The Ambivalence of Rocky

While the Rocky-saga appears permeated with Reaganite ideology and middle-class morality, it also contains a progressive message of societal reform and proletarian self-improvement. What are we to make of the films?

President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan posing with Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen – Maidun Collection/Alamy Stock Photo

Rocky Balboa is perhaps the most iconic cinematic fighter to have ever graced the silver screen. His films have captivated audiences for decades and represent the pinnacle of sport filmmaking. 

For many, the films are representative of great action and little else – a spectacle with no substance. 

Or at least, the series as a whole is; critics both in 1976 and today view the first film with a kind of lofty detachment, suggesting that its tale of a hard-on-his-luck Italian fighter going the distance against the heavyweight champion of the world makes it akin to a Greek tragedy and that the subsequent films are merely rehashes of this idea, produced specifically to create a profitable franchise-loop. 

This belies, however, the truth about the film series – that in Stallone’s most personal work there is a moral message and certainly a political one as well. As Rick Perlstein argued in his latest book Reaganlandthe fact that Rocky won Best Picture and Best Picture in 1976 was a demonstration that “New Hollywood, with all its vaguely left-wing pretensions, was down for the count.” 

Indeed, it is easy to see, as Perlstein argues, that the first film represents a part of the Reaganite social shift in the late 1970s and early 1980s in which the emphasis was placed on the individual – that only through individual action can you achieve anything. 

For many American voters, suffering under a lack of trust in politicians in the wake of Nixon and economic pressures caused by both conflict in the Middle East and the Carter administration’s failure to solve many of the pre-existing problems that divided America, the sight of someone getting by on their own merits – as they saw in Rocky and believed Reagan represented – was a pleasant change and one in which the average American could feel good about themselves. 

Rather than presenting society’s ills as the result of a failure of the neoliberal state, the Reagan message held, it was a failure of the individual to do all they could to rectify their lot in life. In fact, as the political scientist Yascha Mounk has observed, it was especially during the 1980s that a conservative dogma of radical individualism entered the American public discourse. Stallone’s film, given his support for Reagan and the Republican Party in general, appeared as the ideal cultural transmitters of this philosophy of self-responsibility to the masses. Reagan himself was a fan of the Rocky-movies which were screened for the President at the White House and Camp David.

It would, however, be a mistake to view both the first film and the series overall as part of that simplistic message of one man defying the odds. Perlstein argues that, because Rocky comes close to beating Apollo Creed, who in Perlstein’s words is “a mouthy Black champion, modelled on Muhammad Ali”, this is a demonstration that the first film is a “cinematic version of the argument about white ethnics oppressed by Blacks.” This ultimately fails to understand both the character of Creed and the overall message of the film. 

Creed’s “mouthy” persona is solely that – a showman’s figure designed to demonstrate that he is the greatest athlete in the world. Yet, the film also shows that Creed is a shrewd and intelligent businessman who is deeply patriotic; his motivation for fighting the embodiment of the Soviet Union that is Ivan Drago in Rocky IV is because he sees him as a representation of the Cold War supergiant. 

Creed becomes incensed when Rocky suggests that he pulls out of the fight against Drago because it is just an exhibition fight – Creed responds that it isn’t an exhibition fight, but it is about “us against them.” For Creed, his need to beat Drago is not simply personal but rather representative of his need to stand up and represent his country and America’s capitalistic system for one last time. 

For Creed, his purpose in fighting is not simply to win but to stand for something. It is an idea that echoes throughout the series – fighting for something rather than simply winning. Both Rocky and Rocky Balboa, the sixth film in the franchise, focus more on Rocky proving both to the world and himself that he can “go the distance” against a champion – the film is less about the ethnicity of his opponent and more about defying wider societal expectations of him. 

Stallone’s message is clear – it is important for us to not be hampered by what society expects of us. In the first film, it is the expectation that a poor, sometime loan shark enforcer who has little education can achieve something. In the sixth film it is that, despite the perception that his age will stop him from fighting, Rocky fights to prove that age shouldn’t be a barrier to fulfilling your dreams. 

