No, we're not talking about the sacred place that boxing, a.k.a. the sweet science, holds in its fans' hearts. And we're not even talking about the fact that you scream "Oh my God! How cute!" when you realize that Rocky's pet turtles are named Cuff and Link.
Rocky is a very religious character, and his faith is apparent from the movie's first shot. The dingy boxing ring isn't particularly holy, but the mural of Jesus over the ring is the first thing you see. And the name of this gym? It's the Resurrection Athletic Center. Fun fact: Resurrection Gym is actually a real location. Stallone revisited it in Rocky V.
Resurrection and Jesus reminds us of Jesus rising, and it casts Rocky as a sort of Christ figure.
He's already been beaten and broken, and this movie is Rocky's resurrection.
Also, a light shines on the ring as Rocky fights. It has a heavenly glow, like some angels left a lamp on. (Who pays the electric bill in heaven?) Or, seen in another light—pun intended—it looks like Rocky has a halo. He's the most ripped and street-smart angel we've ever seen, but we learn that his sweet spirit is pretty dang angelic.
Aside from this opening, the rest of the movie is pretty subtle on the whole religious aspect, apart from Rocky's whole "resurrection" thing. Mr. Balboa has a crucifix beside his bed, and he prays before the big fight. Rocky's religion is explored more in later movies, though.
And, oh yeah: Apollo Creed's name is a riff on the Apostle's Creed, which states:
I believe in God, the Father Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth;
And in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord;
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen. (Source)
Hard to get more religious than that, eh?
Also, check out how the Apostle's Creed makes reference to Jesus "rising from the dead," which echoes the Rocky-as-Christ-figure imagery we see at the beginning of the film. Rocky's career goes from "dead" to pretty spectacularly "alive." A few stints in Resurrection Gym, and our baby Balboa goes from bum to contender for the heavyweight champion of the world.
This is a boxing movie, so heads up: there are going to be a few black eyes. Rocky, being as vain as he is, wants to preserve his pretty-boy face, especially his nose, which makes every injury not just physically painful, but painful to his psyche too.
It all starts with Spider Rico, who headbutts Rocky, leaving a scar above his left eyebrow. Mickey acts like it's because Rico is a bum who fights dirty… but that's nothing compared to the beating both Rocky and Apollo take at the end of the film.
Broken nose? Check. Eyelid sliced open? Check. Blood, sweat, and tears? Check—well, we're not totally sure about the tears, because there's frankly so much blood and sweat that it's hard to make out any salty eye-water. It's gross.
And it's symbolic of our boy Rocky really going the distance. He's left vanity behind and we see him in true primal form, get whaled on and giving back as good as he gets. Gonna fly now… as soon as he recovers from his bashing.
The makeup was done by Mike Westmore, who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation. That's right: it takes someone who can transform humans into aliens to make Rocky look like he's getting the snot beat out of him.
Before Rocky became a blockbuster at the Cineplex, there was the Brockton Blockbuster—Rocky Marciano, the heavyweight champion from 1952 to 1956, when he retired undefeated. (Because why not go out in style?)
We talked about the religious imagery in Rocky, and Rocky is very spiritual, but his love for Rocky Marciano might rival his reverence for Mr. J.C. Rocky keeps a giant poster of Marciano in his apartment, and he looks to it for guidance, much as Rocky prays to God before his fight with Apollo.
Rocky gets festive with his poster, too, decorating Marciano's mug with a Santa beard at Christmastime—have we mentioned how adorable Rocky is? Rocky's adorable.
Basically, Marciano gives Balboa the gift of inspiration to be the greatest… and really rock (badoom ching!) his nickname.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Many 1970s films spend a long time establishing the world the character lives in, and Rocky is no different. He boxes. He roughs up people who owe money. He attempts to woo Adrian at the pet store. He feeds his turtles. By the time Rocky finally has a plot, we feel like we're living in Philly with him.
Being picked to fight the heavyweight champion of the world would be a nightmare for many people, but for Rocky it's a dream come true. He has always wanted an opportunity to prove himself, and Apollo gives him the shot he has always wanted.
