Rocky begins with a blaring orchestral score and our hero’s name scrolling past, filling up the entire screen. That means that in 1976, the first thing the world saw of Rocky Balboa (now an iconic movie hero, but then just some buff actor who had harassed Woody Allen on a subway) is his name, projected two-stories high. That bombastic opening tells us that this guy is a big deal, but when we meet him, he sure doesn’t seem like a big deal. Certainly, nobody in his life treats him like he might be, and he walks hunched over, as if burdened by his heavy frame.
So nobody in Rocky’s world knows yet that Rocky is special, but we the audience do. This is a literary technique at least as old as The Gospel of John, and if you think that’s a reach, consider the first image of the film: Jesus Christ hovering over the big palooka, with the communion cup and host in his hands. He’s literally offering salvation to Rocky, something that even Rocky himself might not realize is so important until the middle stretches of the film when it seems like his one big shot might disappear.
Salvation, for Rocky, doesn’t come in the form of a victory. Here’s a spoiler now for Rocky, the movie, which is nearly 40 years old, so shut up about spoilers: Rocky doesn’t win the big fight. He doesn’t beat Apollo Creed. But he gets that salvation--in the form of self-respect, and the love of that sad-eyed girl from the pet store. All Rocky needs to know about himself is that he has what it takes to go the distance.
We get our first hint of that in the epic training montage to end all training montages, as Rocky wakes at dawn and runs through the streets, the camera tracking behind him. And when he finally breaks out into a full sprint, with the ridiculous, operatic chorus cheering him on (“Getting strong nooooow! Won't be long nooooow!”), he runs from right to left on the screen. If Rocky was running toward his future, we’d see him going from left to right. But Rocky’s running back to his past, back to when he had promise, back when he “could’a been a contender”. He’s becoming the man that he once was, and more--the man he should have been.
In all of those increasingly ridiculous sequels, Rocky will take this journey again, but he’ll have company. This time, he’s alone, and when he finally reaches the top of the stairs, he’s still alone, still one man against a city and a world that doesn’t believe in him. But Rocky now believes in himself. And that's enough.
Join the Drunk Monkeys Movie Club on Wednesday, July 29th at 10pm Eastern/7pm Pacific for our Live-Tweet event of the 1976 Sylvester Stallone classic Rocky. Follow along on Twitter with the hashtag #dmmovies