Rocky franchise dominates the boxing genre not only by its greatest number of films but also by its unforgettable characters, unique film scores, and the heartfelt theme of never giving up the fight. Rocky (1976) was nominated for ten OscarsTM winning three of them in 1977: Best Picture, Best Film Editing, and Best Director. The success of Rocky lead to six films with Rocky Balboa as the main character. In addition to the original franchise, two spin-offs were made named ‘Creed’ and Creed 2, with Apollo Creed’s son as the main character and Rocky Balboa as his trainer. With eight successful films, Rocky Balboa proves to be a well-crafted and beloved character, and Rocky films prove to be timeless classics. Each film in the franchise fits a common defining framework, and yet each film is unique in its own way. Rocky’s fights are not fought against his opponent; his real fight in each film is against a new challenge in his life. This reminds the audience of the challenges they face in life. Rocky’s passion followed by successes that seem almost impossible at the beginning of each film encourages the viewer to dare to go the distance, no matter how unlikely success is.
Rocky starts as a film about an underdog boxer who is given a once in a lifetime opportunity to gain a name for himself. The heavyweight world champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) is searching for a new boxer for a match. When everyone rejects to fight him because they are too afraid to be humiliated in public, he comes up with an idea: “This is the land of opportunity right? So, Apollo Creed on January first gives a local underdog fighter an opportunity. A snow-white underdog I’m gonna put his face on this poster with me”. His fight organizer enthusiastically replies “Apollo I like it. It’s very American”. It’s very American because of America’s image in history. America’s population largely consists of people from different countries who migrated to America with the dreams of a better life and new opportunities. The new land was depicted as a fertile land that promised its newcomers a comfortable life. Realities regarding the land such as genocide, slavery, and exploitation were left out of this depiction of a dreamland.
America’s history is a history of capitalism. Just the way capitalism sugarcoats the capitalistic lifestyle, throughout America’s history the American lifestyle was promoted by selling the American citizen ideals to hope for, the biggest one being the American Dream. This “dream” promised that anyone in America had a chance to succeed if they worked hard enough. This enabled people to ignore all the brutality behind the country’s real history: Slavery, exploitation, racism, native people’s genocide, and suppression by the newcomers, sexism. The dream suggested that there were only hard-working people and ignorant people; those who worked hard enough and had the ambition to succeed were surely going to succeed. It also implied that poor people were poor simply because they were lazy and ignorant. Creating a black and white worldview legitimized and reproduced inequalities among the American citizens throughout history.
Rocky’s universe has an interesting approach to this subtext. The film takes advantage of the simplified world represented by the American Dream. The story and the characters are based on that plain universe in which there are poor people and rich people; losers and winners; lonely people and families. However, the film doesn’t necessarily state that rich people are the winners; instead, riches are just an illusion. It is a greater virtue to know where you came from and never forget who you truly are. When Rocky has to train hard, he goes back to Mickey’s gym, or Apollo Creed’s first gym, or nature. When Rocky trains in a highly paid gym at the beginning of the third film, he loses the fight against Clubber Lang. Apollo Creed takes Rocky to train where he found his hunger, he teaches Rocky how he fights. The old champion teaching his successor gives a message of solidarity; Rocky is no longer Apollo’s enemy but his student. The dream they both fought for didn’t put them against each other; instead, it brought them together. This adds an interesting twist to the subtext of the American Dream in the Rocky universe. The once world heavy-weight champion African American Apollo Creed teaches the Italian Stallion his craft to help him gain back his glory; also, to regain his glory through Rocky’s success. This tells the audience ‘we are all in this together’. Their hunger and their ambition tie them together and make them stronger. The solidarity in their story suggests that not only are they different versions of the same fighter, but also other people can become like them with the right motivations and the heart of a fighter.
In the beginning, Rocky is just ‘a street bum’ in Philadelphia. Starting from zero to reach the top makes him a winner of the American Dream. Philadelphia is a place where everything started also for America, because it is one of the first cities where the United States Congress first gathered. Rocky never leaves his neighborhood even after his success, his hometown is part of his identity. When he’s at the top of his career, they place his statue in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the statue stays there until he returns to his hometown with his family.
Rocky knows the first fight Apollo Creed offers him is his only chance to be someone. Without taking the risk of public humiliation, Rocky has no shot in being respected. His life and his self-respect are at stake, so he gives his everything into training unlike before, unlike anyone without the hunger. He becomes a real fighter only in the process of training.
Rocky’s real fight is against the world that despised him until he was offered the fight with Apollo Creed. His fight is with himself for never believing in his abilities. Thus, his real fight is resolved the night before he fights Apollo Creed for the first time, right when he tells Adrian he knows he can’t win, but he has to go the distance. Going the distance is about claiming his own life. Going the distance is about believing in the American Dream. Rocky, who has Italian origin reminds us of all the Europeans that came to America centuries ago in search of a good life.
