The Calling Of Saint Rocky

The series began with The Prizefighter And The Lady, and then it continued with Requiem For A Heavyweight. Now writers David Curcio and Andrew Rihn turn their insightful gazes to a fight film which, arguably, has had more impact on both boxing and the larger culture than any other. No one could have foreseen the incredible success of Rocky when it was released in 1976, but it went on to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards and turned Sylvester Stallone into a Hollywood star, before launching a franchise which generated hundreds of millions in box office revenue.

Rocky movie

But if the sequels that followed the Oscar-winning original devolved into orgies of kitsch and cliché, the film that spawned them was something else entirely, a thoughtful and moving work, not to mention an arresting slice of urban Americana, whose intriguing themes and subtleties have, for some at least, become obscured by time. So let’s revisit Rocky and let our thoughtful scribes renew our appreciation for what is surely the most successful and influential of fight films. Check it out:

D.C. Andrew, I know you’ve viewed Rocky many more times than I have and I’m betting you will have noticed an image in the opening scene I found striking, that being a large portrait of Christ over the boxing ring.

A.R. No matter how many times I watch Rocky, and I’ve watched it a lot, that opening shot always surprises me. Christ is holding the Eucharist and the camera then slowly tilts down to reveal the ring, where Rocky and Spider Rico are slugging it out. It’s a club fight and the cinematographer has lit the scene like a George Bellows painting. The ring action is rough and the audience is gambling and looking for blood. It’s a seedy environment. I suspect we’re to appreciate the apparent duality of the holiness and the unholiness. And I take it as a reminder that seedy joints like this are, according to the Gospels, exactly the kind of place where Jesus hung out. When Christ was criticized for fraternizing with his disciples and other riff raff, he shrugged it off. “I came not to call the righteous,” he says, “but sinners to repentance.” And this is not the only time we see a religious image in the film. In his apartment, Rocky has a print of Caravaggio’s The Calling of St. Matthew. 

Opening scene: Rocky defeats Spider Rico at the Resurrection Athletic Club.

D.C. Which is notable considering that Matthew also hung out in some of the sleaziest joints around before he was called. But in fact the poster in Rocky’s apartment is a riff on the painting titled “The Minstrels,” in which the faces of The Beatles are super-imposed. Still, its pertinent in that Matthew was, like Rocky, a small-time hood, so to speak. Tax-collectors were known for being crooked, while Rocky is also a collector, in his case a leg-breaker for a “cheap, second-rate loan shark,” as Mickey calls him.

A.R. It was controversial to say the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, but here they are certainly bigger than Matthew. I love that Rocky’s poster is this kind of pop culture palimpsest. The religious allusion is there, but delivered by non-religious figures. It also dovetails with Rocky’s sense of humor, his goofy charm, continually cracking bad jokes and corny lines.

D.C. Maybe the beauty here is that Rocky, as a character, stays agnostic throughout. God is present in the crosses, paintings, and even parody prints, but he’s never directly mentioned, which leaves it open-ended in the best way. But the religious imagery is important. And we recall how in Rocky II he makes a special trip to go and ask for a blessing from Father Carmine before battling Apollo Creed again.

Rocky and Gazzo
Rocky with his boss, loan shark Tony Gazzo.

A.R. Interestingly, Caravaggio’s masterpiece is a favorite painting of Pope Francis. He has said he sees himself in the stunned, disbelieving faces. “The calling of Matthew reminds us that when Christ makes us his disciples, he does not look to our past but to the future.” That’s definitely a theme in the movie. Does our past determine our future? We see this with Paulie, with Adrian, and in the arguments between Rocky and Mickey.

D.C. Character development in Rocky is extraordinary when one considers how the film is so rooted in the present. This is driven home by the family pictures on Rocky’s mirror, for which no explanation is offered, as well as Paulie and Adrian’s toxic codependency and perpetual inertia. Also Mickey’s past as a legit but forgotten fighter. References to these histories are scant and we can only access these lives in the present. Further, these three characters, along with the loan shark, Tony Gazzo, comprise the whole of Rocky’s life in love and work. The former manifests in his affair with Adrian; the latter in his desire to quit collecting as a petty thug, to be something more. Rocky’s no hood, a point driven home by his love of animals, when he talks to the birds in the pet shop like he’s Saint Francis preaching to the sparrows. But while Adrian is the flame that fires up his heart, Mickey is the one to grab Rocky by the scruff. His first words in the film—”Shut up!”—set the tone for a muddled relationship: Rocky, the prodigal son who’s disappointed the old man a few too many times, and Mickey, the absent father with whom it may be too late to make amends.

Rocky in his apartment
Rocky and “The Minstrels.”

