I’ll tell you in one word why I have never watched Rocky: Ronald Reagan. Sure, the film came out in 1976, before he reached the White House, likewise Rocky II. But he was US president in 1982, when Rocky III appeared, Eye of the Tiger was in the charts and Sylvester Stallone also starred in First Blood. Reagan was still president in 1985, the year I finished university – rolling up forever my poster of him and Margaret Thatcher in a Gone with the Wind embrace with an atom bomb – and another Stallone double-punch of Rocky IV and Rambo: First Blood Part II hit the screens in a blaze of commie-bashing glory. That was what did it.
Maybe, more accurately, it was Rambo that stopped me watching Rocky. But I blame President Reagan for Rambo. He began office invoking a vigorous America armed with the weapon of freedom. The movie industry interpreted his vision by arming itself with jingoism. Let’s call it Hollywood’s Red Dawn.
I wasn’t some out-of-touch pinko lefty. No. I had surfed Thatcher’s economic revolution: my student house had a rented video recorder. We watched Escape to Victory, the patriotic tale of a simple goalkeeper (Stallone) who defeats the Nazis with cunning, Bobby Moore and Pelé. We searched the video shop for his other sporting picture, which he wrote and starred in, about an underdog boxer from Philadelphia who unexpectedly gets a shot at the world title. But it was out that day, so we rented First Blood instead, in which a troubled Vietnam vet and his hunting knife defiantly resist bent, rule-breaking lawmen in a forest. It was impressively watchable.
That summer, however, a cinema trailer came out for its sequel, Rambo – with the vet back in the Vietnamese jungle, blasting the People’s Army to hell with a helicopter gunship. There had, I couldn’t help but notice, been a tonal shift.
By the time the Rocky IV trailer appeared soon after, with its stars-and-stripes shorts and Drago the cartoon doped-up Soviet villain, I felt the die was cast. Stallone’s canon was no longer for me – as if I had fallen on the wrong side of a cultural divide (not unlike Brexiters and Remoaners in 2019) – and Rocky’s back story got slung out along with it.
Ding, ding. Round two. My teenage sons wanted to see Creed, and I caved because The Wire had given me a soft spot for Michael B Jordan. It barrelled along with verve, Stallone punched his weight (also, big up Tony Bellew), but I got the distinct feeling I was watching an old story being rehashed – what cinema psychologists call “Star Wars trilogy syndrome”. I began to feel it was time to settle my score with the original. Lockdown made it happen. I have a Philadelphian friend in the next street. By state law, he is required to own a complete six-film box set of the Rocky saga. I offered to be neighbourly and save him from having to watch it all again. We arranged a safe-distance handover on his doorstep – and I threw my arms in the air.
Of course I did. It’s the most famous scene from the movie, the journeyman boxer’s mazy training run – set to a stirring theme – that ends on the steps of the art museum imagining being crowned champion. Tourists, spoofers and comics copy it every week (Rob Brydon did it in The Trip to Greece just the other day). I’d seen it replayed a thousand times. But I wasn’t expecting the film that was wrapped around it.
Rocky’s America is bleak – kitchen-sink drama bleak. He lives in a grimy brown apartment, with just a tankful of turtles, a hi-fi and a colander for company. Outdoors, it’s all trains, postindustrial wastelands and biting cold. The only warmth to be found is at the pet shop, where there are cute puppies and a shy assistant he nurses a passion for.
It also comes across as real: working-class lives with small horizons, harsh words and dead-end jobs at the meatpacking factory. It has heart: the boxing promoter who sets up Rocky’s title fight, when a contender drops out, does so with good grace not cynicism; the loan shark Rocky works for gives him cash to spend on training without demanding a return. The fight, when it comes, fills Rocky with self-doubt – and the outcome is not a sugary victory but a personal triumph. He goes the distance, proves something to himself, and wins the girl. Good on you, Italian Stallion.
I’m not surprised it won a sentimental Academy Award. Even though it’s hard and grubby, it’s a more heartening vision of America than the ones on show in its best picture Oscar rivals, Network and All the President’s Men (or, indeed, Carrie and Taxi Driver, which tussled for prizes that year, too). I’m not surprised, either, that Americans ended up demanding a more colourful future.
Since I had the box set … I watched Rocky IV as well. It is truly terrible. In a world no longer just brown and grey, Rocky’s house is a Greek-columned mansion with a Lamborghini on the drive, a robot butler and an immigrant housekeeper to manage the colanders. He wears Hugo Boss sweatshirts. The story unfolds in one synthpop-video montage after another. And, of course, he beats the commie who’s nine feet taller than him and could knock a rhino out cold, because Rocky is an American filled with the power of freedom.
One last thing: in the fascinating official list of films Ronald and Nancy Reagan watched during his office on their weekly movie nights, Rambo does not appear. They watched Rocky III, though, and Rocky IV (followed the night after by Hannah and Her Sisters). In a divided world, even hyper-nationalists need some light relief.