Rocky, written by Sylvester Stallone and directed by John Avildsen, is a classic American film and screenplay. It has become the template for so many sports films and what have come to be known as “underdog” stories.
I would say the most prevalent movie theme of the past decade has been taken directly from the underdog story: the idea of becoming.
- Becoming the winner that we know we can be.
- Unleashing the champion that lies in all of us.
- Defying the odds and showing our enemies that we can do it.
This theme pervades hundreds of films in all genres.
It’s an incredibly reassuring thought to know that we can achieve our dreams. So when we see a character that reminds us of us, with their many flaws, hardships and personal setbacks all put on display, we root for them.
I mean, come on: you gotta root for Rocky.
Rocky Balboa’s arc is pretty much the definition of an underdog. The entire first half of the film shows Rocky being a loser. He gets dumped on non-stop until he gets the offer to fight the Heavyweight Champion of the World (at the Midpoint), then he still has to overcome obstacles just to prepare for the fight — and once in the ring, he gets the crap beaten out of him with only the goal of lasting fifteen rounds!
He doesn’t even show any true fighting spirit until he pounds the raw beef in the meat house at minute 76, his Declaration of War/Assumption of Power moment.
But even with everything going against him, he almost wins. He’s got Apollo Creed on the ropes and he’s readying the knockout blow when the bell rings.
And that’s the true genius of the film. He doesn’t win the fight. He almost wins. So why does it work?
Because it’s a love story.
He wins the love that he never had.
Rocky is not really a “sports movie” — not because that term hadn’t been coined yet in 1976 — but because it’s more about the love between Rocky and Adrian then it is about boxing.
It’s about TWO underdogs finding one another.
My favorite scene in Rocky is not a fight scene — it’s when Rocky takes Adrian to the ice rink for their first date on Thanksgiving. I believe it contains one of the most beautiful “connection” (kismet) moments in film history and it’s not even dwelled upon in the scene…
ROCKY My father told me I better learn to box because I had a body and no brain.
ADRIAN My mother told me I didn't have a body so I better develop my brain.
Opposites attract, I guess.
Or, at least, they make for great drama.
I encourage you to watch the film again (instant streaming available on Netflix), look at the first half of my Rocky Story Map and consider purchasing my book, Story Maps: How to Write the GREAT Screenplay, which includes the full map.
Good luck and Happy Writing!