Let’s Talk About… ‘Rocky’ (1976)

Film #34 in FilmExodus’ AFI 100 Movies

Every week FilmExodus does a review/analysis of a different cinematic masterpiece from AFI’s 100 Movies 2007 updated list. For a complete overview and how you can participate, click here.

Every actor has that one character that they are forever attached to. Arnold Schwarzenegger will forever be The Terminator, Bruce Willis will never stop being John McClane, and Robert Downey Jr. has become one with Tony Stark/Iron Man. However, if they are lucky, actors may strike gold twice with a character (looking at you Harrison Ford).  The same can be said for Sylvester Stallone. Rocky Balboa and John Rambo are two instantly recognizable characters that first debuted in 1976 and 1982. But there would be no John Rambo if Rocky Balboa had not managed to secure himself a cinematic victory six years earlier.

Pre-Rocky Thoughts

I was familiar with a handful of knowledge about the Rocky film series before I actually bothered to watch the first film. I knew “Eye of the Tiger” was the song of Rocky III (I actually thought it was from IV until I double checked), and that there was an iconic training montage that inspired countless parodies to come (more on that later). I knew that Rocky shouted “Yo Adrian,” but didn’t know why. I knew about as little as possible to uphold a casual conversation about Rocky. With this minimal knowledge I expected Rocky to be a straightforward underdog boxing story, but that isn’t what I watched. The film played against my expectations in a way that delighted and engaged me. The story wasn’t so much focused on boxing as it was on Rocky himself. More on that in a bit. First, let’s take a look at how Rocky made it to the big screen.


After watching the championship match between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner, Stallone wrote the screenplay for Rocky in three and a half days. Although, Stallone was motivated by the match he has denied that Wepner was any inspiration for the script. Despite this statement, there are parallels from the real life match to Rocky’s match, specifically the fact that nobody expected Chuck Wepner to last as long as he did in the fight (especially making it the the 15th round before a TKO’d). United Artists liked Stallone’s script and saw it as a potential vehicle for Robert Redford, Ryan O’Neal, Burt Reynolds, or James Caan. It is tough to imagine that Robert Redford or Burt Reynolds could have pulled off the same sort of energy that Stallone brought to the role.

According to commentary on the DVD release by director John G. Avildsen, the scenes where Rocky Balboa points out that the poster of his likeness got the color of his shorts backwards, as well as Rocky’s robe being two big were actual goofs by the production department. Due to this issues being noticed on the day of filming, Stallone wrote into the script dialogue to make it not look like goofs. Not only is this quick thinking on Stallone’s part, but it adds more depth to the character of Rocky Balboa.

Story & Characters

I expected Rocky to tell the story of an underdog boxer getting his shot at a world championship match against the reigning champion Apollo Creed. While that is a storyline that runs throughout the film, the heart of the story is the relationship between Rocky and Adrian. These two both have setbacks that are seen as disadvantages in our society. Rocky isn’t exactly the brightest fellow, but he has a kind heart. Meanwhile, Adrian is too shy and lacks self-confidence. However, when you put these two together they bring out the best in each other. Adrian begins to open up and find her inner and outer beauty, and Rocky starts to believe in the impossible. Their love is the crux of the story with boxing taking a secondary position. I rooted more for Adrian telling her brother off than I did when Rocky fought Apollo.

I mentioned this in my AFI for E.T., but, in my mind, a lot of the films of the 1970s and 80s are considered classics because they focused more on the characters than the plot. As long as the audience gets invested with the characters, the story can be as simple and straightforward as need be. A common complaint for any film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that the films follow a three-act cookie cutter approach. But audiences come for the characters that they have fallen in love with. I don’t care who Captain America or Iron Man is fighting, I just want to see these characters continue to grow and evolve. The audience is invested in the character, not the story.

Which is why when you break it down Rocky is a simple underdog tale. It’s not complicated. It’s straightforward and to the point. Rocky has a shot at fighting the world champion. Rocky has a shot at a romance. Rocky takes the shots. Rocky comes out on the other side a changed man. If I had a motto for Hollywood it would be to keep it simple. Invest not only in the story, but in the characters that will inhabit that story.

