• What The Movie ROCKY Got Right About America And Why We Need “America The Underdog” Today

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    Today’s is America’s 248th birthday. In two years, Americans will have the opportunity to celebrate the nation’s 250th birthday. The year 2026 will also be the 50th anniversary of ROCKY, the Academy Award-winning boxing film that topped the box office in 1976, the year of America’s 200th birthday or bicentennial.

    Earlier this year, my family visited Valley Forge outside of Philadelphia. We took the opportunity to watch ROCKY, which was filmed in Philly, with our teenage sons in our hotel room. This was the first time I’d seen the film as an adult and also as an author. I discovered that the movie got a lot right about America. What ROCKY got right in 1976 matters today, especially as we approach the 2024 presidential election followed by our 250th birthday.

    Image result for wiki media rocky
    Screenshot, "Rocky"

    Wanting to revive old-time films where morality was at the forefront, Sylvester Stallone not only starred in ROCKY, but he also wrote the screenplay.

    “I felt at the time that cinema, at least the movies I’d been seeing, were at an all-time low,” Stallone explained in an interview in the 1970s. “Everything was anti-society, anti-Christ, anti-government, anti-everything and there was no one to root for.”

    “I felt at the time that cinema, at least the movies I’d been seeing, were at an all-time low,” Stallone explained in an interview in the 1970s. “Everything was anti-society, anti-Christ, anti-government, anti-everything and there was no one to root for.”

    With the opening shot featuring a picture of Jesus above a boxing ring, ROCKY showcased three underdogs. First, Rocky Balboa was an underdog boxer. He was an unknown who’d slacked on his training. As the film escalated to his fight against boxing champion Apollo Creed, broadcasters described Rocky as a “50 to 1 underdog living a Cinderella story.” Yet, Rocky showed that he could go the distance. After 15 brutal rounds, he was still standing but the judges gave the match to Creed. This led Creed to later quip in ROCKY 2: “Man I won, but I didn’t beat him.”

    Second, as an unknown actor and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone was also an underdog who rose to stardom overnight. Winning for best picture, ROCKY was nominated for ten Oscars, with the rookie Stallone garnering nominations for best actor and screenplay.

    Sylvester Stallone, Public Domain.

    Stallone recently reflected on his underdog years in THE FAMILY STALLONE, a reality TV show about him, his wife and their three grown daughters.

    “I have a really strong affiliation with Philadelphia because that’s where I really learned about life in general. I got a job along the docks. I worked alongside steveadores and drove forklifts and really learned about Philadelphia the hard way. That one year set the tone. If I had never done that, I never would have written ROCKY because that’s what came from those streets,” Stallone said.

    His family also visited the iconic steps of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art, which Stallone made famous in the movie’s training sequence. Visitors daily mimic Rocky’s daunting dash to the top of the steps. This year, a week before Independence Day 2024, hundreds gathered on the art museum’s steps to watch an outdoor viewing of the first ROCKY movie.

    “I first saw the steps when I was 11 years old, and I’d never seen anything like that. So, when I had the chance to do the ROCKY film, I thought, where can I exemplify a transitional moment where a man fails and then he succeeds? I feel that way today. When I walk up those steps, I feel like I can do anything, I don’t know why. It’s magical to me,” Stallone said.

    He also spoke about ROCKY’s core message. “It’s not how hard you hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward. How much you can take and keep moving? That’s how winning is done.”

    Third, ROCKY conveyed America as an underdog. “Rocky, do you believe that America is the land of opportunity? Apollo Creed does,” George Jergens, Creed’s promoter, asserted in the first film. Creed also shared a similar message.

    “Just being in Philadelphia makes me feel patriotic.... I am proud to be an American,” Creed declared. At the start of his match with Rocky, Creed dressed like George Washington and rode into the boxing ring on a float mimicking a painting of Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware River. The boxing ring’s blue floor reflected the nation’s first flag by depicting 13 white stars representing the first 13 states. The movie conveyed the nation’s patriotism in 1976. It also accurately interpreted American history.

    When a reporter asked why Apollo Creed had agreed to fight a man with virtually no chance of winning, Creed replied: “If history proves one thing, American history proves that everybody’s got a chance to win. Didn’t any of you guys ever hear of Valley Forge or Bunker Hill?”

    Viewing America as a land of opportunity and also an underdog is what ROCKY got right about American history. In a sense, ROCKY was a metaphor for America’s founding. Though America is a superpower today, when Continental Army soldiers fought at Bunker Hill in 1775 and drilled at Valley Forge in 1778, the USA was the underdog. Britain was the superpower. Today, it’s hard not to picture America as anything but a superpower. But, when the Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, and Washington trained his troops at Valley Forge, America was the quintessential underdog.

    George Washington himself was also an underdog. He didn’t have the most military experience among America’s available officers. He wasn’t a great leader because he racked up victories. Rather, Washington won the Revolutionary War because, like Rocky, he went the distance. He kept his army intact, even if that meant retreating more often than attacking. He carefully chose the best moments to attack.

    Washington’s strategy led to America winning freedom from England in 1781 at Yorktown, Virginia, where the last major battle of the American Revolution took place. The peace treaty was signed two years later.

    “The disadvantageous circumstances on our part, under which the war was undertaken, can never be forgotten,” Washington reflected in 1783 on the end of the war. He credited the “interpositions of Providence” and the “unparalleled perseverance of the armies of the United States, through almost every possible suffering and discouragement, for the space of eight long years,” for America’s success, which “was little short of a standing miracle.”

    ROCKY got something else right about America: race relations. “Is it a coincidence that you are fighting a white man on the most celebrated day in the country’s history?” a reporter asked Apollo Creed, who referred to America’s 200th birthday in 1976.

    “Is it a coincidence that he’s fighting a black man on the most celebrated day in the country’s history?” Creed replied.

    After that, race was off the table in the movie. The match was between two men of equal value to God but with different strengths and weaknesses. Americans could learn from this attitude right now as well.

    In this election year, America needs to go the distance today. Similar to 1976, inflation is everywhere, especially in food and energy costs. The border is overrun. Congress overspends. Wars rage in Ukraine and Israel. Pro-Hamas protestors fill college campuses. Does America have the stamina to become the land of opportunity again? One grandfather recently hoped so.

    “The American dream is like a ROCKY movie where he’s on the ropes and he’s been beaten up pretty bad,” a grandfather told Fox News digital on April 4, 2024. “But in most Rocky movies he gets up and comes back and wins in the end. I’m hoping that is the case.”

    Today, July 4, 2024, it’s good to remember that America started as the underdog, not a superpower. This is an accurate and healthy perspective on our nation’s history.

    Happy Independence Day 2024!

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    Jane Hampton Cook

    Jane Hampton Cook is a presidential historian, former White House staffer and author of 10 books, including Stories of Faith and Courage from the Revolutionary War. Janecook.com.

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