The Rocky Road of the American Dream

As a friend most aptly put it, “you are not from Philadelphia unless you’ve seen Rocky.” So having spent five years, as a non-Philadelphian, I completed my initiation one Saturday night in my freshman year.

Since that night, I’ve watched the timeless tale of the uneducated, tough-as-nails, Philly-born brawler, known as Rocky Balboa, at least six separate times. I am continually drawn back to the zero to hero masterpiece of Sylvester “Sly” Stallone because of its message of enduring hope — it is truly a quintessential representation of the American Dream. This is especially important considering the major stagflation that characterized the US economy of the 1970s, for people needed a story filled with hope as they saw their jobs crumble around them amidst high inflation and unemployment. Sly Stallone delivered.

Rocky, a rough hometown bruiser, is granted the opportunity of a lifetime when he is chosen to fight for the heavyweight boxing championship of the world against the flamboyant, undefeated Apollo Creed. At its core, the film is a story of becoming and the success of American capitalism, but upon evaluation from a Marxist perspective, it becomes evident that in many ways Rocky is a romanticized, idealized, and unrealistic exaggeration of the American Dream.

The film begins with the illustrious, regal trumpeting of Bill Conti’s “Gonna Fly Now,” as a painting of Jesus looks down upon Rocky in a dimly lit gymnasium. The southpaw slugger is in a low notoriety fight with a local Philadelphia journeyman and it becomes clear quickly, by the way Rocky stumbles clumsily around the ring, that he is not the most graceful fighter. He is the definition of a brawler, a fighter who relies on heart and big, powerful shots to break the will of the other boxer, and his strategy is on full display as he is jabbed continuously in the head by his opponent. Rocky’s willingness to soak up punches demonstrates his complete reliance on the daring exchange he seeks to make every time he steps in the ring: his body in exchange for the win. It is portrayed and glorified as having “heart,” but in reality, it is a sacrifice this unemployed fighter is forced to make to earn his living in a struggling economy.

Jeers can be heard echoing in the little makeshift arena as spectators call for bloodshed. Even the ring is shrunken in size to provoke close-quarters brawling, blood, and blunt beatdowns, and is more similar to a gladiator battle than a martial arts performance. The spectators yell out bets as the fight drags on; a daring, ambitious woman even asking Rocky if he’s “feeling strong,” so she may place a higher bet. Betting is a common gambling method that when is done formally, typically revolves around the Las Vegas betting odds and aids the paychecks of both competitors. However, in the dusty, worn-down fighting gym where Rocky is brawling his opponent, the spectators blatantly commodify both fighters’ bodies by placing monetary value on bloodshed and the battering and bruising of the boxers. They came to see a fight and hold no emotional connections to the young men putting their well-being on the line for their entertainment. But despite the crowd’s hostility, Rocky still inquires when the soonest time he can fight again is, as he walks away from the brawl with a winning paycheck of $40 for his efforts.

In just the opening scene of Rocky, the struggle of the lower class is shown. Just to stay afloat, Rocky Balboa exchanges his body and long-term health for a couple of bucks in a cruel transaction that only occurs in an extreme capitalist environment where wide disparities in wealth necessitate extreme action.

So we know how Rocky makes his ends meet, but we have yet to see his true character — his dreams and aspirations and how he spends his days. All we know about Rocky as he walks home, dressed in a black hat, black trench coat, and black pants, to his old, decrepit apartment with beer bottles strewn across the floor and a knife stuck through a mattress on the wall that serves as a punching bag is that Sylvester Stallone had a clear vision on the character he wanted to create. A vision so clear that it is almost as if he, himself, lived in the struggle. And in fact, he did.

Before Rocky, Sylvester Stallone was a nobody. He lived in a 8 by 9 apartment where he could open the door and window at the same time while on his bed, and even had to sell his dog, Butkus, to save the dog from starving. He was essentially real-life Rocky Balboa and even though he was a struggling screenwriter and not an amateur boxer, Rocky represents the fight and struggle of the impoverished trying to realize a dream. In the movie’s 25th anniversary interview, Stallone says, “everyday I truly miss that character so much…I’ll never have a voice like that again where I can just speak whatever I feel in my heart.” This proves it was not just an acting role for Stallone — it was his reality.

When Stallone pitched his screenplay to producers Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, he had $106 in his bank account and was offered $25,000 for the rights to the movie. For someone barely scraping past a Benjamin, $25,000 was no laughable sum. But Stallone was so confident in his piece that he worked the offers up to $360,000 before finally ditching the idea of trying to sell his potential breakthrough, and risking it all by placing his complete trust in the movie’s success. That was the best decision of his life. So now that “Sly” is a household name, it can be said that Sylvester Stallone lived the same rags to riches story as Rocky Balboa. And here lies the success of the American Dream, for only in a capitalist society, can one truly go from nothing to something on the sheer brilliance of his work.

So now when we rewatch the scene of Rocky walking home, speaking to himself in an uneducated, slow slur, and consider Stallone’s goal of creating a “street-like character that is just totally misrepresented by the way he looks physically- just the way he walks down the street,” we can see clear Marxist critiques coming through. We assume Rocky’s economic struggle immediately just because of the way he talks, walks, and dresses. Stallone is conscious of the cultural biases that link sophisticated-sounding english and expensive outfits to wealth, and uses the platform of this movie to comment on it. Stallone purposely depicts Rocky as a low-class barbarian: everything from his famous training method of whaling on raw hanging meat, to his dirty, unappealing clothes, to his uneducated slur, to his street-fighting strategy of brawling.

But perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Rocky’s character time after time is that he is a criminal. As stated before, Rocky is unemployed, and it turns out that he spends his days working as a collector for a local loan shark. This criminal behavior is stereotypical of the unemployed, but it is also the reality in a capitalist society. As Marxist Criminology explains, capitalism causes wide disparities in wealth, which then trigger greed and desperation; and where greed and desperation reign supreme, crime is sure to follow. Even with Rocky’s indomitable spirit, the trap of the capitalist system is inescapable. This fact is glossed over in the final cut of the blockbuster, but in the initial screenplay, Rocky was a much darker character.

Not even in Sylvester Stallone’s fantasies could he imagine what was ultimately the final redemption story of Rocky. The young screenwriter knew the realities of hardship and what it was like to be stuck in the system, and the notion that a poor, uneducated criminal could all of a sudden become famous and rich was laughable to him. Stallone’s initial script came from a much darker place and did not conclude with the ending we all know today — where Rocky miraculously goes the distance with Apollo Creed. In fact, Rocky purposely throws the fight in the last round as he thinks of all of the unwanted fame and excessive money that would befall him if he lasted the whole fifteen rounds.

Imagine a Rocky where his courage and determination doesn’t propel him to superstardom. You really can’t. It’s impossible because who wouldn’t want fame, glory, and money, right? Well, when Hollywood took a good look at Stallone’s first script — they told him to make it lighter. And by lighter, they meant to make it align with the American Dream. Hollywood doesn’t want to produce the cruel reality, because their business model works perfectly: feed the public rare rags to riches and zero to hero stories to keep the American Dream alive and people’s money invested in hope.

Although Stallone may not have gotten exactly what he wanted, I don’t think he is complaining in his multi-million dollar mansion, and he has Hollywood’s romanticization of the American Dream to thank for that. So instead of a heart-wrenching scene of reality crashing down upon Rocky as we watch him throw the championship fight, we are treated to a heroic, valiant effort as the southside slugger climbs from the pit of poverty and proves to the entire world that he can contend with the best. It’s a truly inspiring fantasy and I can’t say that I’ve never blasted “Going the Distance,” while in the last stretches of a difficult run, pretending I’m Rocky overcoming all odds. But the truth is that this case, this ideal case in which the American Dream brings a nobody to the heavyweight championship of the world, is one-in-a-million. There is only one instance of this in the history of boxing and even that fight ended more similarly to Stallone’s first script.

In 1975 (a year before Rocky was released), Muhammad Ali, king of the boxing world, America’s favorite son, and heavyweight champion of the world, fought Chuck Wepner, a nobody from New Jersey. Wepner was granted the title shot by some lucky shooting star and his chances against the greatest of all time were slim to none — he had a puncher’s chance and that’s about it. His nickname was the “Bayonne Bleeder,” because of his willingness to bleed and take punches with reckless abandon, and he definitely expected to do so against Ali. Muhammad Ali was and still is a cultural icon, influential humanitarian, and the greatest boxer of all time, and his $1.5 million payday made Wepner’s $100,000 look like chump change. But it was Ali the graceful, Ali the masterful, Ali the floating butterfly with the sting of a bee, who was surprised when Wepner went fourteen-and-a-half rounds, even knocking Ali down once. It was a Cinderella story but in the end, Wepner was still beaten. And in the midst of the excitement on that night in 1975, a young, broke, Italian screenwriter gained the inspiration for Rocky and how the movie was going to end.

There are so many parallels you can draw between Wepner/Ali and Balboa/Creed. Apollo Creed, just like Muhammad Ali, is an African-American heavyweight champion of the world who is adored by all, always dressed to the nines, a showman at heart, and has a boxing style that makes fighting look like art. And it is clear that Rocky shares the same unrelenting spirit and rough, barbaric style of boxing as Wepner. Balboa even gets the same unfair payday as Wepner, and though the Italian Stallion (as he is named) is delighted with the cash, it is a flaw in the capitalist system that one performer receives less than another for putting on the same show with just as much effort. The movie really is quite similar to everything surrounding Wepner vs. Ali, and the similarities continue into the fight — to an extent.

The fight is a war. It becomes clear to Apollo, shortly after being knocked down by a wicked leaping uppercut in the first round, that Rocky means business. It is a back-and-forth slugfest between brute strength and mesmerizing grace, Philadelphia loan shark collector and heavyweight champion of the world, and most importantly, dirt poor and filthy rich. The boxing ring is the great equalizer in a lot of ways, for once that bell sounds, no amount of money or fame will help. It is a fight and the result is a coin toss between two equal warriors (as viewed from a Marxist lens). But, this is where the actual fight and first screenplay deviate from the Hollywood product. When Stallone wrote the original ending, he had the result of Wepner vs. Ali in mind and figured that even in that unbelievable, unforeseen circumstance, Wepner was still brutally knocked out in the fifteenth round and developed brain damage shortly after the fight. So looking at the situation objectively — without the rose-colored Hollywood lens — it should not be possible for Rocky to last all fifteen rounds and almost beat Apollo Creed.

So while Rocky will remain a classic movie of the triumph of the American Dream and the willpower of man, it becomes evident that it overlooks and romanticizes many aspects of that dream. As long as humans are alive, people will always need a rags-to-riches story that brings hope in a time of despair and restores faith in the system. Hope is the driving force and motivator of capitalism, and as long as there is hope, there will occasionally be self-made successes and inspiring stories. But too much hope — too much false hope — in a system favored to benefit the wealthy time and time again, can be the downfall of many an aspiring self-starter. Rocky will always remain one of my absolute favorite movies, but it is important to see that no matter how much I want it to be, it is rare that our cruel system would allow an uneducated criminal, like Rocky Balboa, to become rich and wealthy.

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