A.R. It’s interesting how much Rocky gets misremembered, largely because of the numerous sequels, which are completely different films in terms of tone and depth. As a result, it seems we only remember the clichés, the caricatures. What strikes me when I re-watch Rocky is that he isn’t “called” by Apollo until about halfway through. A full fifty-percent of the movie is just scene setting and character building. It’s a very 1970s pace for filmmaking, comparable to others of the same year like Taxi Driver and Marathon Man. And when Rocky is finally “called,” remember, it isn’t because of his worthiness. Creed picks his name out of a book because he likes the rhyme of “Italian Stallion.” Rocky is a self-described “ham and egger.” He isn’t deserving and he knows it and he initially turns down the offer. We never see him agree to the fight on camera and a jump cut to the press conference confirms it’s happening. Likewise, we never hear the conversation where Rocky and Mickey agree to work together. They shout and argue and plead, but when they finally put aside the anger and bitterness in the dark of a nighttime Philadelphia street, the microphone goes silent.

D.C. Since you bring them up, I have to note that in terms of opening credit sequences, Rocky is almost identical in style to Taxi Driver and Marathon Man. Now Rocky’s worthiness as a challenger, or lack thereof, is an important element in the film’s pathos, but you’re right in that his doubts lie less with his ability to take on the champ—after all, he believes he has the ability to be a good sparring partner for Creed—than with his dignity and merit, and it’s that desire to make himself matter, to prove that he’s not “just another bum,” that elevates the film. That and the fact that the movie works as a powerful love story. These elements cohere so well that it’s impossible to tune out halfway through just because the plot takes its abundant liberties with the realities of the sport. In fact, the fight seems almost incidental, a bonus, when weighed against the love story. I imagine that element brought in more female viewers and likely helped it to earn the accolades it received.

Rocky and Adrian
Adrian and Rocky in the pet store.

A.R. I agree and I think Rocky gets a bum rap as being this very generic, commercial pandering type of film, but it really is a good example of what is sometimes called “American New Wave” filmmaking, a style that dominated in the seventies. That’s what gives it a similar feel to pictures like Marathon Man and Taxi Driver. There was a lot of cinematic innovation going on, and Rocky was no exception. It was one of the first pictures to feature the newly-invented Steadicam, for instance. A number of the iconic Rocky shots would not have been possible without that technology. Rocky running up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, for example, would have looked completely different without it. Now we’ve mentioned Mickey, Adrian, Paulie, and Apollo, and the movie couldn’t be what it is without that supporting cast. Do you have a favorite?

D.C. To me, Paulie is the most captivating. Like the others, his backstory is unknown, though that’s rectified in the sequels. He may seem like the least consequential of the five major characters, but without him, the story would be so tightly composed as to implode on itself. It’s interesting that Stallone originally wanted Harvey Keitel to take the role, though I think he would have been far too domineering: his mien, his physique, and his methodology are ill-suited to a loser like Paulie.

A.R. I think Burt Young was perfectly cast. He does this subtle gesture, puffing out his lower lip whenever he takes a nip from his bottle. It’s so perfectly infantile and pathetic. I would have given him the Academy Award for that alone.

Burt Young as Paulie.

D.C. Paulie plays like the Jungian shadow to both Rocky and his sister. His penchant for violence reverberates as much as Rocky’s attempt to escape it. This is most evident in his wish to work for Gazzo. As he says, “Breakin’ bones don’t bother me.” Anyone who saw 1974’s The Gambler knows he’s well versed in that department. While his sister works in a pet shop nurturing innocent souls waiting to be rescued, sort of like the rest of the characters, Paulie spends his days swinging dead cow carcasses. The sibling relationship keeps him in a perpetual state of arrested development in which he figures so long as he’s taking care of his sister, he doesn’t have to move on with his own life. That’s why it causes him such distress when Adrian comes to develop her own volition. As siblings, they’re such opposites that Adrian’s mousiness is buried under Paulie’s wrath and domination. But she’s just as intriguing.

A.R. It’s interesting to consider Adrian in the context of past boxing movies as nearly all of them treat women as plot devices rather than full characters. A trope in boxing movies was giving the protagonist two love interests, the nice girl-next-door who knew him before he was famous, and then later, a gold-digging femme fatale. He then had to choose: be true to his core values or sell out to a life of fame and riches. Rocky takes a different path, with Stallone’s character staying true to one woman. The movie, and the series as a whole, gets some flak for leaving Adrian undeveloped, but I think that looking at her in context reveals some layers that are easy to overlook.

Adrian and Rocky
Adrian and Rocky on their first date.

She begins the movie coupled to her brother Paulie, who feels chronically disrespected and needs Adrian’s near-total dependency to satisfy his own ego, to feel like he matters. Maybe he’s compensating for some lack of control in his life, but if Adrian is underwritten, it is here: the hows and whys that go unanswered in regards to tolerating her brother’s behavior for so long. If she yearns for something more, we come to understand it only through Rocky. But Paulie interprets Adrian’s independence as a threat and he lashes out at the couple that he helped to create. Adrian’s dramatic break with her brother —”What do I owe you?!”— is a powerful moment from a quiet character and I think one can see Adrian’s defiance of Paulie in 1976 as a meaningful feminist act.

