Alpha to Omega: Rocky

Alpha to Omega The film franchise is an inescapable part of the modern movie landscape. In this series I will address a series of films from the first to the last, looking at each film as a standalone and how it fits into the series.


Surprising statistic, there have been more movies made about boxing than about any other sport. I don’t have real statistics to back this up, but it’s one of those “facts” that you hear every once in a while and, true or not, for some reason it sounds good.

Boxing, and fighting sports in general, tap into an incredibly visceral place for a lot of people. In the past few years MMA, in particular the UFC have come to dominate pay per view markets so completely that it has actually graduated to network television.

When you think of this type of movie, what is the first name that comes to mind? For some of you it might be “Raging Bull,” but for a majority, a VAST majority, the first, last, and only name that comes to mind when the term “boxing movie” comes to mind is “Rocky.” And for good reason. The first movie won the Oscar for Best Picture, Best Director, and almost took the Best Screenplay award, but was beaten by Paddy Chayefsky’s masterful “Network,” and spawned 5 sequels that range from the sublime to the ridiculous. “Rocky” is one of those rare movies that has transcended the screen and become a part of the American cultural lexicon.

And it all started with one little movie.

In 1975, struggling actor/writer Sylvester Stallone watched a fight between Muhammed Ali and Chuck Wepner. Wepner was a moderately talented boxer who was expected to last 3 rounds. To everyone’s surprise round 3 came and went, and Wepner was still on his feet. He took everything Ali could throw and dished out as much as he could. With 19 seconds left in the 15th and final round, Wepner lost by TKO.

He sat down and wrote a script in 3 days. Granted the final version came after 9 sizeable rewrites, and the original was VERY different (Mickey was a bitter old racist, and Rocky took a dive after becoming disillusioned by the world of professional boxing), but the idea was there. Stallone was offered an unheard of $350,000 ($1.38 MILLION in today’s money) for a boxing script he had written. The writer had $106 in the bank (about $418 today) and was on the verge of selling his dog because he could no longer afford to feed him. The studio was going to produce it for $2 million dollars (about $8 million today) and were looking to put Robert Redford, Burt Reynolds, Ryan O’Neil, or James Caan in the lead.

Stallone turned them down.

The project was still picked up, but Stallone had to continue writing without a fee and act for scale. They also slashed the budget to $1 million ($3.9 million) and the producer and director mortgaged their houses to get an additional $100,000 ($380,000) and the movie was a go. The budget was so low that Carl Weathers and Burgess Meredith had to share a dressing room.

The film was shot in 28 days and nobody really expected much from it.

And somehow, this little movie became “Rocky.”

This is an interesting film to talk a because people have fairly ingrained preconceptions about what it is.

The thing about the original is, it isn’t the movie you think it is. Really it isn’t.

Watch it again and ask yourself one question, “What genre does this film fit in?”

Sports… sure.

Drama… of course.

But really, when you honestly look at it, Rocky is a love story.

Yeah, the boxing is a huge part of it, but in the end the fight is secondary to his relationship with Adrian, and her characters growth is almost more important than Rocky’s.

Who changes more through the movie, Rocky or Adrian?

Adrian, by a mile.

The most important scene in the movie takes place as far away from the ring as possible. What scene am I talking about? Rocky and Adrian laying in bed, Rocky opening up completely to her…

Rocky: I can't do it. Adrian: What? Rocky: I can't beat him. Adrian: Apollo? Rocky: Yeah. I been out there walkin' around, thinkin'. I mean, who am I kiddin'? I ain't even in the guy's league. Adrian: What are we gonna do? Rocky: I don't know. Adrian: You worked so hard. Rocky: Yeah, that don't matter. 'Cause I was nobody before. Adrian: Don't say that. Rocky: Ah come on, Adrian, it's true. I was nobody. But that don't matter either, you know? 'Cause I was thinkin', it really don't matter if I lose this fight. It really don't matter if this guy opens my head, either. 'Cause all I wanna do is go the distance. Nobody's ever gone the distance with Creed, and if I can go that distance, you see, and that bell rings and I'm still standin', I'm gonna know for the first time in my life, see, that I weren't just another bum from the neighborhood.

