What makes a memorable movie? For me, it’s one that I can watch and find a relation with – a shared feeling. For example, one may come away from ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’ feeling as though they’d witnessed their own career struggles through the eyes of Will Smith. Others may watch ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ and empathise with the yearning to live out their wildest dreams, as opposed to restricting them to their imagination. Everyone has their own story to relate to, and I would like to share one that I feel is highly relatable and often underestimated.
40 years ago, a young budding actor and writer watched a legendary boxing match between two all-time greats. Seeing the ‘underdog’ of the match last almost 15 rounds with the brutally fierce Mohammed Ali, the young writer had a burst of inspiration. Writing a script for a movie in just 3 days, he went on to appeal to studios and producers. Most turned him down, but the main reason was because he wanted to chase his own dream: to star as the lead character. Eventually, he found a studio that was willing to satisfy his request, at the sacrifice of having a marginally lower budget to produce the picture. Several months later, Rocky was released to widespread acclaim, with the ‘underdog’ in the acting world, Sylvester Stallone, headlining the advertising. Stallone was subsequently nominated for an Oscar which, for a virtually unknown actor (unless you like niche soft-porn movies), was a mammoth achievement.
The film series spawned a further six sequels, but what was truly mesmerizing about the series was in fact the narrative. Although it followed the story of Rocky Balboa, it seemed that Sylvester Stallone projected some of his own life struggles onto Rocky. Aside from the fact they were both ‘underdogs’ who were given a shot at success, they both ended up succumbing to the evils of fame and losing a heck of a lot. They then both had to learn from their losses and rise up from the ashes once more. When Rocky V was released to a flurry of criticism, the world thought it was over. I’ll be the first to admit that the Rocky films are not perfect by any margin, both in terms of the narrative and the general writing. One need only watch the first Rocky, and then watch the fifth, and realise that the latter is almost diabolical. But from my own observation, analysis and discussions with people much older than myself, the Rocky movies were there to inspire people.
The fan base for Rocky was, and still is, phenomenal. A set of steps to an art museum in Philadelphia has become a worldwide metaphor for the climb to success. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people visit Philly to run up those steps to parallel the famous shot of Stallone. A friend of mine recently retold the experience of his father’s viewing of Rocky IV in the cinema: As cheesy and slightly pretentious as it was, the conflict between the American Rocky and the Soviet Ivan Drago was edge-of-seat stuff. When Rocky first manages to cut the Russian – an otherwise impossible feat giving his fictional calibre – people in the auditorium rose to their feet to cheer and applaud, as if what they were witnessing was a live struggle between a human and the strong oppressions of life. Rocky proved to the world that anything is possible, no matter who you are.
The metaphor is cemented in to the film series, particularly the first five films. When Rocky Balboa (2006) was released, I remember a lot of people being disappointed or disgruntled. ‘Not again’ and ‘He doesn’t know when to quit’ were phrases I heard a lot. The way Sylvester Stallone explained it, however, was that he was unhappy with the way he left the story and the character. He wanted to do Rocky justice by giving him one last fight to regain balance and happiness in his life, particularly as his wife had died. This is where my main example comes in to use. In two particular scenes, Stallone touches a part of everyone’s lives very subtly. I’ve embedded the clips at the bottom of the post, for those who wish to watch them. Otherwise, here are two extracts of the dialogue from the two moving scenes.
Rocky: ‘I don’t know. There’s still some stuff in the basement.’ Paulie: ‘What basement?’ Rocky, pointing to his chest: ‘Here.’ Paulie: ‘Tell me about the stuff inside. Is it angry?’ Rocky: ‘Angry?’ Paulie: ‘Are you mad because Adrian left you?’ Rocky: ‘She didn’t leave, Paulie. She died.’ Paulie: ‘Okay, okay, okay’ Rocky: [Emotional] You know, sometimes it’s hard to breathe. I feel this beast insde me.’ Paulie: ‘It’s okay, Rocko. Please, it’s okay.’ Rocky: ‘Is it okay? I just never knew it was supposed to be this hard.’ Later in the scene… Paulie: ‘It takes guts climbing back in that ring, knowing you’re gonna take a beating. You’re gonna do alright, Rocko.’ Rocky: ‘How do you know that?’ Paulie: ‘The stuff in the basement.’
Scene 2 – on being told he cannot have a license to compete
Board: ‘We’re just looking out for YOUR interests.’ Rocky: ‘I appreciate that, but maybe you’re looking out for your interests just a little bit more. […]I mean maybe you’re doing your job, but why you gotta stop me from doing mine? Because if you’re willing to go through all the battling you gotta go through to get where you want to get, who’s got the right to stop you? I mean maybe some of you guys got something you never finished, something you really wanna do, something you never said to somebody, something! And you’re told no, even after you pay your dues. Who’s got the right to tell you that? Who? Nobody! It’s your right to listen to your gut. It ain’t nobody’s right to say no after you earn the right to be what you wanna be or do what you wanna do! You know, the older I get, the more things I gotta leave behind. That’s life. The only thing I’m asking you guys to leave on the table is what’s right.’
Life doesn’t wait for anyone. If you’re unprepared, or if you hesitate, it will just move on. This often leads to regrets, and I would be lying if I said I had none. Sometimes it often takes a visual example or an aspirational figure to remind you of how to chase your dreams. For myself, and millions of others, Stallone’s Rocky has been that aspirational figure. His writing and his efforts have shed light and motivation into the lives of all who watch it. Even at the age of 60, when studios turned down his script for Rocky Balboa, he persisted and kept chipping away; because making the film was his goal. Failing to tie up loose ends for his lifelong character was a regret for Stallone that he wanted to change, and nobody could stop him. It was eventually produced and, for the most part, fans and critics loved it. The success of the series has even spawned a spin-off series aimed at the younger generation, with Creed being another phenomenal example of persistence and human struggles.
The Rocky series has given the film world many lessons to learn and philosophies to live by. The character in the film, although plagued by criticism for the movies themselves, is a multi-dimensional vehicle for motivation, as well as entertainment. If you have never watched Rocky because you don’t like boxing, override that part of your brain. Watching the film and realising the significance of the narrative and the character will make you realise that the films are not centred on boxing; they’re centred on human error, trials and success. These are the kind of films that make you realise that you can achieve your dreams; the only real obstacle is the ‘beast inside.’