When we get to know Apollo Creed in the third film, we realize that Rocky and Apollo Creed are very similar to each other, they are only in different stages of the same road. The film never points out the two characters’ racial differences and shows their life stories as very similar to each other’s. This is an attempt to create equal grounds for all Americans in the films’ alternate universe. Each film has to create an alternative universe, a film can never be a pure reflection of the real world. My question here is, does the film ignore the inequalities of America’s social background on purpose to glorify White America, or does it choose not to mention white privilege because it simply doesn’t serve the plot? I’m thinking that the answer is the second. Moreover, there are no lines or behavior in the film that suggests racism against black people (I can’t pass without saying that the fourth film is based on racism against Russians in terms of its attitude toward communist Russia, which is a whole other topic that needs to be dealt with in a different analysis). I believe that the Rocky Universe has an optimistic approach to American society’s solidarity. I see Apollo Creed’s central and positive role in the franchise as a gracious attempt to encourage America to be a better place. In my opinion, among millions of films that depict black people as criminals or villains, Rocky’s film universe appears to be a well-intentioned fictional construct.
Apollo Creed comes to their first match dressed up as Uncle Sam, pointing his finger to people saying ‘I want you’. In the second world war, Uncle Sam’s poster invited young American men to get enlisted to fight. The presence of a common enemy and the sudden need for a great number of soldiers turned America into a unified American nation, even for a limited amount of time. The fact that Apollo is dressed as Uncle Sam gives an intertextual message of solidarity rather than pointing to a war. It is also quite ironic that he is dressed as a white American icon. This irony was hinted before the match as well, in an interview when the reporters ask Apollo Creed: “Is it a coincidence that you are gonna fight a white man on America’s most celebrated day in history?” He answers: “I don’t know about that. Is it a coincidence that he is fighting a black man on the most celebrated day in the country’s history?”.
In an interview thirty-one years after the Rocky hit theaters, Sylvester Stallone describes Rocky in these words:
Everyone has a dream, everyone has a slight dilemma in their life will they ever gonna make it then you get to a point where “I may not make it to a certain level but I can set my own goals. I may not be the best in the world but at least I can rise to a level that I can be confident and calm with and proud of myself.” So I think that’s what the film is about. You may not be the best in the world, but you can be the best in your life.
Rocky’s words to Adrian the night before the first match with Apollo Creed reflects this idea: “All I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody’s ever gone the distance with Creed. And if I can go that distance, see that bell rings and I’m still standing, I’m gonna know for the first time in my life you see, that I’m not just another bum from the neighborhood.”
This idea that you can try to do your best even if you don’t seem to be the best in what you are doing is what makes the Rocky franchise so emotionally rewarding. The fights are not about winning, they are about going the distance, they are about accepting the challenge. In all films Rocky has personal motivations to fight, his motivation is never simply winning against his opponent. In Rocky I he is fighting to gain his self-esteem. In Rocky II he is fighting for his family’s future. In Rocky III he is fighting to protect his name and dignity. In Rocky IV he is fighting to regain his dear friend Apollo Creed’s dignity. In Rocky V he is fighting to reclaim his name and his family’s love. In Rocky VI, he is fighting to announce the world that he is still alive, that there is still one good fight left in him.
Sylvester Stallone’s own life story is very similar to Rocky’s. He was chasing the ultimate American Dream in New York City, trying to become an actor without any success. At one point he was completely broke, he couldn’t pay his rent and had nowhere to live. Stallone wrote the script of Rocky and he tried to sell it to studios with one condition: He had to play the main character. At this point, he was still an unknown actor and the studios didn’t want to take the risk of making this film with him as the main character. Eventually, the film with Stallone as Rocky was accepted by Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff with a low budget. In an interview made in 2007, Sylvester Stallone talks about Rocky: “This film was never supposed to happen but when you’re young and foolish you don’t really adhere to the rules.” The film is based on this idea of not adhering to the rules and making your own rules; we see this both in the story and in the making of the film itself.
John G. Avildsen won the academy award for the best director in Rocky (1976). The filmmaking technique can be named as classic and distinctive. Some innovative choices were necessary, for example, Rocky was one of the first feature films Steadicam was used. The iconic scene in which Rocky runs up the stairs in front of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, accompanied by the rising notes of the Oscar-nominated film score “Gonna Fly Now”, could be made possible only by the successful use of a Steadicam. This technique enabled smooth and creative camera movement, the camera circling Rocky as he dances in joy, raising his arms in an act of victory. This scene is the end of the training montage in the first film. A training montage became a defining part of the Rocky films, building up the mood and getting the audience ready for the upcoming fight. Another characteristic choice in the film was zooming in to emphasize the character’s reaction to the other characters; it was used many times in the film. Although this is quite a classic way to shoot a characters’ reaction and one that dates back to very old films, this style fits the film’s simple aesthetic very well. Simplicity is central to the film in all aspects. The cuts and the music beat were harmonized brilliantly, the best example can be seen in the training montage. Music is used so wisely that it never stands out, it never shadows the story nor the acting. Rocky‘s music beautifully strengthens the films without overwhelming them.
