GOING THE DISTANCE: How Sylvester Stallone created a film Icon and why he still matters
Written by Jacob Ethan Sapp!
When Rocky hit the scene in 1976, it introduced the world to the one of the most iconic characters in the history of cinema, won the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Director, and became America’s favorite underdog story. It’s almost crazy to think about how well received the original film was nearly 40 years later.
There were no early warning signs, this movie just struck out of the blue. Produced on a modest budget (by the same team Winkler-Chertoff pairing that produced every subsequent film), and starring a virtually unknown lead actor/Writer in Sylvester Stallone, this film could easily have been overlooked as an amusing, but insignificant character piece in a year otherwise dominated by Scorsese’s seminal masterpiece, Taxi Driver, or the truly terrific, Network. The film didn’t boast cutting edge effects, a big-name composer such as John Williams, (who at the time was probably working on a little picture he assumed nobody would ever watch called Star Wars), there were no big action set pieces, or shocking twists. It’s not a glamorous affair, as such Rocky’s success hinged on the old-school fundamentals of great storytelling, genuinely terrific acting, and a steady-handed director.
Stallone was 30 years old when he wrote Rocky, out of necessity more than anything else. After trying, and failing (One modestly infamous soft-core adult film notwithstanding) for years to make a name for himself as an actor, Stallone was down to his last count (The first of many puns definitely intended).
At what he probably figured would be his last major audition in his non-existent career, on the way out the door, after underwhelming the producers he came to see, Sly off-handedly remarked “You know, I write a little bit too.” The Producers thought Stallone was a nice guy so they humored him and offered him another meeting if he had any completed scripts. Stallone lied and said he did, and three days later had completed the first draft of Rocky. The original film was darker, and less inspiring. (Rocky throws the fight at the end in one draft). The Producers wisely suggested he rethink that. Stallone decided that his best course of action would be to write about what he knew; Hard work, Struggle, and perseverance against long odds. The completed screenplay showcased a powerful metaphor for the American Dream, and what ordinary people can do given an opportunity.
The casting would prove tricky. The producers wanted an established actor, but Sly refused to sell the script if he couldn’t play the semi-autobiographical lead role. Talia Shire, (The sister of Francis Ford Coppola) would be cast as Rocky’s pet-shop love interest, Adrian. Character actors Burgess Meredith and Burt Young joined the ensemble as Rocky’s hard-nosed trainer and alcoholic, verbally abusive best friend respectively, and former Oakland Raider’s Linebacker Carl Weathers was cast as the antagonist, World Heavyweight Champion Apollo Creed. What tends to be forgotten from years of lesser sequels diluting the franchise is just how incredible these actors were in the first film.
Stallone, nominated for Best Actor by the Academy, was hailed as the next Marlon Brando, praise that is almost funny today when most see him as the definition of a shoot-first, act-later action hero. Burgess Meredith and Burt Young competed against each other in the Best Supporting Actor category and both men gave truly stunning performances. Talia Shire’s (also Oscar-nominated) performance as Adrian exuded a quiet strength and integrity that endeared audiences to her painful, all-too-relatable shyness, and Carl Weathers created in Apollo Creed one of the most iconic, bombastic, and beloved anti-heroes in history.
Guiding all of this was John G. Avilsden, whom you may recognize as the director of The Karate Kid. I’ve often said that Rocky looks like Scorsese shot it and I stand by that statement. Avilsden’s Oscar for Best Director was more than earned. His greatest achievement, in my mind, thanks in no small part to Stallone’s genuinely compelling performance, is in creating the iconic training montage that launched a thousands parodies and became a part of pop-culture ethos.
I would also be remiss if I failed to mention Composer Bill Conti’s exquisite, and instantly iconic score. Conti was the guy they could afford, not the guy anybody would have immediately tapped to write music for their movie in 1976. But, in keeping with the underdog spirit of the film, Conti crafted one of the finest and most recognizable themes in movie history for very little pay.
What made Rocky work was that it wasn’t about boxing. Rocky is a metaphor for life. Life is the greatest challenge any of us will ever face. It will knock us down, time and time again, but the message of Rocky is that it doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what you’re up against, all it takes to win at life is to get up one more time than you’re knocked down.
In the most touching scene of the film, Rocky tells Adrian that he knows he can’t win, and that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, he explains; because all he wants to do is go the distance. Because if that bell rings, and he’s still standing, he will know for the first time in his life that he is somebody, that he matters. Winning never mattered because Rocky isn’t about a fighter trying to win a fight, It’s about a man fighting for self-respect and his place in the world.
Indeed, Rocky loses to Apollo in the end, and of course, why wouldn’t he? But as the music swells, and the reporters fill the ring and shove microphones and cameras in his face demanding to know how he feels about the fight, Rocky only has eyes for Adrian. As he yells over and over again ‘’ADRIAN!’’, Apollo’s victory is noted in passing, in an insignificant manner that further highlights the relative unimportance of the specific outcome of the fight. In the end, Rocky learned to love himself, and found the strength and courage to go the distance not because he had super powers or was trying to save the world or become some mythic hero, but because he had learned what love was from another person, his beloved Adrian.
Like the Halloween franchise, a truly incredible film has had it’s legacy somewhat diminished by fun, but lesser and unnecessary sequels. Stallone would go on to write no less than five and direct four follow-ups to the original film over the next few decades. Rocky II is the most natural and emotional of the bunch, and is a good film in it’s own right. Rocky III and Rocky IV, while thoroughly entertaining and iconic as 80’s ‘’guy movies’’, don’t feel like you’re watching the same story anymore. Pet shop courting, and self-doubting soliloquies gave way to Hulk Hogan and talking Robots. Hey, it was the 80s, what can ya say? Everything was excess, and if Rocky and it’s sequels were anything, they were each products of their time. Stallone is a man who understands the pulse of pop culture, and he makes films accordingly. 1990’s Rocky V felt like a tired attempt to make some money for a star whose career had started to fizzle amidst an ever-changing film landscape.
It wasn’t until 2006’s Rocky Balboa that Stallone, who had consciously made a slew of action flicks for easy cash (a smart marketing move that unfortunately pigeon-holed the public perception of him) returned to the character that made him famous. A genuinely moving, but maybe too nostalgic swan song that tenderly retraced the footsteps of the original film proved once again that Stallone is every bit as indefatigable as his lovable onscreen doppelganger.
A very obvious reason that the character has survived all of these years, and the reason Creed is opening on November 25th is because that character is just so darn likable. People love Rocky. He is as American as Superman and Baseball. Tourists from all over the world run up and down the steps of the Art Museum in Philadelphia to this day imitating the character. Fighters drink egg yolk, and pound raw beef because they grew up watching Rocky do it. Stallone was even inducted into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 2011 for his contribution, through film, to the sport.
But Rocky’s inherent likability isn’t the only reason the franchise has spawned six sequels and grossed over $1 Billion. The main reason this series is still going forty years later is that Rocky is a metaphor for all of us. All of us are hungry for an opportunity to prove we are worth something. And the challenge of Rocky is the same today as it was in 1976: when your time comes, will you have the courage to go the distance?
A final thought on Creed the upcoming quasi-sequel/spin-off centering on Apollo Creed’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the early reviews are all extremely positive, and many of them say that Stallone is Oscar-worthy. What a metaphor that would be, for Sly to finally win an Oscar for playing this role for the seventh time 40 years after he invented the character. November 25th couldn’t have gotten here fast enough so we can all find out for ourselves.
Jake is an ENFP who obviously loves Rocky, A Song of Ice and Fire, theater, and will defend the finale of Lost to his dying day.