These are, as Stallone articulates them, much broader than questions of Reaganite individuality; they are questions about how we have societal preconceptions that colour our ability to assess the worth of individuals. This is especially made clear by Stallone in Rocky II. Following his near defeat of Apollo, Rocky is convinced to take part in a series of degrading adverts in order to sustain himself. 

As the advertisers attempt to force Rocky to read off the cue cards whilst dressed like Tarzan, they ridicule him for his inability to read. Stallone’s clear intention is to highlight the stigma that is often associated with poor literary skills and also points the viewer to the ambivalent nature of fame as both rewarding and self-destructive. 

Rocky doesn’t attempt to lash out or simply accept that he cannot read. Rather, although he loses the job he does not give up and instead endeavours to learn to read, so he may teach the child that his wife, Adrian is pregnant with. Again, whilst this could be said to play into the Reaganite formula of self-improvement, it is also representative of proletarian social deprivation. 

Indeed, the rawness of the first film comes from the fact that during its production Stallone had little to no money to pay for it and, at one point, even sold his dog to make ends meet in the run-up to making the film. 

The grimy sense of unease and deprivation seeps throughout Philadelphia during Rocky and the fact that Balboa has to work as an enforcer for a loan shark further emphasises that times are so tough that an otherwise kind man is forced into criminal activity to survive. Only through his success in the match with Creed do we see Rocky believing in gaining any sense of wellbeing, or of true achievement. 

This is, in fact, the central moral core of the film series – the need to prove one’s self, to find some worth in a society that seems to have abandoned you. Indeed, fundamentally, the series attempts to articulate a belief in proving one’s self despite the prejudgement of some parts of that society. Apollo Creed’s desire to prove that he could beat Rocky in a rematch in Rocky II is because he needs to prove that even though he is still Heavyweight Champion that it is not due to a technicality but rather because he is better than any other boxer is perhaps one of the series’ best examples of it. 

That same need for self-worth provokes Apollo into training Rocky in Rocky III in order to defeat Clubber Lang and it is that same desire that causes him to fight Ivan Drago in the franchise’s fourth instalment. 

Yet, that need for self-worth doesn’t come at the cost of others. Throughout the series, Rocky is seen as a great admirer of Apollo and resists in every film from swapping barbs with his opponents. For him, the art of the sport is enough; there is no need to denigrate one’s opponent in order to beat them. 

Therefore, whilst the films are cinematic carriers of Reaganite philosophy of self-accountable individuality and middle-class morality – Rocky goes as far in Rocky III to remonstrate with his drunk brother-in-law Paulie that “You talk like everybody owes you a living – Nobody owes nobody nothing, you owe yourself” a clear embrace of the Reaganite ideal of personal responsibility – this doesn’t represent the entire moral and societal message of the film. 

The Rocky-saga places as much emphasis on the economic deprivation of poor inner-city residents – both black and white – as they does on proletarian self-improvement. Indeed, there is also a clear message that education is the transformative means of helping working-class individuals and families.

Rocky repeats both in Rocky IV and Rocky Balboa that he doesn’t want his son to have to go through what he did; that he would rather spend his life getting beaten up, if it allows his son Robert todo a job that doesn’t involve fighting. It is these aspects of the film franchise that have been so often overlooked both by cultural historians and critics. Within the franchise, there is a clear moral and ethical code of hard work and a wider message about the need for societal reform, especially for inner cities. 

The Rocky films are about far more than fighting or individualism. They articulate a clear and present need to not only believe in yourself regardless of societal expectations but to embrace education and to fight for better living conditions in the communities we live in. 

Will Barber Taylor is a freelance writer and a recent History graduate from the University of Warwick. His work has appeared in The Huffington Post, Labour List and Family Tree Magazine.

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