Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Rockying the Free World

This is my contribution to the "Politics and Movies Blog-a-Thon" that is being hosted from November 4th-November 9th. Please visit The Cooler for more contributions and information.

It is with a reasonable degree of trepidation that I chose Rocky IV for the "Politics and Movies Blog-a-Thon." This film continued the trend of the Rocky series hitting some ups and many downs after the classic 1976 original. The fourth installment was released in 1985, and I find it to be very enjoyable, although campy at times. This notion of camp, coupled with the general agreement that Rocky IV is the most ludicrous of the franchise, makes this choice worthy of justification. The last thing I wanted was for this analysis to come across like an ironic, hipsterish elevation to "great movie" status based on its far-fetched plot. Nor did I want to aim for a Mystery Science Theater joke-fest. To justify this, I'll begin by saying that Rocky IV attempts to highlight some very clear-cut politics, balancing representations of the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War. To help out, I read John Lewis Gaddis's book The Cold War to see if writer-director Sylvester Stallone was able to (intentionally or not) mirror on film the emotions and events of that conflict.

"By that time [1940], one historian has estimated, the Stalinist dictatorship had either ended or wrecked the lives of between 10 and 11 million Soviet citizens--all for the purpose of maintaining itself in power (Gaddis 99)." In the 1980s, while the Soviet Union had its problems, it had moved away from the serious megolomania of Josef Stalin. Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wanted to maintain Socialism without violence or force (257). In terms of the film, what better way to live vicariously than through Ivan Drago, the best amateur boxer ever to emerge from the USSR?

He's super-strong, his punches deliver 1,850 pounds of force, and he's ready to take on America's best fighters, with Rocky Balboa at the top of his (well, not his, but his handlers--they do most of the talking for him) list. Before, he settles for an exhibition match with former champion Apollo Creed. This does not go well. What starts off as an exhibition fight turns into a supreme beating, with Creed dying in the ring. In his way of getting revenge, Rocky decides to fight Drago, in Moscow, on Christmas Day, for no cash purse. Talk about American sacrifice. At the start of the film, we're treated to supreme American excess, starting with the Balboa family's robot:

And then James Brown leads a lavish gala before the Apollo Creed-Ivan Drago fight:

Once Rocky and his trainers arrive in Russia, he establishes some shots of the Soviet landscape, some bordering on stereotype, complete with snow and stone faces:

Let's go back a few scenes: During the press conference, a verbal argument erupts between Paulie (Rocky's brother-in-law) and Drago's Soviet publicist. Again, getting into stereotypes, Paulie represents the "ugly American," while the publicist does his best to maintain Drago's equality with the best American athletes, not for a second believing that Drago will lose the fight.

During this argument, Paulie says: "At least we don't keep our people behind a wall with machine guns." This is almost definitely a reference to the Berlin Wall, which, curiously, was not fully supported by the Soviet Union: "The wall dramatized the extent to which the Soviet Union had chained itself to a weak ally--who was able to use that weakness to get its way (138)."
The training sequences then turn into a sort of political mindfuck. In order to clear his head and focus on the fight, Rocky insists on living and training in the barren countryside with no luxuries, while Drago has the best science and technology as his disposal. In other words, Rocky, the great American hero, becomes a representation of Communism. He's living off the land, training by sawing logs and running in snow. In one sense, he's maintaining his Americanness by rolling up his sleeves and working up a sweat. However, he totally blends in with the peasants who live nearby.

In the above scene, he breaks away from Communism by outrunning his KGB bodyguards, who follow his every move.
As the fight begins, more metaphors become obvious. The size of Drago overwhelms the size of Rocky, but as we all know, America will prevail. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. Eventually, Rocky's determination wins over the Soviet crowd, who start to cheer for him instead of their beloved countryman:

With a the sinister Gorbachev look-a-like watching, Drago's publicist confronts the underachieving fighter, incensed that the crowd is cheering for America. This leads to the revelation that Drago does not fight for his country, but for himself. This is all good, however, because after Rocky's victory, even the Soviet Premier stands to applaud him. At this point in the film, the audience should breath a sight of relief. According to Ronald Reagan, "as long as Communists preach the supremacy of the state, declare its omnipotence over individual man, and predict its eventual domination of all peoples on Earth, they are the focus of evil in the modern world (224)."

