Rocky – Hidden Romance

Thoughts On: Rocky (1976)

The lowly Italian Stallion is given an opportunity to fight the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, Apollo Creed.


There’s a common stereotypical idea that action/sports movies are dumb, violent and little more than ‘guy movies’. When you hear the fool’s luck synopsis of this underdog’s tale, it’d be easy to take this stance and dismiss Rocky and a stupid guy movie. But, as anyone who has seen Rocky could tell you, this film isn’t so dumb and it isn’t so simple. In fact, Rocky is waaaaaay up there as one of my favourite movies of all time. I have seen this film countless times over countless years and have never stopped loving it. From the spectacular use of the early Steadicam by its inventor, Garret Brown…

… to the superb soundtrack, impeccable performances and perfect writing, Rocky has this insatiable capacity to get under your skin and physically rouse you like very few other films can. But, how and why?

To answer these questions we must reconsider the kind of movie Rocky is and what exactly is a ‘guy movie’. In short, what I want to argue today is that Rocky is so powerful because it is, in essence, a romance.

To start, let’s confront the idea that these ‘kinds’ of movies are dumb. What people must mean to reference when they call movies like Rocky stupid is their basis in reality. This will combine with ideas of violence and/or aggression and so is a critique of the narrative as one with simple ends solved through simple means. In Rocky, the ending is a fight that has arbitrarily manifested – simple. Rocky must punch his way to victory after mere weeks of training – even simpler. This simplicity encapsulates all negative connotations you may attribute to a film like this. The bow and ribbon on the package is then the polarity given by the idea of a ‘guy movie’ as something opposed to a ‘girl movie’ (a.k.a ‘chick flick’). These two terms suggest both a difference and similarity. Whilst guy movies are violent, action-centric and loud, girl movies are soppy, romantic and mushy – but both are simple and tantamount to guilty pleasures. However, these two kinds of movies aren’t so dissimilar and certainly shouldn’t be dismissed so readily. To discuss why, let’s bring another film into the mix for a bit of comparison.

Pretty Woman is a great example of a ‘girl movie’. Like Rocky, it has a fantastical plot that sees a prostitute pulled off the streets and into the upper class. Instead of being about punching things, however, it is about love, connections and other sticky stuff. Both of these films, in my view, then fit into a wider genre of romancy.

This term is something of a combination of romance and fantasy (romantasy seems to have been taken by a corset company) and appeals to the definition of romance that connotes mystery, awe, optimism, idealisation and sentiment – not just love. Seeing how Rocky and Pretty Woman fit into this genre is easy; both are fantastical, unrealistic, implore themes of fate and are highly optimistic. In seeing this wider genre of romancy as one that is a combination of drama and fantasy, you can begin to recognise the power of these films once you split them into ‘guy’ and ‘girl’ movies. Girl movies appeal to the stereotypical needs, wants, desires and thoughts of women whilst guy movies appeal to those of men. This, despite what it may sound like, doesn’t necessarily create a divide between audiences though as the stereotypical impulses of men and women have their common purposes. This is exactly why women may enjoy guys’ movies and vice versa. For example, I think Pretty Woman is a great movie, moreover, some of my favourite films ever are Amélie, Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and Cinderella. The reason why I’d put Amélie next to Goodfellas or Sunrise next to Rocky is that they equally resonate with me because the themes and goals of these films are very similar.

Amélie is largely about freedom, eccentricity and adventure funnelled into finding someone to love.

Goodfellas is also about freedom – gained through… uhhhh… unconventional means – and adventure in quest of love and family. The end goal of both Amélie and Goodfellas is ultimately security on one’s own terms. Amélie, a quiet, undemanding girl who’s a little strange, doesn’t want to remain alone her whole life, but struggles overcoming her introversion. She stumbles into an ideal situation over the course of the narrative by simply being herself. Henry, impulsive, childish, rebellious, wants authority and a rule over a little piece of the world where no one can bother him and he can be himself. He finds this in the world of organised crime and briefly lives a great life he never stops loving. Without considering themes of hubris in Goodfellas, it becomes very clear that, like Amélie, this movie is about freedom and the ideal; romancy.

Sunrise is a film about an estranged couple coming together and essentially fighting for love and a better life together.

Rocky also holds this romantic imperative and the formation of a relationship. The only reason why we really care about Rocky winning his match against Apollo is because we want to see him become successful as a man and husband. The perfect symbolic image you can then pick from the entire Rocky series is then this:

As this image demonstrates, this movie is about a fight for family and love – just like Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans and every other romantic movie. In fact, you could even argue that Rocky is a purer romance than most ‘romantic’ movies as Rocky and Adrian never have any real conflicts. The only time they argue throughout this entire series is when Rocky wants to remain a man with pride who can be something to his wife and son and Adrian doesn’t want to see him hurt, or worse, dead. Does that not exude a purer idea of romance and love than cheating, sex, love triangles, drama and tears?

Coming back to wider idea of romancy, what I ultimately want to demonstrate is how many of the best guy and girl movies are simply about two people finding one another, coming together and fighting, through various means, to retain that. Ideas of gender, sexual preference or whatever are irrelevant in this respect. From Titanic to Die Hard to Brokeback Mountain to Die Hard to Love Actually to Star Wars to Mean Girls to Lethal Weapon, all these movies are about people coming together. Having explored this paradigm, all we’re left to ask is why this matters, and so, why this paradigm exists.

The answer lies in the simple idea of purpose. Rocky would be a dumb and stupid movie if it was 10 minutes long and was only about a poor guy being given a title shot. Without context and characterisation, any movie is dumb. But, when we’re shown that Rocky wants that title so he can be fulfilled as a person who defines himself as a fighter – all so he can provide for his love – we understand that this kind of movie is about existential achievement. What this genre of romancy reflects is then an audience’s need for wish fulfillment. When an audience sees themselves in Vivian Ward from Pretty Woman or Rocky, they are emotional relating to an underdog being given a chance to transcend shame, embarrassment and emptiness for pride and power. So, that ultimate weighted feeling in your chest when you see the climax of romancy movies is a combination of relief, happiness and that scene from Cool Runnings; “I see pride! I see power! I see a bad-ass mother who don’t take no crap off nobody!”.

To put this to rest, I’ll end by saying that this is a very simple idea and observation, but certainly one that is readily overlooked by many. Retaining a perspective on exactly why mainstream films with target audiences are so impactful allows you to see the best of them as more complex or intricate than stereotype would have you see. Moreover, recognising the hidden romance in genre films often gives you better incite into yourself; romancy movies a mirror to yourself as something of a fractured and anxious dreamer. On a last note, I’ll turn to you and ask what movies you see in this light…

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