When Jergens tells Rocky he has been selected to fight Apollo, Rocky refuses. Rocky's like a guy who believes anyone he wants to date is out of his league. Rocky doesn't want to date Apollo (although boxers do hug a lot), but he feels Apollo is in another league athletically. Rocky thinks he would be a disappointment as soon as he sets foot in the ring.
The mentor in this context would be Apollo. Apollo charms Rocky and gets him in front of the press to build up his confidence enough to fight him. The more publicity Rocky gets, the more he wants to succeed at the fight. Not for the fame, but simply to prove that he isn't a bum.
Rocky doesn't just want to fight Apollo; he wants to win Adrian's heart… and that might be even more nerve-wracking for him than boxing the champ. Crossing the threshold into Adrian's house, and asking her out on a date, almost turns Rocky into a nervous wreck. But he does it, and the two become inseparable.
Rocky's a bit of a loner. But Adrian supports him, and Paulie provides him with a warehouse full of raw meat to hit. (Yum.)
The physical training isn't that much of a test for the buff brawler. It's the emotional challenge that is much more difficult for Rocky. He'll have to proceed to the next step to conquer that obstacle.
Rocky confronts his biggest fear during the argument with Mickey in his apartment. During his outburst, Rocky reveals that he's afraid he'll always be a nobody. By acknowledging this, he's able to put aside his grudge against Mickey and team up with him to train for the big fight.
Rocky's intense training and diet regimen—getting up at 4 a.m. and drinking five raw eggs!—is quite an ordeal. But least he gets to do it to some of the best music in film history.
Rocky's reward is his own confidence and self-esteem. With the support of Adrian and Mickey (and to a lesser extent, Paulie), Rocky realizes that he doesn't even have to beat Apollo to feel like he's won. He needs to go the distance with the champ, and Rocky feels like he can do it.
Rocky begins and ends with a fight. But the finale fight is totally different from the dingy gym where Rocky fought Spider Rico at the beginning. Rocky may be basically the same person, but his surroundings are completely different. And—aww—he has Adrian by his side.
After being knocked down a few times, Rocky always gets back up, stronger and more determined than before. When he gets off the mat, he knows he can stay up and go the distance with Apollo… and he does.
Even though Rocky doesn't win the championship title, he doesn't care. He's won two things much more important for him—his own self-esteem, and Adrian's love. Rocky doesn't even listen to the verdict of the fight. He yells for Adrian who races into the ring and says she loves him. He loves her too.
Philadelphia is kind of an important city in U.S. history, what with the whole Declaration of Independence signing and the Liberty Bell and whatnot. (Cheesesteaks didn't come until later, although in our humble Shmoopinion the cheesesteak is as important as anything Ben Franklin dreamed up.)
So it was already on the map before Rocky, but Rocky made it a tourist destination for a new reason: to run up the stairs of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Now known as the Rocky steps, tourists can burn off hundreds of Philly cheesesteak calories in their dash to the stop, where you can now literally stand in Rocky's footsteps.
But what makes this scene so iconic? It's because Rocky is so dang inspirational, and a lot of that has to do with the setting. Rocky is struggling in Philadelphia. We don't see fancy locations. We see back alleys, rough neighborhoods, sweaty gyms, and raggedy apartments. When Rocky says, "It stinks in here, huh?" he is both saying that he needs Febreze, and saying that his life situation stinks. He loves his city, he just wants to live in better parts of it, like many people do.
Also, the time Rocky is set is just as critical as its location. We begin on November 25, and see three major holidays in Rocky—Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day 1976.
Although they never use the word "bicentennial," that's why 1976 is such a big deal for Apollo and his desire for a patriotic narrative. July 4, 1976 marked the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Declaration of Independence—another reason for having the big fight in Philly, and for Apollo to pick an opponent who calls the City of Brotherly Love home. (Apollo's patriotic duds make more sense when you realize the significance of the year, right?)
Rocky is about as straightforward of a story as you can get. We meet Rocky. We get a preview of his boxing abilities: he's sturdy, but sloppy. We follow him through the mean streets of Philly, and see how he's desperate to catch a break. Then the break comes, and we watch him train until the championship bout at the end of the movie.
Interspersed with the boxing story of Rocky is the love story of Rocky and Adrian… which follows the exact same path. Rocky is a sturdy, but sloppy man with a crush. He's desperate to catch a break with Adrian. The break comes, and, at the same moment he's finally "gone the distance" with Creed, Adrian confesses her love for him. D'aww.
