Rocky is one of the most iconic sports films of all time. A sleeper hit, it became the highest grossing film of 1976 and won the Oscar for Best film, as well as a writing Oscar for star Sylvester Stallone at the 49th Annual Academy Awards. It has spawned numerous sequels, all starring Stallone and is arguably the most recognisable sports film franchise of all time. Loosely based on a combination of real boxing stars careers, like Rocky Marciano, Chuck Wepner and Joe Frazier Rocky is the rags to riches story of a down-and-out boxer who unexpectedly gets a shot at the World title.
Rocky Balboa (Stallone) is an amateur boxer who earns small fees to fight in back-alley matches while supplementing this income by working as hired muscle for a local crime boss. After the number one contender to the World title is injured, champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers) opts to allow a local Philadelphia fighter to step up and earn a payday in a glorified exhibition match. He chooses Rocky because of his nickname ‘The Italian Stallion.’ While trying to come to terms with his new-found fame, Rocky develops a relationship with a shy pet shop worker Adrian (Talia Shire) and finds that his old coach Micky (Burgess Meredith) wants back in his life to help him train for the fight. Nobody gives him a chance of getting past the third round, but Rocky has other ideas.
From the opening bars the now famous musical score everything about Rocky‘s production is aimed at showing the gritty urban realism of the main characters life all the way up to the fantastical final fight between Rocky and Apollo. The actual boxing scenes may lack credibility as neither man defends himself at any point, but this just adds to the diverse split between realism and fantasy in the narrative and increases the dramatic power of the final act.
Originally the script was a great deal more raw and unpolished with Micky’s character being racist and there being hints toward domestic abuse in Adrian’s house. It also suggested that Rocky throw the final fight as a way of distancing himself from the boxing world after experience the pressures of media fame. However with a small budget and limited scope for creative freedom these aspects were changed to make it more accesible for the average cinema audience. Made for just over $1m, there were also changes made to the script to deal with the financial pressures such as the ice-rink scene being moved to after hours to avoid having to pay hundreds of extras, while the short scene where Rocky points out that his poster has him wearing the wrong coloured shorts arose because of a mistake in the art department that they could not afford to rectify.
So successful was the film upon release that its sequels all built themselves on an almost identical story structure and its influence in other sports films like Warrior are clear for all to see. Thus Rocky‘s place in cinematic history is assured with an Oscar win and the establishment of Stallone as a major star it was transcended it’s down-and-dirty origin to become an almost folklore narrative and forms the basis of the majority of future boxing and sports films.