Rocky and the rest of the franchise wouldn’t have been as unforgettable and timeless as we know if it wasn’t for its iconic music. The name “ROCKY” written with bold letters sliding through the screen, accompanied by the iconic film score by Bill Conti announces a good fight in each film. “Gonna Fly Now” from the first film was nominated for Best Music, Original Score in the Academy Awards (1977). Different variations of this song and Bill Conti’s other compositions are used in all the films. Eye of the Tiger, another iconic song from the franchise was written especially for the third film. Sylvester Stallone approached the band Survivor and asked for a song to be the theme of Rocky III after he heard their song Poor Man’s Son. He told them he wants a song with a beat, and he got what he wanted. In an interview about the song, the co-writer Jim Peterik recalls “We were very inspired by this story, and Burgess Meredith, (who plays) the trainer, going, ‘Rocky, you’re losing the eye of the tiger.’ I go Bingo. There’s our hook.” The chorus reflects the line from the third film:
- It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight
- Risin’ up to the challenge of our rival
- And the last known survivor stalks his prey in the night
- And he’s watchin’ us all with the eye of the tiger
And the first four lines of the first verse remind Rocky’s lines about going the distance in the first film:
- Rising up, back on the street
- Did my time, took my chances
- Went the distance, now I’m back on my feet
- Just a man and his will to survive
Eye of the Tiger requires hunger, it requires the fighter to have a real cause to fight for. For real fighters, earning money is not the goal, it is just a consequence of winning. The real goal is different for each fighter and in each fight. At the beginning of the fifth film, Rocky loses all his money in the blink of an eye. Yet it is his dignity that matters. When Tommy Gunn betrays him, Rocky fights him to gain back his dignity; he doesn’t fight him on a ring, he fights him in the streets where he gained his glory. The moral of the Rocky Universe is revealed in the franchise’s constant emphasis on Rocky’s neighborhood. Rocky’s awareness of his true identity is his key to success. His identity reminds him of his hunger. Thus, the franchise tells us, knowing who you are is your only true treasure. Success can come only from this awareness.
In the matches we see in the films, the two boxers constantly take a position of hugging each other. In nature, two animals are closest to each other in situations regarding life or death. Life is the binding force when a child clings to a mother to be fed, or when two animals have sexual intercourse to create offspring. Death is what occurs when two animals fight; the predator goes after its prey, and the prey runs for its life. As much as these boxing matches seem like they are about two predator boxers who both attack on their prey. However, when the fight is over and they are both alive, it becomes a matter of life over death. They survive the death threat, and they survive it together. Thus, this experience brings the two boxers closer to each other than ever. We see this clearly when Apollo Creed and Rocky Balboa become close friends on the third film; we also see this when Rocky looks after Spider Rico (the boxer he fought in the first film) in the sixth film. It is this relief that comes from clinging on to life after a big fight which gives Rocky the power to make a speech about peace to Russians right after his fight with Ivan Drago. With his speech about peace, Rocky hugs the Russian metaphorically, and the audience accepts this with cheer and applause.
Right after Rocky has won his greatest victory against the Russian ‘Death From Above’ Ivan Drago, in the fifth film, Rocky returns to his mansion to find out he’s bankrupt thanks to Paulie. He and his family return to the neighborhood he started in. It is not a coincidence that he returns to his starting point right after he wins against Ivan Drago, the representative of Russian socialism. Rocky’s neighborhood is a true representative of America, the real America cannot be depicted as the riches he gained after his success. The real American experience is the struggle rather than the goal, it is the hardship everyone goes through to maybe one day reach the American dream. The luxurious and comfortable life means nothing without the whole nation’s hunger to reach it. The Dream has a meaning only as long as people dream of getting there. Rocky’s hunger defines both him and the average American. He is true to himself when he is in his neighborhood, the place that gave rise to his hunger. In the sixth film’s fight, Rocky fights this hunger, the monster in him. When he wins this final war, he finally kills this hunger. Without his hunger, he can no longer be an American hero. He has now fought all the wars, took all the punches, and managed to stand up after each. He has no more challenges left. America needs a new hero to fight alongside, a new hunger to cheer for; and thus comes the spin-offs centered around Creed’s son. Now it is time for Rocky to teach.
I want to conclude this by reminding you of a scene from the first film when Rocky finds out about Apollo Creed’s fighting offer for the first time. Creed’s manager asks Rocky: “Rocky, do you believe that America is the land of opportunity?” Rocky doesn’t understand the reason why he is asked such a question and replies: “Yeah.” The manager continues: “Apollo Creed does. And he’s gonna prove it to the whole world by giving an unknown a shot at the title. And that unknown is you. He picked you, Rocky.” The camera zooms in to Rocky. “Rocky it’s the chance of a lifetime. You can’t pass it by. What do you say?”. Rocky swallows hard.