychology of endurance, perseverance, and ultimately, success.
Of course, the films have their fair share of flaws, especially the blatantly patriarchal overtones. Adrian, who is at once a key female presence in each of the films (through flashbacks even the last one), and arguably Rocky’s key to success, is not as well-developed as some of the male characters. Her life is anchored in Rocky’s ups and downs. We know nothing of her life outside of Rocky’s love and emotional needs, as well as her brother’s emotionally abusive character and continuous mistreatment of her. As Rocky’s love interest, wife, and later chief motivational drive and voice of reason, she serves to bring out the best in Rocky, to deepen his character, facilitate his growth, and to make us fall in love with his heart, but she does not get equal treatment, which is quite symptomatic of most traditional marriages of the time. Despite his adoration of and kindness for her, her character and life are consumed by his. Despite the consistent romanticization of their relationship, his promise to be a good guy and “not leave hair in the sink,” his reassurances of his love for her, as well as his mourning in the last film, Adrian nonetheless symbolizes the objectification and subjugation of women in the last decades of the twentieth century. As she identifies herself in the third film, she is a fighter’s wife, and has no identity of her own beyond that.
Moreover, the masculine bravado code of constantly being challenged to fight by new opponents is used as a plot vehicle in all the subsequent films, and even coupled with politically ideological messages of the Cold War in the fourth film in 1985.
But never mind various glitches in the plot, the occasional magical realism in the rink, and the habitual recycling rather than reinventing of the cinematically successful formula. Just as with its main character, the film’s imperfections don’t take away from its strengths.
Despite some short-comings, the Rocky films offer us a glimpse into Rocky’s journey of becoming a better, faster, stronger, kinder, and eventually older, wiser, and whole human being. Rocky starts out as an under-educated amateur boxer and debt collector. Throughout the series of films, his character expands in every possible way. He goes from a small physical victory of running up the museum steps, to fighting the world boxing champion and standing his ground, to earning the love of Adrian and getting her to marry him, to winning the world champion title, growing past his fears and losses, becoming a family man, defeating impossible opponents, losing all his money, growing older, losing Adrian to cancer, and finally rebuilding a relationship with his son and even regaining his self-esteem.
But the strongest element of all the films are the training scenes. This is where the films’ messages of empowerment and personal, physical, and spiritual growth come through most poignantly, with the music providing the necessary emotional spark for the audience.
There is something incredibly invigorating and inspiring about watching someone run faster, train harder, get stronger (as Bill Conti’s unforgettable theme song postulates), and push all the visible and invisible limitations of one’s body and spirit. Rocky wins all the boxing matches not just at the end of each film, in the rink, but at the moment of the emotional turning point, half way through each of the films, when he sets his mind to it despite all the odds against him, and begins the physical training. As he trains, he gradually begins to transcend whatever barriers and obstacles that lay in his way. He conditions his body, mind, his whole being in a way that transforms him and prepares him for ever greater challenges each time. This almost religious or spiritual theme is secularized and modernized through the language and symbolism of sport and athletics.
There is a fascinating turning point in Rocky III, after Rocky is defeated for the first time in his life, and after he lost his beloved trainer Mickey, and stopped believing in himself and his ability to win. Apollo Creed, his former opponent and now friend, is trying to train him to win back the champion title, as well as his broken sense of self. But the training is not going as planned, and Apollo is about to give up on him. There is key a scene on the beach in L.A. between Rocky and Adrian, when she manages to get through to him, through his loss, grief, and fear. She gets him to admit to his feelings and tells him to face his fears and to settle them, but to do it for the right reasons, thereby giving him back empowerment and his belief in himself.
Throughout the first three films, Adrian has overcome her incredible shyness and has now come to replace Mickey as Rocky’s emotional guide. As Rocky acknowledges her courage and toughness, she attributes it to living with a fighter, thereby reminding Rocky of his own courage and strength. Their mutual recognition of empowerment is cemented by a reaffirmation and declaration of love. Now that the world is right again, the training can begin again with the famous Rocky theme “Gonna Fly Now.” As before, Rocky gradually excels at everything – runs faster, swims faster, boxes faster. It’s as if a mental power switch was turned on, and he becomes a winner the minute he commits to that mindset. But to do that, he needs his “home team.”
In one of the behind-the-scenes featurettes on the DVDs, Stallone sums up the Rocky theme, by saying, “Everyone needs a mountain to climb to prove themselves.” The mountain metaphor, first symbolized by the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia, and in the fourth film presented as an actual snow-covered mountain for Rocky to climb during his training in Russia, touches at the very core of human existence and life’s struggles.
Throughout the films, Rocky takes all his challenges as opportunities. In that, the films are a recipe for perseverance and growth. What-ever our literal and metaphorical mountains may be, Rocky shows us that we can not only get to the top, but continuously conquer ever-higher mountains when we set our minds to it and commit to the training.
As bad as the fifth film may be, it is here that Rocky learns that he possesses something even more valuable than his skills, experience, endurance, physical abilities, and intellect. Again with the help of Adrian, he learns that the driving force behind his long quest has been his kind and loving heart, something that distinguishes him from others, and something that cannot be imitated by his protégé. It is by valuing this part of himself that he finds value in his new life, his family, and his new role as a guide for others.
By the end of the sixth and final film, Rocky’s acquired and hard-learned wisdom can now be passed on to his son. Rocky’s inner turmoil (“the stuff in the basement”) after losing Adrian and coming to terms with old age is once again to be resolved in the rink, following yet another challenge and training routine. This initially threatens to distance him from his already estranged son, but Rocky manages to bring them back together by giving Robert an empowering pep talk, just as Adrian used to do for him: ”I’m always gonna love you no matter what. No matter what happens. You’re my son, you’re my blood. You’re the best thing in my life. But until you start believing in yourself, you’re not gonna have a life.”
Thus, by taking on Adrian’s role, Rocky has become a whole human being. Of course, he has to test and prove his re-empowered, new self in the rink as well because that is what he does best.
Rocky’s footprints mark the top of the museum steps in Philadelphia and continue to inspire people all over the world. In another behind-the-scenes featurette of the last dvd, Stallone re-visits the Rocky Steps as stunned visitor recognizes him as he is descending, and says, “I was being you! I was imitating you!” lifting his arms up to mimic the iconic gesture of victory. Both Rocky and the museum steps have become synonymous with personal triumph.
The Rocky formula has been successfully reapplied and re-appropriated in a wide spectrum of narratives of perseverance and pushing past one’s own limitations (even the dance drills from Dirty Dancing (1987) and Baby’s transformation into a dancer are based on this formula of pushing yourself against all odds and transforming yourself into the person you only dreamed of being). We identify with this archetypal character in all its reincarnations and love her or him because she or he represents the best in all of us. Now go, climb that mountain!