So, personally, I liked Rocky. It had almost a Taxi Driver atmosphere to it. The streets were worn and beaten, the colors are darker and muted. It paints a realistic picture of the environment Rocky grows up in. It feeds itself into the underdog genre. When Rocky climbs those steps and makes it to the top and cheers, color is in the sky. There’s a parallel somewhere in there about his training to the lifestyle he is working so hard to rise above. Plus, I’m sort of biased in that I enjoy a good on-location shoot. Old films didn’t use much CGI, if any, and looking back it adds a certain quality that works in their favor.

The Training Montage and “Gonna Fly Now”

I’d be a fool if I didn’t talk more in depth about this montage. In some ways it is almost more iconic than the film itself. Ask anyone to name something they know about Rocky and they’ll either say “Eye of the Tiger” or mention the training montage.

The training montage works for one reason: Bill Conti‘s “Gonna Fly Now“, the theme song for Rocky. It is hard to describe why this song works so damn well, but William Dhalgren explains it best:

No matter where I am or what I’m doing, the first few brass notes of “Gonna Fly Now” stop me dead in my tracks. Make me want to climb something, sprint up a flight of stairs. Punch the air! The song never fails to produce inside of me a need to expend energy. It’s the most recognizable piece of music on the record and arguably one of the most recognizable pieces of music ever written.

I’m listening to the song as I’m writing this and it does make you want to run up a flight of stairs and punch the air. I mentioned that a simple, straightforward story, and characters the audience can invest in are two important parts of a film’s success. However, having a killer song doesn’t hurt either.

This montage has been parodied in countless television shows, from The Simpsons to Family Guy to The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. However, as far as my childhood memory archives go, I believe The Proud Family introduced me to the Rocky training montage life.

Final Thoughts

Rocky is solid. It gave us the Italian Stallion, “Gonna Fly Now,” and a greater love for boxing films. It makes me think that I will be moving Raging Bull up a couple pegs on my Must-Watch list.

However, if I had to just list one problem, one little nitpick, it would be the fact that I couldn’t tell what was a landed punch of a successful dodge. The staging could have been the problem but as I’m thinking “Damn, Rocky had a close call there” I’m watching Rocky bleeding. That punch didn’t land! Now I am aware that the idea is to try and make the fighting look as realistic as possible, but couldn’t Carl Weathers and Stallone took a couple hits just for the sake of the film? Okay, nitpicking how everything looked like a successful dodge over.

If you haven’t seen Rocky, go watch it. Then read this AFI review. Then read William Dhalgren’s editorial, “Movies, Music, and Memory: Bill Conti’s ‘Rocky’ Soundtrack.”

Fun Facts/Trivia

  • The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Original Screenplay. It won three for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Film Editing. It was the first sports film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture.
  • In 2006, the United States National Film Registry selected the film for preservation.
  • Ranked #57 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), up 21 spots from the 1998 edition.
  • Rocky grossed $225 million on a budget of $1.1 million; a definite sleeper hit.
  • Roger Ebert called Sylvester Stallone a “young Marlon Brando” in his review of the film.
  • Rocky’s dog Butkus was actually Stallone’s dog.
  • Rocky’s monologue to Mickey (Burgess Meredith) after turning down Mickey’s offer to manage him was improvised on-set by Sylvester Stallone.
  • Talia Shire, who plays Adrian, is the aunt of Nicolas Cage. Yup, she’s part of that Coppola bloodline.

  • King Alvarez’s Evil Twin

    Great write up to a great movie. The sequels never quite capture this same feeling, but they are still pretty good. Except for V, that one never happened. Rocky Balboa, does come close to capturing the original vibe.

  • DryButSoupy

    I see what you mean. What you did works much better. It’s hard, as a writer, when you’ve got something you want to use…an idea, turn of phrase , or something like that but it doesn’t work within what you’re doing. I think that’s one thing that separates writers who know what they’re doing from people who write.

    You can always use the country coming together bit when you review “MIracle.” Watching that play out live on TV when I was a child is one of my first “sports memories.” Like the first shuttle launch and landing on the moon it was one of those “the whole country is watching” moments.

  • William Dhalgren

    First Blood is a totally different film from the others In much the same way that the other Rocky films are different from Rocky.

  • I got em all. Need to watch em.

  • Cap_N_Jack

    Classic film. My dad is from Philadelphia and new most of the neighborhoods the film depicted. He watched it religiously (along with the other lesser entries in the series) while I was growing up. You should see First Blood if you haven’t.

