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Rocky's American dreams

About the author
Kasia Boddy is a lecturer in English at University College London and has just completed a book on the representation of boxing in literature and art.

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When the final titles come up, you know what it has all been about. Accompanying the five-minute scroll of cast and crew names is a montage of shots of 'real' people waving their arms or sparring or running up to the top of the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. They are young and old, black and white, fat and thin. Heavily pregnant women, mothers with babies strapped to their chests, and kids of all ages adopt the pose of their hero. The 'Rocky Steps' (most visitors, it seems, don't bother going into the museum) has become a pilgrimage site.

It would be possible to watch and understand Rocky Balboa without having seen any of its five predecessors but, I'm tempted to say, what would be the point? This is a film for fans and pilgrims; a 102 minute dip in the warm font of nostalgia that begins with the title shot and that music (Bill Conti's theme Gonna Fly Now).

Do you remember when Rocky first talked to Adrian in the pet shop? When they went ice-skating? Their first apartment? Moments from these scenes are reproduced here in a blueish black-and-white; Rocky's memories, and our own, cut into the blockbuster bright colours of the present.

Stallone finds an excuse for presenting these scenes in the fact that Balboa, mourning the death of his beloved wife from "woman cancer" some years previously, is haunted by the past. If Rocky has become an icon to millions of movie goers, Adrian (Talia Shire) has become an icon to Rocky.

Her image accompanies him everywhere - her photograph is taped to his car dashboard and multiple framed images line the walls of the restaurant which is named after her. He can think of nothing but their early days together - the golden years of their love affair and, not incidentally, of the Rocky franchise. Rockys II through V don't really exist in this revisionist history. Through Rocky's grief, Stallone has found a way of making his method his subject-matter.

Rocky: round six

The first hour of the film is about Rocky's depression and loneliness. His yuppie son Robert doesn't want to know him; his turtles Cuff and Link don't provide much in the way of conversation. The most poignant and effective scenes are set in the restaurant where he spends his evenings going from table to table telling stories about his career in a desultory fashion (and a horrible maroon blazer). The customers recite his lines ahead of him; Rocky can hardly be bothered anymore.

Nevertheless, there are small signs that things might get better. He is gracious host and, as ever, a good man. Spider Rico, an old opponent, comes in every night for a free dinner. "God Bless you," he says. Then Rocky starts to help out his friend Marie, whom he'd known as a child. She's now a single mother with a black son. The boy's Jamaican father abandoned the family so Rocky steps in.

He starts by changing her doorstep lightbulb ('Let there be light!') and soon creates jobs for her and her son Steps. (The importance of steps-as-metaphor is hard to avoid.) Rocky's son may ignore him but he's suddenly got lots of kids to take care of. He even adopts a "cute ugly" dog called Punchy from the pound.

I wish Stallone could have left Rocky in the restaurant, a nice guy ever so slowly emerging from his grief. I wish he could have stayed with the downbeat (and not too insistently symbolic) realism he does so well. But no. After an hour, the film switches gear. It's time to give the people what they want, that is, a rerun of the first (and best) Rocky.

It is not a difficult brief to fill: all we need is an arrogant black boxer dissing our hero at their press conference, then a training montage with that famous Conti theme - Rocky running with the dog, pounding the side of beef, waving his arms at the top of the steps, and finally, to top it off, an unexpectedly hard-fought fight in which he "goes the distance" and after which the black boxer concedes that the Rock has "heart".

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Kasia Boddy is a lecturer in English at University College London and has just completed a book on the representation of boxing in literature and art.

Also by Kasia Body in openDemocracy:

"Borat"
(6 November 2006)

Jesus-Rocky

Sylvester Stallone first got the idea for Rocky in 1975. He was unemployed and feeling sorry for himself when he saw a journeyman fighter called Chuck Wepner take on Muhammad Ali (not long after the Thrilla in Manila). "I identified with Wepner," Stallone later said, "the guy is going to get hammered." Wepner had been a marine but had recently been working in a series of menial jobs until Don King (in the guise of an ‘equal opportunity employer') transformed him into a lucrative white hope.

Against all expectations, Wepner managed to knock down Ali in the 9th round and stay standing to the end. Stallone went home and hammered out the first draft of Rocky in three days. "I thought, 'Let me try to make this a redemptive thing.' And I tried to work this Christ symbol, this religious overtone."

Rocky Balboa revives the religious overtone - and not just in the ways I've already hinted at by quoting Stallone's "God-fearing script". With the help of the marketing firm that had promoted Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, the film was pitched directly at a Christian audience. Stallone also held a teleconference in which he addressed a variety of religious leaders on his own Catholic rebirth and on the ways in which Rocky Balboa could be used "as an effective outreach tool". In an interview with Catholic Digest he pointed out the Christian message of the original film:

"The first image in Rocky is the picture of Christ, and it moves off Christ [to a sign saying] 'Resurrection Athletic Club' and then down to Rocky's face. And we realize that Rocky has been chosen in a sense, for divine guidance and intervention. And he, all of a sudden, he starts to turn to faith, he prays before every fight, and we follow that theme through most of the Rockys.

