Two hours and two minutes. That is all it takes for one person to be overwhelmed with inspiration. The film that introduced the world to arguably one of the most inspirational movie characters of all time, Rocky, made quite an impact on me. Watching that film set the standard to which I compared all other films in the drama genre to. The character of Rocky Balboa was the underdog both in the boxing ring and in society due to the circumstances of his social class and education, but by the end of the film, he overcame the obstacles that would have typically limited most people in his position and became the unlikely hero.
Choosing a movie for my entire family to watch has always been a difficult task. Watching movies together is something we all look forward to because it gives us a chance to unwind from whatever our day held and just focus on being entertained and being together. However, as much as we all love our movie nights, we are split when it comes to our taste in movies. My mom and I lean towards the older classics, musicals or movies based on inspirational stories, while my dad and little brother enjoy action-packed movies (usually involving a superhero) or war films. What makes this task more difficult at times is the fact that my mom is very strict when it comes to what we are allowed to watch, especially since my brother just turned thirteen. I usually did not mind my mom’s strictness when it came to movies because these rules led me to discover the world of the older classics. It was her own form of agenda setting in a parental and protective context. Many modern movies targeted for young teens included content she deemed inappropriate, but movies from the 1940s through the 1980s were much better for younger people in her opinion. That is how they were framed for me; therefore, that became my opinion as well. So, in middle school when my friends were watching Gossip Girl and the latest installment of the Twilight saga, I was watching Happy Days and The Sound of Music. In the later years of high school and now in college I have branched out and joined my friends in obsessing over some of the latest trending movies and television shows, but my love for some of the great classic films of the 20th century has never faded away. There is something about watching a film with a beautiful story from another decade, that both your parents and grandparents still appreciate, that evokes a warm sense of nostalgia. This is what guided me to Rocky.
Over the past five years, we have celebrated my brother’s birthday in upstate New York, near the Hudson Valley. There is something about the crisp fresh air, spacious and stunning natural beauty and fun outdoor activities that keep bringing us back every year. However, since his birthday is in late October, it is usually chilly outside, so on the night of his actual birthday we try to find a movie to watch together after indulging in birthday desserts. One year, we were struggling with selecting a movie. My mom and I went through list upon list on the internet, but it seemed as though we had already watched every family movie that would be appealing to all four of us. For some reason, Rocky entered my mind as a possibility, as I remember hearing that it was a great old sports movie. Not being a fan of the sports movie genre, I normally would not have considered it, but because it was considered a classic I decided to give it a chance, and I am so glad we did. As we were all cozily watching it that one October night upstate, I was caught off guard as I found myself to be totally moved with its moral and emotional dimensions of the film as well as triumph over some typical class stereotypes.
The theme of the underdog rising up and becoming the hero within sports dramas is now common among the subgenre- in fact, it could be considered the staple of the subgenre. Many great films such as The Blind Side and Rudy, have utilized this storyline as the basis for their plots. However, this theme has become commonplace partially because of Rocky. Before, there were not many sports dramas, especially about boxing, were critically acclaimed as well as popular amongst the majority of Americans, with the latter perhaps due to the lack of a “feel-good” movie quality that Rocky reintroduced. The elements of resilience, humbleness, kindness, dedication and heart that were added to a seemingly simple theme made this movie the bar to which future sports dramas were measured to. These characteristics of Rocky are what inspired me and are what took him from the underdog to the unlikely hero.
Philadelphia is home for Rocky. He was born and raised there and continues to live there in the movie. However, it is clear from early on that he lives in the more impoverished, lower-class, Italian neighborhood within the city. This begins to frame the impression that Rocky was impoverished, Italian and a member of this low-class community. As the viewer sees Rocky walking around his neighborhood and the disheveled, run-down apartment, one can further infer about his socioeconomic status. This becomes even more obvious as Rocky is not seen as having a “typical respectable job”. He works for a loan shark and is one of the people that has to go around demanding that the necessary amount of money is collected. This job of his sets up one of the first moments we see Rocky breaking the mold and going into the inspirational hero world.
Through the lens of class perspectives, one would be inclined to think that someone of his position, a boxer living in a low-class neighborhood, who is no stranger to violence, would not have a problem being unempathetic to others when ordered to collect money for his boss. Society has often portrayed people in a similar situation as rough or desensitized to others’ feelings in media. The film includes some individuals like this, such as Mickey and little Marie. However, the character of Rocky goes against these inclinations and does not pick up many of the characteristics of his habitus. In the beginning of the film, the audience sees Rocky refuse to hurt someone that owes his loan shark boss money, despite his boss telling him to do so. He’s not a mindless brute that is always ready to throw a punch; he has a heart and feels bad for the guy.
Throughout the film the character development of Rocky leads the viewer to see a harmless and caring person, which contrasts his profession of someone who fights for a living. In one scene Rocky decides to walk young Marie home and tries to tell her about being a good, respectable person who stays away from the wrong crowd. He has observed a lot in his life and so despite his apparent lack of cultural capital in not only the embodied state, but also the objectified and institutionalized, he wants Marie to learn to regulate her behavior (unfortunately, Marie expresses her ingratitude quite bluntly). This advice come from his accumulation of experiences with the people in his town in Philadelphia and the consequences he has seen people ultimately face. In addition, although Mickey has used to repeatedly insult him, Rocky gives him a chance to be his trained and develops a true admiration and devotion for him. His empathy towards others seems surprising, as some might initially expect him to treat others with belligerence. This is due to the idea of habitus. Pierre Bourdieu refers to this as acquiring certain character traits from the people and experiences of one’s life, and so the environment that Rocky grew up in would incline him toward acting and treating others a certain way. That way would be aggressive, crude, rough and ruthless at times as evidenced by the other people Rocky is often around, such as Paulie. However, he is portrayed as a stark contrast from Paulie’s temperament, which makes him seem unlikely and invokes pathos that leads the viewer to appreciate, and in my case grow to love, his kinder disposition. He even shows love for a dog that does not have in owner in the pet shop he frequents and eventually the do becomes his, in spite of the fact that he does not have much in terms of finances and resources to take care of him. However, his obvious care for the dog when he visits may be the one time in the movie Rocky has an ulterior motive- this is the pet shop where Adrian, the future love of his life, works, and it is the only place where they would see each other before their first official date.