Stallone is in almost every scene, except for a couple brief asides showing Apollo Creed planning the big fight. It's Rocky's story through and through: that's why his name's on the poster.
Rocky inspired dozens of boxing movies throughout the years, and we don't just mean the numerous sequels to the Rocky franchise. For every Rocky sequel there's a Raging Bull (1980), a Million Dollar Baby (2004), or a Girlfight (2000). And almost all of them follow the classic underdog-goes-for-a-knockout plot.
Rocky has a very traditional dramatic arc. We get the exposition, introducing Rocky as the Italian Stallion wondering if he should be put out to pasture. Rising action occurs after the turning point—Rocky is chosen to fight Apollo Creed. He trains, and the stakes are huge. Rocky doesn't care about the title, but his very self-worth is in jeopardy. If he doesn't go the distance with Creed, he might not go anywhere.
However, Rocky doesn't mess around much with the denouement or the resolution. The climax of the film is the bout with Apollo. It lasts about twelve minutes. As soon as the final bell rings, it only takes a couple minutes to announce the verdict of the fight and, most importantly, for Rocky and Adrian to declare their love for one another. Rocky has gone the distance, and that's all that matters.
And if you want to know more, you're in luck: there's a sequel… or six.
Rocky. He's the main character. He's the heavyweight challenger. He's the bum with a heart of gold. He's the Romeo to Adrian's Juliet.
And this film is all about Rocky's road (mmm: rocky road) to success. He really comes into himself; this film isn't just about Rocky being Rocky, it's about Rocky becoming Rocky.
There are two big fights at the climax of Rocky, but only one of them gets national publicity. Before Rocky brawls with Apollo for the heavyweight title, Adrian and Paulie battle each other for independence.
Let's deal with the second one first.
When Paulie comes home drunk, he lays into both Rocky and Adrian. Rocky stays out of it because he doesn't want to choose between his best friend and his girlfriend. But Adrian, who could barely string two words together at the beginning of the movie, stands up to her brother. "You made me feel like a loser!" she shouts. "I'm not a loser!" Adrian: 1. Paulie: 0. Someone give her a championship belt.
Because Rocky's practically family, he smoothes things over, letting Paulie advertise on his robe, giving him the break he wanted all along.
In the last twelve minutes of the movie, we finally get the big title fight we've all been waiting for. Like the argument between Paulie and Adrian (in which Adrian is the underdog who triumphs), Rocky also has the odds stacked in his favor. He has to do two things he would never do before—take advice, and take a risk that gets his nose broken. Rocky sacrifices his vanity and his stubbornness in his efforts to go the distance with Apollo.
The fight lasts fifteen rounds, and the movie's makeup effects show us how brutal the fight is. Each fighter gets bloodier and more swollen. Rocky's eyes have more purple around them than Ariana Grande's. The announcer even says, "They look like they've been in a war, these two."
Rocky doesn't care to win the war, though—he only cares about the battle. And he is determined to not surrender. Rocky's fighting with himself even more than he's fighting with Apollo. He needs to prove to himself that he can go the distance—a full fifteen rounds—without giving up.
Adrian doesn't watch. She stays in the locker room, but she comes out just as Rocky's knocked down in the final round. The camera shows her, as if Rocky knows he is there. Thinking of her gives him the strength to survive the fight.
Rocky doesn't win, but the verdict doesn't matter. When the ref announces Apollo's victory, his voice is almost lost in the hullaballoo. Adrian rushes the ring, and she and Rocky say "I love you" for the first time. The love is the prize that means more to Rocky than any gaudy title belt.
Rocky's a fairly tame movie, considering its protagonist is a burly Italian who hits people as a hobby. There's very little bad language, no sex (only one awkward makeout sesh), and the punches thrown in the boxing ring often look like fake movie punches instead of hard-hitting boxing jabs.
There is only one moment that might cause you to flinch—when Rocky's swollen eyelid is cut open with a razor so he can see. The blood is cartoonishly bright, but it is still a cringe-inducing scene, and actually removed from the movie in Rocky II, which uses the final six minutes of Rocky as its opening.