Sure, there are some discrepancies that could be pointed out. For example, before the fight between Creed and Drago, Creed is wearing his boxing gloves. There's a single frame where he's not wearing his gloves, and then he has them back on again. Also, at the beginning of the film, a lot is made over the fact that the East and West have never met in sports. Um, really? In the case of Rocky IV, it's obvious, because Drago was an amateur before turning professional. Even if he didn't hail from an oppressive regime, it would have been impossible for him to fight professional American boxers. On top of that, American baseball teams played against Japanese teams in exhibition matches back in the early 1930s.

In conclusion, Stallone didn't really create a film with overt metaphors and allusions to Lenin and Stalin, but that wasn't his intention; the United States/Soviet relations provided an easy conflict to paint on the boxing ring. However, it should be considered a political movie for that reason. It caused me to research the Cold War, to learn more about it than I knew before, and therefore increased my political and historical knowledge. And, as Rocky says at the end: "If I can change, and you can change, then anybody can change."

Work Cited:

Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War. Copyright 2005 by John Lewis Gaddis.


Joshua said...

Rocky's sequels have always sort of had a 'to beat this opponent, I have to become this opponent' like in Rocky III with Clubber Lang and the eye of the tiger. That said, I prefer this one because, y'know, it's not overtly racist.

Good article, glad this didn't turn into hipster ironic quote unquote reviewing.

Jason Bellamy said...

Forgive the tangent, but I just love the robot. It really shows the influence of the "Star Wars" mania of the 80s. R2-D2 and C-3PO were so crafty that we figured household droids were just around the corner.

Now, all these years later, every robot that gets designed manages to come off like a dial-up human in a broadband age. Yeah, it can do stuff. Yeah, humans (especially Americans) are lazy. But you know what else? We're impatient!

Point is, go back to 1985: Which do you think will happen first ... human-like robots in the houses of the rich, or an African-American (a Democrat, no less) elected President?

See, I brought it back to politics...

Jonathan Pacheco said...

Rocky IV is easily my favorite of the series (Rocky Balboa was surprisingly good, and the first one is still the best, but I enjoy IV the most). The image of the comparatively tiny Stallone running around the ring with this gigantic Russian.

I think it's definitely reasonable to see this film as allegorical, or even from a propaganda-ish light. It's almost epic in scale, with the Russian powers and their gigantic banners....

But that's why I love it so much.

James Yates said...

Jesus, talk about a "J" festival here.

Joshua: Yeah, there's definitely something a bit racist about Clubber Lang. I haven't seen "Rocky III" in quite awhile, but there's definitely a vibe like that. He's basically Apollo Creed without the sense of humor.

Jason: I never put two and two together and realized how the robot craze from other films manifested itself in "Rocky IV." And like most people, I much prefer the idea of a black president in my lifetime than a creepy, sultry-voiced robot.

Jonathan: Thanks for the comments, and welcome. "Propaganda" is a word that I should have used in my reminded me that there's propoganda on both sides (the U.S. and Soviet sides) in the film, although the Soviet propaganda is more blatant, with the posters and national pride.

Bob Westal said...

I was actually in film school when "Rocky IV" came out but have never seen this for a number of reasons, including the fact that it sounded stupid and seemed to be endorsing a pretty obviously, and ridiculously Reaganite view of the Cold War (a very big issue with me -- and I'm still convinced Reagan took us to brink of the final disaster, before he got smart enough to stop listening to the neocons, the same folks who brought us Iraq, and take up Gorbachev on his offer).

Still, you hear things and see clips and moments and stuff over the year. But a god. If I ever knew that, I blocked it from my mind. A robot. Good God.

Of course, I live in a house with an iMac and a Roomba....

James Yates said...

Bob, thanks for the comment. Isn't a Roomba that wireless vacuum cleaner? (Shudder) Sorry, a few years ago I lived in an apartment with massive cockroaches, so the idea of something, even mechanical, sliding across the floor creeps me out.

In all seriousness, you were totally right about the "Reaganesque" view of the Cold War in "Rocky IV," and it's a concept I should have explored further. I found this quote from Reagan in "The Cold War:"

"There is sin and evil in the world [undoubtedly referring to Communism], and we're enjoined by Scripture and the Lord Jesus to oppose it with all our might (224)."

Too bad Stallone didn't include any religious references in the film; it could have expanded my essay. But thank you for calling it to my attention (without actually having seen it)!

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