There's a tremendous spirituality connected with the character, because the entire thing was never based on heavy realism; it was based on dilemmas and good Christian values - whether he could persevere through all the storms and all the problems that were presented to him. He always went back to this inner faith, and that's where the strength came from."

Rocky the Americano

From the start, however, Rocky was as much about national redemption as it was about the personal or religious. For Stallone, they're clearly the same thing. Released in 1976, Rocky was self-consciously a bicentennial fantasy which claimed to find a lost patriotic spirit on the streets of South Philly, the city of the Founding Fathers.

Walking about in his vaguely comical hat, Rocky Balboa was "just another bum from the neighbourhood", but unlike Marlon Brando's palooka (in On the Waterfront, 1954), he is given the fairy-tale chance of fighting the World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed (played by Carl Weathers in a thinly disguised caricature of Muhammad Ali).

Most of the film focused on the training process, on Rocky's willing effort to transform his body and his life. This was not confined to the gym, and we see him running through the neighbourhood, being offered fruit from market stalls, the local Italian community literally behind him. Presumably Apollo Creed has the backing of the black community, but we never see any local popular support for him - he is presented simply as the product of corporate (i.e. false and ugly) America.

Apollo Creed's great crime, the film suggested, was assuming that he represented America - he enters the title fight dressed as Uncle Sam and on his float adopts the garb and pose of George Washington crossing the Delaware. Creed was an illegitimate Uncle Sam, not just because he is black but because he is made to represent both greedy capitalism and the savvy and articulate (for which we were encouraged to read glib and facile) values of the counterculture.

Rocky - an inarticulate boy from "the neighbourhood" - is, Stallone suggested, really what the land of opportunity is all about. He is both white ethnic - the "Italian Stallion" - and American: indeed, while Creed's race excludes him from "true" Americanness, Rocky is uniquely qualified by his ethnicity.

His very name aligns him to the great Italian-American champions of the 50s - Rocky Graziano and Rocky Marciano (whose picture hangs on his wall). "You know you kinda remind me of the Rock?" his trainer, Mickey says at one point. "You move like him and you have heart like he did."

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Fantasies of Rocky "the Rock" Maricano's return had begun in the late 60s, when Murray Woroner, a Miami boxing promoter and radio producer, fed details of Ali's and Marciano's records into a computer and asked it to predict a "who-was-the-greatest" winner. The computer decided that Marciano would knock out Ali in the 13th round. Woroner then persuaded the two men to enact the "superfight" on film. The 45-year-old Marciano (who had retired thirteen years previously) lost fifty pounds and bought a toupee. After seeing the film, Ali purportedly said 'that computer was made in Alabama.'

A version of the original "superfight" (in which ESPN sets Rocky up against the current black champion) provides the spur to action in Rocky Balboa. The champ has, it seems, never been properly tested. He has won thirty fights but no one knows if he has 'heart'. This was, incidentally, the kind of thing people said about Ali before he fought Joe Frazier in 1971.

The Dead End Kid makes good

At one point Rocky says that "if you live someplace long enough you are that place." The big fight in Rocky Balboa is as much a contest between two versions of "that place" as it was in Rocky, thirty years ago. ("This boxer taps into something deeper in our collective souls than the desire for entertainment," wrote Desson Thomson in the Washington Post).

Rocky still is South Philadelphia, and thus he continues to embody, for Stallone, the message of the Founding Fathers. When, for example, it seems as if the licensing board is not going to let him fight, Rocky launches into a speech about his rights and "the piece of paper they wrote down the road". Never mind life and liberty, it's the pursuit of happiness (the right to "listen to your gut ... do what you want to do") that counts.

Like Apollo Creed, the champ of the new movie has a name that screams American symbol: he's called Mason "The Line" Dixon. It's an odd choice. The Mason Dixon line, which begins just south of Philadelphia, was generally (if slightly inaccurately) viewed as the border between the free and slave states.

Today it is often associated with a division between Republican and Democrat states. Mason "The Line" Dixon presumably represents both sides of that line. But if he's an embodiment of all-America, it's an America which Paulie, Rocky's loveable if racist brother-in-law, says is 'falling apart'; an America which has forgotten how to 'go the distance'.

This is one of the things that, Jesus-and-Jefferson-like, Rocky is there to teach Mason Dixon and his other young disciples: son Robert; surrogate daughter (and possible future girlfriend) Marie; her son Steps. They must learn the "warrior" values of a 'tougher era' - pride, resilience and heart, and that however many punches (or "hurting bombs") you throw, "it ain't about hard you hit but how hard you can get hit".

These are purportedly the values of the 70s when Rocky first fought (America learnt a lot about going the distance in Vietnam), but really they can be traced to the 50s when Marciano fought, or, more precisely, to the 30s when a long-defeated Jack Dempsey was the hero of the Depression. In 1952 Marciano was welcomed as the "new Dempsey". Rocky wears a sweater embroidered with Dempsey's name, but he is, let us remember, just a made-up character. There is no new Dempsey. This is nostalgia at several removes.

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