Surviving 15 Rounds


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In 1976, I was 7 years old so I missed seeing Rocky on the big screen. I also missed Taxi Driver, Network, All the President’s Men, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Shootist. I’m sure if I dig into the wikipedia vault I’ll find other great movies from that year I didn’t see on the big screen either.

I also, strangely enough, don’t think I realized that Rocky and The Outlaw Josey Wales were released in the same year. Both movies, and we can throw Taxi Drive and Network (“I’m mad as hell,” they tell us in the movie) in here too, are part of that hyper, dirty realism that marks films from the 1970s. These were films, as many others have noted, trying to portray a growing disillusionment in America in the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam world. The 1960s created massive changes and the 1970s were left to clean up the mess.

We might imagine the imagery and grit of Serpico and Dirty Harry starting to fade by 1977. The Oscars in 1977 honored movies like Annie Hall, The Goodbye Girl, and Star Wars. You can almost imagine the critics’ exhaustion as they made a move off the mean streets and into the apartments of Manhattan. The lone vigilante gunman isn’t exactly a sustainable model for the social contract, they might write. There’s a reason John Wayne dies at the end of The Shootist and Josey Wales is injured and riding away from violence when the movie ends.

It’s become trendy to argue that television is replacing the big screen. Certainly, we are seeing some pretty incredible narratives occupying the small screen and we might make the case that shows like Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Homeland, and others are akin to the 19th century serial novel. From the outset, these are shows that, in many ways, have a limited life span. Let’s face it, you can only watch a cancer-riddled man make meth for so long and eventually even I will tire of watching people run from zombies. Television, in many ways, feeds our desire for stories that we can watch on our time and in our way. And the popcorn is cheaper.

But there is something about seeing things on the silver screen. Last week, my son, his girlfriend, and I went to see Rocky at the theater as part of the Cinemark Spring Classics Film Series. We’ve all seen Rocky more than once. We can quote dialogue. I have a stocking cap like Mickey’s and we are more than willing to hum Bill Conti’s score, either ironically or seriously, at the drop of a hat. Periodically, we have debates about which Rocky is the best movie and one of my favorite movie memories is cheering at the end of Rocky IV when he knocks out that communist pig Drago. I can’t use a wheelbarrow without thinking about the movie.

Sly Stallone, though, has incurred his share of disdain from serious film critics. The sappy ending, Stallone’s acting (or lack thereof), and the ham-handed social commentary certainly make us wonder just how this movie beat Taxi Driver for the Oscar. I myself have often wondered such a thing. After all, Talia Shire at times seems to pull the movie to a screeching halt as Adrian. It’s hard to imagine a more awkward cinematic moment than those two at the ice skating rink or in his apartment for the first time.

At least I thought so until last week when I saw the digital remaster on the big screen. I feel like I owe Ms. Shire an apology. When we see her on that big screen, what we really see is her ability to capture a woman who has spent her life abused by her brother and abandoned by her parents. Rocky becomes a boxer, he tells her, because his father told him to learn how to use his body because his brain was no good. My mother, Adrian tells Rocky, told me the opposite. Ouch. Paulie tells us over and over that Adrian is damaged goods. She’s awkward, I see now, because everything she does with Rocky is the first time she’s done it. There’s a nuance to her face that we can’t see on a 21 inch screen.

Stallone, easily mocked and satirized, is surprisingly good in the role and, because he’s such an easy target for ridicule, we forget often that he wrote the screenplay. And he nails the role. When you see him in his 20 foot glory, we realize just how big he was back in 1977 and we also can appreciate his timing. (We also see how gigantic Carl Weathers was–forgive my man crush here.) Rocky’s jokes are bad, we see, because they are supposed to be bad. He’s clearly addled already: Mickey’s right when he calls him a bum. But he also represents an America that we recognize. Winning, Rocky tells Adrian before the big fight, isn’t about knocking Apollo Creed down. He just wants to go the distance and he wants to go out on his feet. With his pride.

And that’s all any of us want, isn’t it? We can’t always win, but when we fight and struggle against the odds, we sometimes just want to leave the ring on our own two feet.

For a long time, I was upset that Rocky fights to a draw. The early screenplay had Rocky throwing the fight and stepping out of the ring. I took a film class once where the professor argued that if Rocky had died, the movie would have been one of the greatest movies ever made. Until last week, I agreed with my professor. I won’t lie. I have enjoyed all the Rocky movies. His street fight with Tommy Morrison in Rocky V was, to me, a powerful moment and a return to the grit and drive that marked an American icon. But, I told my kids, if he had died in 1976, we would have a more realistic sense of life on the streets. Apollo Creed was the best. He outweighed Rocky by 30 pounds. He had the best training possible. And he didn’t drink raw eggs. Rocky deserved to go 15 rounds, I would argue, but he also deserved to die a noble death.

But I was wrong. I’m glad he survived the ring. Rocky represents something larger than boxing or the formulaic rags to riches (to rags to riches, etc) story. Rocky’s a simple guy. He does one thing well and he grew up in an era where America focused on such things: no one will ever accuse Rocky of being a renaissance man. Throughout the movies, when Rocky stops fighting his world collapses. He loses his sense of self and he’s unable to function as a husband, father, and as a man. So he returns to the ring. He does what he does well and he doesn’t try to be something he’s not. It seems to that’s not a bad lesson for any of us to learn.

Too often these days, we equate not winning with losing but we might reconsider. Some days, perhaps most days, the realistic goal isn’t winning–it’s about going the distance and surviving until the 15th round.



About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

3 Responses to Surviving 15 Rounds

  1. LetSdeG says:

    I was three in ’76 and also missed Rocky on the big screen, along with pretty much every other Rocky film until I was an adult, married and with four kids. Watching it today, even on the small screen, you understand that you are watching a different type of society. It still strikes me how innocent Rocky actually seems, compared to the society we live in today. He borders on wholesome, in some cases. My mom always says that the movie captures what people were like in general, back then. something I did not “get” until I watched the first movie, which matched so many of my pictures as a little girl growing up in the Bronx. Definitely a reminder that cinema doesn’t just entertain – it captures and stores moments of our history until we are ready to consume them.

    Great post! May just watch Rocky this weekend with the kids.

  2. jmgoyder says:

    Great, thought-provoking post!

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