I have managed to live in Philadelphia for ten years now without ever having seen a Rocky movie. If you don’t live in Philly, you might not understand that I kind of had to hide this fact. I’ve picked up enough of the lore to get by, so I did understand the basic structure of the first film and knew that Rocky was a fictional local boy who’d made good. But when I viewed the film I was surprised by it’s darkness and complexity. I now understand better why Rocky is so important to Philadelphia, why there’s a Rocky statue outside of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and how Rocky’s story fits into American history.
In class on Tuesday we discussed the moment that Rocky takes place in and the cultural landscape at the time that the film premiered. 1975 was a dark year in America. There was the political shame of Watergate, the military failure of Vietnam, and the first serious recession since the Great Depression to contend with. This context underpins the entire narrative of of the film. Rocky Balboa is a man with good intentions. He believes in himself enough to try hard and then fail. I think that this was a very comforting message for Americans in the late 1970s.
Before the failures of the 1960s and 70s, I think that America was a more results-oriented nation. When my mother would bring home an A- from school in the early 60s, my grandparents would tell her to get an A next time. Effort was never a question, it was just a given. This is an easy attitude to have when you are consistently successful, but a much more difficult one to pull off when you have failed a few times in a row.
I do think that we have recovered from this malaise. America feels on top, but lots of Americans are worried about losing that position in the world. I think this paranoia stems from the events of the 1970s, the same ones that affected the tone of Rocky’s tale, and the outcome of his fight with Apollo Creed. Rocky simply wouldn’t be an icon if he weren’t an underdog who knew how to lose with grace. Because we as a nation needed to learn how to do that. And still probably do.
The Rocky Statue which stands outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art