Funny thing, the budget and shooting schedule was so tight that they almost didn’t film this scene. Let me repeat that… they ALMOST DIDN’T FILM IT!

Stallone insisted and was given one take. I cannot conceive of this film without this moment. This scene is what the movie is about. The theme is distilled, the relationship is solidified, and the palooka shows his vulnerability and becomes human.

This scene gets lost in the bigness of the movie. Yeah, it was a small film, but it was a small film with huge scenes, and huge characters.

Stallone is actually the most reserved character in it. Rocky is quiet, shy, insecure, and a genuinely sweet man who is making a living the only way he can.

Adrian is a shadow of a woman who comes into her own because someone else actually sees who she is under the shyness and doesn’t hold her back or put her down. Rocky doesn’t change her, they change each other and become something more than they are on their own.

Mickey is the embodiment of a coach. His voice, his demeanor, his ferocity… everything about him just screams it.

Paulie is… man, is it possible to like Paulie? I mean, honestly like the guy. He is such an unrepentant asshole that it just… it’s almost impossible to not find him repellant. But for some reason you don’t hate him, even though you really should.

Apollo Creed… damn. What can I say about Apollo creed that does him justice? He is the antithesis of Rocky. Creed is smooth, sharp, savvy as hell, sophisticated, charismatic as hell, eloquent, funny, outgoing… Creed is one of the greatest characters in the American film canon. In any other film, this man is the hero.

The beauty of each of these characters is how real they are. You know people like this. You had a gym coach like Mickey, sat in front of a girl like Adrian, had a friend who wasn’t that bright, but would do anything for you, and a guy who seemed to have it all. Why else would we follow them through 5 more movies?

Not only did Stallone and Alvidson capture the truth of the characters, they also captured the spirit of a city. Philly is as much a part of Rocky as Rocky has become a part of Philly. It showed you the beating heart of working class America; the part of the city where nobody carries a briefcase or worries about a 401k. Then there’s the music. Bill Conte’s score to “Rocky” might not be the most iconic score ever, but it is damned well in the conversation. Listen to the opening bars of the main theme and tell me the hairs don’t stand up on your arms. Tell me that “Gonna Fly Now” doesn’t make you want to go out running and push yourself harder than you ever have before. Tell me that the “The Final Bell” doesn’t make you want to stand up and cheer.

Tell me any of these things and I will call you a liar to your face.

As great as the music is, it works so well because it is paired with such amazing visuals; and not just visuals but developed visuals. Yes, Rocky reaching the top of the stairs in front of the museum and jumping in triumph is amazing, but would it be so rousing had we not seen him fail at it before? Does “Going the Distance” work as well without seeing Rocky pushing himself to take more punishment than any man can endure so that people will see that he “weren't just another bum from the neighborhood?” Is “The Final Bell,” as stirring without the image of Rocky and Adrian embracing and proclaiming their love? Maybe, maybe not. But good lord, I can’t think of any way to make them more stirring.

Then there is that million-dollar script. Such a simple, straightforward story, with so much underneath, like an iceberg. Like all great stories it tells you as much about yourself as it does about the characters on screen. Everyone has been underestimated at one point or another. Because it so identifiable you can connect to Rocky and through him you can feel the exhilaration of showing everyone who doubted you exactly what you are made of.

I recently showed this film to a creative writing class with a handful of students who had never seen it. The number of kids who were tearing up at the end was remarkable, and completely unexpected. It was one of the best viewing experiences I’ve ever had.

“Rocky” has become such a massive, inescapable force in film that it is very easy to forget that at one point it was just this low budget move that got made almost in spite of itself. It has been imitated so many times but none have ever come close. If you haven’t seen it, or if you haven’t seen it in a few years, then you really should do yourself a favor.

Up next … Rocky II


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