On his first official date with Adrian, the viewer sees more insight into who Rocky is. As they are ice-skating, he tells her that his father was not very smart. He goes on to say that when he was younger his dad told him that he was not born with much of a brain, so he better start using his body and learn to fight. This reveals the absence of cultural capital from his father- rather than knowledge that is associated with power and importance, he is taught to develop his body, not his brains and to start to fight at the age of fifteen years old. Rocky offers a glimpse into how a person’s class shapes what he or she does in life. This reinforces the idea that Rocky is someone with a lower-class position, but as mentioned, he defies some of the stereotypes typically associated with the community he lives in. He also admits to Adrian that he is not the type of guy to take cheap shots, but it actually does bother him when others take cheap shots at him. It was then that he saw his more vulnerable, sensitive side. His unparalleled sense of empathy and his ultimate determination turn him into an example for his community- the makings of an unlikely hero.
As a movie with the theme of class as a backdrop, one message that becomes apparent is the ultimate “American Dream” story. The idea that anyone from poverty can succeed if he or she works hard has become the allure of moving to America and has become the plot of numerous stories. This applies to the story of Rocky. Although he never had dreams of becoming a fighter, when he receives the offer to fight World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed, he realizes that this a chance of a lifetime and an opportunity to prove himself as a respectable fighter. He has faith, a strong work ethic and integrity both in and out of the ring, which take him far. The first image of the film is even one of Jesus Christ, which is the ultimate symbol of faith, and it also allows the viewer to make the comparison that like Jesus, Rocky is called to do something in which an opponent will seemingly take him down, but will end up victorious in another way- all while maintaining the highest level of morality. This idea of his work ethic having a direct correlation with the opportunity and success he was given illustrates the structural-functional approach to class relations, as it shows someone who works hard, pursues opportunity and is then rewarded because of this exemplary behavior and furthers the idea that our class is the result of our actions rather than an unfair social system reinforced by popular culture, a product of capitalism.
In the end, Rocky does not win the fight, but he knocks Apollo down (which marks the first time Apollo has been knocked down in his career), and goes through all fifteen rounds with him, which is something that has never been done before and required great determination. That in itself is a victory, as he then started to become the people’s champion. Nevertheless, the real victory is the very last scene when Adrian finds Rocky and they tell each other that they love each other- that is what truly matters to him at that moment. However, it is important to note that turning rags into riches and achieving success through hard work does not always pan out as it does in many class-focused films. Not everyone is going to have a lucky break drop in their laps, as was the case with Rocky when he received a chance to fight the world champion out-of-the-blue. If not realized, this can lead to the incorrect assumption that all those who are currently in difficult circumstances in this world are not working hard enough. A countless amount of determined, good-hearted people work extremely hard, both in their jobs and in their homes, but do not attain class mobility and the opportunity to move out of poverty. This concept is illustrated later in Rocky V.
The concept of class mobility has become very pervasive in American culture due to the “American Dream” concept that developed in the 20th century. There is an idea that people can easily and openly interchange from one class to another if they are determined enough to do so, which suggests that people will end up where they deserve to. In the film, we see Rocky living in the slums of Philadelphia and then with hard work and resolve he eventually is afforded the opportunity to move up in the ranks of life as he becomes more well-known and successful.
When looking at Marxist theories, this means a member of the proletariat could simply move into the bourgeoisie. According to Marx, this idea is widespread because of capitalism, the economic system and dominant ideology of America. As long as capitalism exists, there will be a working lower-class and a controlling higher class. Capitalism encourages the value of hard work, as there is a corporate interest in having working people produce what these corporations, or the cultural oligopoly, want to have produced so they can make large profits. However, some people may never attain lass mobility and the lower class will still be exploited by the higher class, because of barriers such as race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. There must have been many other boxers that worked just as hard as Rocky did, but they simply were not randomly selected to be given a chance by the famous Apollo Creed- or maybe they had barriers in their way that the white male Italian Stallion did not face. While it is important to be inspired and see examples of hard work and determination, our reality is often different from what is portrayed in popular culture, as there are many people who are in an economic or social position that they do not deserve to be in due to the barriers that often bring about discrimination and limitations.
Nevertheless, the character of Rocky has become synonymous with inspirational heroes with the great amount of pathos shown through him. The Academy Award-winning film that won Best Picture has even been recognized by the American Film Institute as featuring the seventh greatest film hero of all time and being the fourth most inspirational movie of all time. While one must be careful to not blindly take the baseline “American Dream” message to heart, the movie offers a truly motivating story of one man who prevails despite the obstacles of his socioeconomic status and remains true to his signature integrity and exemplary values. The now common concept of this underdog becoming a national hero is why I love Rocky and why I am drawn to inspirational movies in general. Inspiration is what gives us hope and what moves us to be better, rather than just complacent with where we are. We need to improve so we don’t just sit back, let the world pass by and not even attempt to try to make it better in some small way. It is the catalyst to making a difference. In short, inspiration keeps us going- and all it takes sometimes is two hours and two minutes.
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