Going the Distance

Rocky is a 1976 feature sports-drama directed by John Avildsen, and written by and starring Sylvester Stallone. It was shot for less than a million dollars at the time, and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards,winning three, including Best Picture, and cementing Stallone as a major film star. It is considered an American classic, has spawned seven sequels, inspired countless similar films, and stands as an iconic American 'Rags to Riches' tale. And it almost didn't happen. Stallone was at the time an unknown actor, having a difficult time breaking into the industry, to the point of performing in a pornographic film and selling his beloved dog, just to pay the bills. Despite having a great script in Rocky, distribution companies resisted Stallone's desire to portray the lead role in his own film, to the point of legal action being filed. Casting the film was difficult on account of the modest budget, injuries occurred on set, and numerous production gaffs were made, including a costume and poster error where Rocky is portrayed wearing the wrong color shorts, leading Stallone to quickly rewrite the dialogue to quip that, “It doesn't really matter does it?”, which is amusing both internarratively and metanarratively. Stallone's personal and professional troubles are mirrored in the film by the character of Rocky, which he was finally allowed to portray by the studios. Rocky Balboa is a nobody. He is on the wrong side of thirty, seemingly ill-educated, and in order to make ends meet, he is forced to engage in fixed boxing matches where he is paid to lose, while also serving as a leg-breaker for a local gangster. He lives in squalor, is a laughing stock in his community, and it's likely that if he died on the street, no one would really notice. In short, Rocky has problems. But Rocky also has dreams. He dreams of being a true professional boxer. He truly loves it. In spite of all of his past failures, in spite of the deck being stacked against him, Rocky persists in chasing his dream. He seeks out allies, he tears himself down, and builds himself back up, into something new and powerful. He fights, and he wins. Through his grit, he earns the love and respect of his friends and community. And then, it happens: he gets a lucky break, a chance at the Title. The big time. Here's a little thing about 'lucky breaks': we have no control over them. You've probably heard the old adage, “Luck = Preperation + Opportunity”. The fact is, that if Rocky had given up earlier, if he had listened to all of the nay-sayers, if he had resigned himself to the life of a petty thug and taken falls until his body finally gave out on him; he would never have had the chance to prove himself. “You miss 100% of every shot you don't take”, the old timers say. So now, Rocky's in deep. The odds don't look good. His opponent is a Grade A, world-class, engine of destruction. A blood-drenched, fire-breathing, wrought-iron god of the arena. His fists are packed with dynamite, his wrath is cataclysmic. Now, Rocky has to actually do the thing that he's been dreaming of his entire life. His fear is palpable. Yet he dares. He knows that he can't win, and no one expects him to. He also knows that if he backs down now, then it's all been meaningless. It would be just another thrown fight. He may as well end it. As Shakespeare wrote, “Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once.” At last, Rocky understands that he doesn't have to win. He simply has to refuse to be defeated. He has to look his enemy, the harbinger of all of his doubts and fears, look him in the eye and refuse to blink. Rocky has to go the distance. Spotlights flare like gouts of lighting. The crowd roars like a relentless crashing tide. The bell tolls, and the moment of truth has come. Fists crack like thunder, and blood falls like rain, as the two titans shatter each other's bodies into gore-blasted fragments. Heaven meets Earth, and niether can yield. At last, the bell tolls yields its final cry. The war is over, and a tally is made. Rocky has lost the match on technicality. It is a split-decision, and unfortunately for Rocky, that means that the Champion gets to keep his belt. But that isn't the point. The Iron God has been humbled by a mere mortal man, and everyone, especially the Champion, knows it. Rocky knows it too. Battered by a thousand deadly blows, blinded by his own blood streaming into his eyes, he heaved his aching frame from the floor everytime, refusing to lay down and die. The cameras flash like stars, men in clean suits with silver microphones beg to know “what was it like?” Rocky's friends stream to him from the sidelines; he finds them amidst the flaring lights and the deafening cacophony of the crowd cheering his name. But more than all of that: Rocky Balboa, the nobody, the man no one believed in, has at last found his true self. We could all learn a lot from Rocky. As artists, we live in an often unfair and demanding world, constantly torn between the struggle of creating quality work, and attempting to simply make ends meet. There are always detractors who mock our attempts at making something beautiful, or wellintentioned friends who nevertheless cast a pitiable glance our way when we talk about our newest project. There are false persons who prey on our trust, seeking to help themselves while pretending to help us. There is always the unwelcome question in the back of our minds that asks, “Why not just give up?” It's a very seductive thought: to give in, give up, roll over; to take the easy exit from our tribulations. Quite simply, that can never satisfy us. Fleeing from our fears only plants the seeds of resentment and self-loathing. It is only when we deny the neigh-sayers, bear the blows, and face down our own Iron Gods, that we may finally get that lucky break that we've prepared so long for. On that day of judgement, after the smoke has cleared, and blood pools on the floor of our own personal arenas; when we've shown the world the measure of ourselves, and we raise our hands to the sky to roar our victory shout; on that day, like Rocky, it will all be because we dared to go the distance.