D.C. Which only makes the movie’s love story that much more powerful, doesn’t it. It’s not just about two people falling in love, but about how that love transforms them, gives them new life. With Rocky’s help, Adrian breaks out of her shell and asserts herself, while it’s her love that gives Rocky the strength to suffer everything he must go through to give Apollo Creed the fight of his life, to “go the distance.” As I say, it’s the love story that makes the movie something more than the sum of its parts.

Rocky and Paulie
Rocky and Paulie at the meat packing plant.

A.R. Yeah, the suffering of Rocky. That’s an important theme, isn’t it? And it brings us back to Christ and the Biblical allusions. Rocky is called but then, like so many saints and followers of Christ, he has to withstand what amounts to torture. The exaggerated violence and bloodiness of the fight scene, with Rocky enduring almost obscene punishment, his face a mass of welts before he begs Mickey to cut him with a razor, it’s all meant to function as something more than just gratuitous carnage.

D.C. And of course the pathos of that reflects how the movie has worked so hard to make Rocky such an endearing character, a sort of gentle giant with a heart of gold. Early in the film he encounters a barely conscious drunk lying on the pavement. He doesn’t step over him or walk past, but heaves the poor guy over his shoulder and carries him into the bar. Later he counsels a young girl, Marie, and even walks her home. She rejects his advice and calls him a “creepo,” but we see Rocky’s heart is always in the right place, that he cares. And so the viewer cares about him when he’s getting beaten to a pulp and pounded all over the ring.

A.R. Yeah, an intriguing, if minor, development in the sequels is when Stallone resurrects the character of Marie in Rocky Balboa, and Rocky works that goofy, bad joke charm thing again, like with Adrian in the pet store. Reportedly, there was serious consideration given to a Marie and Rocky romance for that film before Stallone and company, thankfully, rejected the idea.

D.C. Shifting gears, let’s talk about Rocky’s apartment. It’s the only hint the viewer has into his past which, for a film that remains completely rooted in the present, is virtually nil. We can tell he’s Catholic as evinced by the crucifixes on his walls, but I know you have other observations worth parsing out.

“… Christ does not look to our past but to the future.”

A.R. I love the set dressing that went into the apartment. It’s where much of the movie takes place and it’s a set we won’t see again in the Rocky series. A bachelor pad in extremus, it’s heaped with detritus, nearly decomposing. The walls are dirty, damaged. It’s a reflection of how Rocky is living at the time, of how his bad habits have become ingrained behaviors, or what Mickey calls “a waste of life.” Rocky stuffs beer bottles between the couch cushions. There’s no screen on the screen door. When he pulls ice out of his freezer, he drops a few ice cubes and doesn’t bother to pick them up. When Mickey drops in, Rocky throws darts into his bathroom door. Thankfully, we’re spared the sight of his bathroom. As you mentioned, there’s an obvious hint at the past in a set of photos tucked into the side of a mirror, real photos from Stallone’s childhood. Next to the mirror, knives are stabbed into the wall, U.S. military trench knives, in fact, an M1917 and a Mark I. Rocky hangs that famous black fedora on the Mark I. There’s a mattress tied around a pole, apparently a makeshift punching bag, with a giant buck knife sticking out of it. And when Rocky enters his apartment with Adrian for the first time, he hangs his coat on the handle of a machete stabbed into the wall. The knives speak to the violence that permeates Rocky’s world, but they also reveal his character. He isn’t wielding these knives as weapons but using them as hat racks. It suggests that while Rocky is in that world of violence and depravity, he isn’t of that world, to paraphrase St. Paul.

D.C. Another prominent detail in the apartment, the portrait of Rocky Marciano, which brings us to Rocky’s name. According to Stallone, “The Brockton Blockbuster” was the sole inspiration for the character, though it seems to me Marciano is one of several facets that comprise the iconic moniker. In fact, Rocky’s hard-scrabble beginnings are closer to Rocky Graziano’s, whose birth name of Barbella, Stallone’s mother’s maiden name, collates neatly with Rocky’s surname, Balboa.

Carl Weathers as champion Apollo Creed.

A.R. And Graziano got his own biopic, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956), which helped launch the young Paul Newman’s career, much as Rocky launched Stallone’s.

D.C. As to Rocky’s fighting moniker, “The Italian Stallion,” it was also used by a 1970s and 80s heavyweight and actor Lee Canalito, though it’s unclear as to who borrowed from whom, since the actors had worked together the previous year. Finally, “Stallone,” Italian for “stallion,” completes the colossal mash-up. When a reporter asks the fictional fighter how he came up with the sobriquet, Rocky responds that he “made that up one night while [he] was eating dinner.” Not likely.