  • I cut out a part about a nation/country coming together around a cause like hockey or football or boxing. But I couldn’t really make it work. But that idea was on my mind in the draft stage.

  • DryButSoupy

    Great review, man! I really need to go back and see this again from start to finish. I’m excited to watch it again…and to listen to that soundtrack. That is one of the most iconic movie themes in film history..right up there with Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and the Godfather.

    I’m struck, upon reading this and reflecting, about how perfectly this movie defined its time. The US was famously in a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate spiritual recession as well as a literal one. Things weren’t good. It was like the hangover after the party of the sixties. This story is a picture of hope at a time that America needed it. Cold War. A year before Star Wars. Nixon, Ford, and Carter. “Malaise.” It’s optimistic…but I find it very interesting that the hero wins by losing. That right there speaks volumes about the country’s uncertainly about itself. Hell, that fight could be a metaphor for Vietnam or any number of other hits America had taken. If this movie was about boxing, Rocky would be considered a failure. But he wasn’t. This movie demonstrated the best of the American spirit..or at least what we like to believe about ourselves.

  • No comprende.

  • There are a couple sequels from the 80s so you never know.

  • Almost had that on the trivia but damn there’s a lot of good trivia about the making of the film.

  • Kemosabe 🦇

    Fantastic review. I love Rocky as well as the series of Rocky movies and consider Rocky Balboa one of the greatest characters ever conceived. The Rocky movies have heart, which is why I love them and why I’m emotionally invested in their characters more than perhaps any other films. Like how you said Rocky and Adrian bring out the best in each other, I think Rocky and these movies have a special ability to inspire and bring out the best in the people who watch these stories.

  • Kemosabe 🦇

    He should go through the rest of the series while he’s at it.

  • William Dhalgren

    Man, if you liked the pacing of this film and the way it allows its characters time to breathe and live on screen before rushing on to the next action beat, you should really check out more films from this era.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    What’s crazy is they almost didn’t shot the best scene in the film.
    The scene with Rocky and Adrian laying in bed and he tells her that he’s afraid had to be done in one take because they didn’t have time to shoot it.

  • Sailor Monsoon

    That’s not on the list

  • Thanks. I sought out your editorial as soon as I finished the movie.

    That actors known for their characters was really done bc I needed an intro that wasn’t going to repeat what I say in my pre-rocky part. I’m glad it worked.

  • William Dhalgren

    You didn’t disappoint, Duke. I was interested to see where you were going to go with the point about these actors being known for these characters, but it was a solid lede and engaged me right away.

    The best part of this review is how you define the crux of the film as the relationship between Rocky and Adrian and then implore Hollywood to focus on making films with interesting characters. You’re right: Rocky is less about boxing than it is about the lives of, what most people might consider, losers. If Rocky and Adrian lived in a rural part of the country, they’d be rednecks. They’d live in trailer houses. Stallone takes a knife down the middle of these two ordinary people, bares their souls, and says “There’s more to these people than the bland looks on their faces would betray.” And if Rocky and Adrian could be us, we can be them. And that’s an optimistic thought.

    Really well-done review, Duke. I enjoyed reading this one. And I am extremely flattered to have been quoted.

  • Who’s doing Seven Samurai? Or did I miss it?

  • Poppity⛄

    Great job, Duke! I don’t think Will is going to whip you too hard. 😉

    I was really nicely surprised after watching Rocky for the first time. They had a special theme of Rocky Saturday nights on TCM France and I kind of laughed it off as first because I both though the movies were too contemporary and that they would be garbage. At least I was wrong on the second aspect. (And how I do miss having cable service …) I don’t think that the sequels hold up the special feeling of the first. I will admit, though, that I kind of liked Rocky Balboa because it had some elements of the original. Plus, I liked that the character of Rocky stayed so down-to-earth and close to home.

    Thanks to Rocky, everytime I make a meatloaf and I’m mixing/patting it when the beef is still freezing cold, I think of that movie; in particular, the scene where Rocky is training on frozen cow carcasses in the butcher’s warehouse.

    I don’t doubt that Talia Shire would be first linked to that crazy Nic Coppola!!! Aaaarrrrgghhhh!!! I prefer to think of her as Jason Schwartzman’s mother. That is much higher compliment to give! 😛