There is danger in reading too much into popular entertainment, particularly into a film that was obviously thrown together to extend Sylvester Stallone’s string of money-making movies. The Wall Street Journal may be correct in saying that this latest blockbuster is mostly a tiresome rehash of its predecessors. All of them, including this one, roll on, through slovenly dialogue, to a climactic bloody contest between Rocky and a predestined opponent. In a formula that goes back to The Odyssey, the good guy wins (or nearly wins in Rocky I) only after enduring a savage beating. In Rocky IV Stallone predictably moves toward the fated struggle with a Soviet giant who has been pumped with steroids.
There are a few changes, however. Rocky and Adrian have definitely moved up in the social scale. The Adrian of Rocky IV is not only eight years older, but better poised and more verbal than the one in Rocky I. According to my eldest daughter, Rocky and his wife look less “klutzy” in their suburban mansion than they did in the tenements of North Philadelphia. Wealth obviously suits them, even though it has not helped Rocky’s diction.
Although my major reason for seeing the movie was to relieve my wife’s headache by taking the children out, two unexpectedly strong scenes caught my attention. One takes place in a Las Vegas hotel, just before the Russian boxer fights an exhibition bout in which he kills Apollo Creed. The hotel auditorium teems with highlivers, garishly dressed and waving American flags. It is the world of hedonistic, degenerate capitalism that is depicted here. The American boxer enters the ring mockingly self-confident and dressed in red, white, and blue but woefully unprepared for his fight.
The auditorium in Moscow where Rocky later fights is strikingly different. The plainly dressed spectators look severe; all around loom the obligatory pictures of Marx and Lenin and large red stars. To emphasize the nationalist message, Stallone places the entire Presidium among the spectators and shows Gorbachev responding to the action in the ring.
But these touches seem less significant than the effect of having a towering poster of the Soviet boxer unrolled above the crowd. Gazes become instantly riveted, and the spectators cheer wildly. Looking at the poster and the elated spectators singing the Soviet anthem, the moviegoer can feel something of the power of the Marxist- Leninist view of reality. I doubt that Stallone grasped the full import of this. In fact, he moved quickly beyond that key scene to the dreary fight and to a tasteless speech by Rocky at the end of his match about Americans and Russians both “having to change.”
Yet, for one moment Stallone succeeded in portraying the awesome emptiness of the Marxist vision: the worship of brute matter without spiritual content. The poster of the massive human hulk is not a clumsy or failed approximation of classical art. Nor is it the Soviet counterpart of American commercial drawing. It is a vivid statement of an entire belief system that goes back to the attempt of the young Marx to revive the ancient materialist philosophy of Epicurus. Marx’s war against the “fraud” of religious belief has produced a far more bizarre mythology than anything which he attacked in the ancient or Christian world: the artistically sterile, dehumanizing myth of matter and physical energy triumphant over spirit. This myth finds appropriate expression in the glorified depiction of farm tractors and of scientifically trained athletes—just as Michelangelo expressed his Christian Platonism through his sculpted biblical and pagan heroes. Unlike Michelangelo, however, who spoke of “freeing” the divinely given form trapped in stone, the Soviet state teaches the sole reality of the material.
It may be significant that Rocky’s Black trainer wears a cross when he goes to the Soviet Union. Rocky himself kneels in prayer before he begins his fight against the robot-like Soviet boxer. Although Stallone is not telling us of any voice proclaiming “In this sign you will conquer,” he is dropping a hint. The life of upscale capitalism may not be enough to ensure our survival as a culture or world power. Something more may be needed, as T.S. Eliot reminded us, to shore up against the ruins.
[Rocky IV; Written and directed by Sylvester Stallone; United Artists]