I could present a sturdy argument that John G. Avildsen‘s Rocky is the greatest movie ever made. From the direction, to the script and brilliant performances by Sylvester Stallone, Talia Shire, Burgess Meredith, Carl Weathers and Burt Young, Rocky certainly belongs in that discussion. However, that’s not the purpose of this article.
When I read yesterday that Rocky had turned 40 years old, I knew that I needed to talk about it. Not for you or for the sake of the film, but for myself. Perhaps it seems over-dramatic from the outside looking in, but I know for a fact that I wouldn’t have survived the trials of my life without this film and its constant inspiration. Great films are akin to great friends. Each of us undoubtedly has a movie that we gravitate towards when we’re feeling defeated, and we become infinitely more powerful after each frame and stitch of dialogue seeps into our minds. For me, that film has always been Rocky.
Though Rocky doesn’t win the title until the sequel, the first film of the never-ending franchise paved the way for that ending to be so cathartic. Throughout this film, we are made to understand Rocky Balboa as a good man who is barely hanging onto his boxing dreams. Life had all but defeated him. However, the film provides unwavering inspiration while we follow the character as he’s presented with an opportunity to take a swing back at life and become the heavyweight champion of the world. I wanted to be this character. Though Sylvester Stallone delivers a subtle performance throughout most of the movie, Balboa is a larger-than-life character that everyone can connect with in some way. He represents each of us, scrapping day in and day out just to survive. When he succeeds, we feel as if we have that same ability.
My affection for the film started when I was young enough to think that drinking eggs like the Italian Stallion would make me cool. My father, my little brother, and I would sit around on the living room couch, eating saltine crackers with spray cheese and jalapeno peppers during all-day Rocky marathons on TNT. These were my earliest connections with the film. My mother, though she isn’t with me now, was the nurturer. She taught me to read, made me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and chaperoned my field trips at school. My dad worked a lot, though, so I spent as many moments with him on weekends as I could – which usually meant sitting around and binging whatever films would come on TV. Fortunately for me, the Rocky franchise defined this scenario numerous times. I cannot pretend that my father and I always see eye to eye on things. We don’t. I can’t remember a time that we ever have, honestly. Like many parent/child relationships, we present vastly different ideals at every possible turn. I know I don’t say it nearly enough, but I love my father, and I’d like to think that Rocky provides him with the same joyous memories that it presents for me time and time again.
Perhaps an even stronger connection than my father and I, Rocky and the sequels brought my little brother and I together in a constant battle against life. When we were young, our mother left our family. That’s okay. It’s her life and her decision to make. Our own lives were constantly changing after that, though, and movies were the only consistent relief. My brother isn’t a sports guy. I wouldn’t even say that he’s remotely a boxer guy. But you don’t have to be to gravitate towards Rocky. There have been so many times in both of our lives when giving up seemed like the easiest path to mercy, but this film constantly pushed us forward. The greatest possible example I have to give comes from several years ago now. Our father was diagnosed with Melanoma and given a time-frame of up to one year before the cancer would claim his life. What were we going to do, you know? I was only seventeen, and he was a year and a half younger. As far as we could see at the time, we didn’t have anywhere to go. We didn’t have the means to provide for our two younger siblings who weren’t yet even teenagers. We were afraid and more shaken perhaps than we’d ever been. One evening, rather than worrying ourselves sick over the fate of our father and family, he and I sat in the den and watched each film of the Rocky franchise. If he’s reading this now, I know he remembers this moment, not only because we totally pitched a spot-on plot for Creed, the eventual Rocky sequel, while talking back and forth between the films several years before Creed was even announced, but because the films rejuvenated us in a way that helped us push forward when our sky was falling.
Speaking of Creed, I was quite fortunate to see that film in theaters around this time last year with my father, who has since made a full recovery from his cancer. In that film, and I hope this doesn’t spoil anyone since it’s only a year old, Rocky is diagnosed with cancer. Life had taken everything he loved and returned to finish the job with him – and he was fully prepared to go quietly. He realizes though, much like my father, my brother and myself have realized, or perhaps even learned from him in the first place, that there are things in this life worth sticking around for. So, he agrees to fight the cancer, which proves to be his most grueling battle yet, and he wins. The same way he has inspired me to win time and time again. Rocky is more than just a movie to me, and I might not be here without it.