Most movies come and go. They open theatrically, earn their box office bucks and, these days, end up in DVD obscurity. Few are truly memorable. Few are, to quote Humphrey Bogart in THE MALTESE FALCON, “the stuff that dreams are made of.”
You can peruse a list of the films currently in theaters and I would bet that, no matter how much profit each one earns, none will be fondly recalled in the future. Not ABOVE EARTH. Not NOW YOU SEE ME. And certainly not IRON MAN III, THE HANGOVER PART III, or FAST & FURIOUS 6.
Let me now turn to Sylvester Stallone. Across the decades, Stallone too often has been cast as monosyllabic heroes in brainless action films. But I recently re-saw the film that made him a star. That would be the original ROCKY, which dates from 1976. It was screened at Proctors in Schenectady, where I introduced the film and moderated a q&a with Burt Young, who plays Paulie and who also earned great acclaim for his work in the film.
Now of course, not all films that are heralded in their day hold up cinematically as the decades pass. But not so with ROCKY. The film remains as powerful and moving as it was in 1976. It deserved all the accolades it earned back then, and it is well-worth revisiting today. For one thing, Stallone offers a performance. His Rocky Balboa is a full-bodied character: a character with whom most anyone can relate. This is completely understandable, given the nature of the story and the plight of Rocky, an obscure Philadelphia pugilist whom the world views as a loser but who then is offered a shot at the heavyweight title.
Now I think it is fair to say that everybody loves an underdog. We love the idea of the person who has suffered from ill luck or who has had his or her share of rough times, which is what defines Rocky Balboa-- and we love the idea of the person who is behind the eight-ball, so to speak, emerging from behind that eight-ball, and working hard, and strutting his or her stuff, and emerging a winner. This, I think, is at the core of ROCKY. The fact that the film is so well-made, and well-scripted, and well-acted, only adds to its allure.
A question worth pondering here is: Is ROCKY the greatest-ever boxing film? This one is open to debate. There are those who will say that BODY AND SOUL, which stars John Garfield and was released in 1947, is #1 on the list. There are other fine ones: for example, THE HARDER THEY FALL, from 1956, which is Humphrey Bogart’s final film; and THE SET-UP, from 1949, with Robert Ryan. And of course, there is Scorsese’s RAGING BULL, from 1980, which features Robert De Niro in a career-defining performance. Let me also add that two all-time-great films that are not generic boxing films-- 1953’s FROM HERE TO ETERNITY and 1954’s ON THE WATERFRONT-- feature central characters who are former boxers.
But beyond its stature as a classic of its genre, one word that surely relates to ROCKY is: inspirational. This is something that I can relate to personally. Now here is a true story. Not too long after ROCKY was released, I found myself in a life-threatening situation. I was in my mid-20s at the time, practically a kid. Yet I was struck out of nowhere with a very serious illness, and I had to undergo some very serious surgery.
Needless to say, I was confused-- and I was scared out of my mind. But to cut to the chase, what got me through this ordeal was thinking about Rocky Balboa. At the time, I said to myself: Rocky psyched himself up, and went into the ring, and did his ten rounds or whatever, and walked out of the ring standing on his own two feet. And you know what? I’m gonna do the same, in my own way. It was my thinking about this film, and its spirit, that helped get me through this very difficult ordeal.
Such is the power of a great film. Such is the power of a film like ROCKY.
Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.
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