The most obvious avatar is, of course, Chuck Wepner. But Stallone has never acknowledged it. Here I should point out that perfunctory internet searches will pull up quotes and listicles to the contrary, but I’m sticking with Wepner’s story. Was it a coincidence that the Ali vs Wepner bout took place on October 30, 1974, just a week or so before Stallone claims to have penned his script? Wepner even filed a lawsuit for “promotion of the Rocky movies… without consent and without compensation,” grumbling later that the settlement didn’t bring in “a minute percentage” of the fifteen million he wanted. While we’re on the topic of money, it’s worth remembering that Stallone had to forgo payment for his script and his acting in order to get the producers, Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff (who went on to produce Raging Bull four years later) to make the film. But he earned $2.5 million from his percentage of box office takes, so he made out just fine.

Burgess Meredith as trainer Mickey Goldmill.

A.R. It’s interesting to think about the context of Rocky’s release. Not a lot of on-screen characters were talking about the sport of boxing the way Stallone was. From 1949’s The Set-Up, to 1962’s Requiem for a Heavyweight, all the way to 1972’s Fat City, big-screen boxing was portrayed as pretty bleak. But Rocky was a movie about holding onto hope and finding meaning in the ring, and Stallone was rewarded for that take. He was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Screenplay and Best Actor, a rare combination of which Stallone was only the third to achieve, after Orson Welles and Charlie Chaplin. Not bad company for a guy who calls himself an “intellectual caveman.”

In all, Rocky was nominated for ten Oscars, including nominations for Stallone, Talia Shire, Burt Young, and Burgess Meredith. It won three, Best Picture, Best Director and Best Film Editing, in a fairly stacked year, going up against Taxi Driver, All the President’s Men, Network, Marathon Man, and others. And here’s an interesting fact: Rocky was the first sports movie to win Best Picture, but not the first boxing movie, if we count On The Waterfront (1954) as a boxing picture, which I do. And a boxing movie would not win Best Picture again until 2004’s Million Dollar Baby.

D.C. I’m a bit puzzled by Stallone’s attribution to Muhammad Ali as the inspiration for Apollo Creed, who espouses American pride at every turn, even entering the ring dressed as Uncle Sam in a two-dimensional model of the Durham boat. Such patriotism is at odds with Ali’s real-life, anti-American stances, his commitment to the Nation of Islam, and the separatist ideals that he espoused to Alex Haley in their Playboy interviews. All of which is to say that I see no correlation between the real and fictional fighters.

Rocky goes the distance.

A.R. That’s interesting because Ali recognized himself in Creed, the boastful Black champion who loves holding court with the press. “Starring Apollo Creed as Muhammad Ali,” he told Roger Ebert when the two watched Rocky II together. And Ali was quick to analyze the success of Rocky: “I have been so great in boxing they had to create an image like Rocky, a white image on the screen, to counteract my image in the ring.”

D.C. The legacy of Ali has shifted in the past forty years from controversial, oft-despised provocateur, to brave “conscientious objector” and Civil Rights champion. Do you think this has affected the film’s legacy?

A.R. There’s no denying Rocky’s cultural legacy, unmatched by any other boxing picture. How ubiquitous is that theme music? Or the phrase “Yo, Adriaaannnn”? For me, re-watching Rocky never fails to yield something new. Sometimes it’s how Stallone refashions the tropes common to pre-Rocky boxing movies: the rise to the championship, the love interest, the influence of organized crime, even the training montage. Rather than avoid these shop-worn clichés, Rocky leans into their legacy, giving each a little twist, creating characters and storylines that feel at once both familiar and original. Other times, it’s noticing and appreciating the little things. How Rocky dresses his Marciano portrait as Santa Claus. Or how after the big fight, Paulie distracts security so Adrian can slip into the ring. Or the morning zoo radio program that plays over the otherwise silent “raw eggs for breakfast” scene.

Holding onto hope: Stallone’s uplifting take was a box office smash.

But perhaps what makes Rocky so perennially relatable is that it’s ultimately about the nobility of the struggle and not the achievement. I think its final genius is that Rocky fights his heart out, but fails to win. I have watched it a hundred times and still I forget this, my memory buoyed or blurred by the cartoonish sequels and that triumphant theme music. But Rocky loses by split decision. And he doesn’t care. After all the training, the heartache, the pressure, all building towards this great struggle, Rocky discovers his apogee is elsewhere. Apollo can have his shiny belt; Rocky has won something more. Like the saints and martyrs of old, Rocky gains the greater victory through suffering and blood, through answering the call and having the courage to fight against the odds.              Andrew Rihn & David Curcio