Ted McAllister, an intellectual historian in the School of Public Policy at Pepperdine University, is working on a book entitled The Paradox of Freedom: The Making of Modern America. Over at The Front Porch Republic, McAllister writes about how the character of Rocky Balboa, the title character of the movie that won the Academy Award in 1976, provided patriotic hope for ordinary people in a time of American crisis. Here is a taste:
In the same year that Americans were reflecting on the words of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and a host of lesser known figures from the Revolution, they were also casting about for more contemporary images and symbols of America’s distinctive purpose and identity. Perhaps no cultural expression better captured this inchoate sentiment than the unexpected success of the movie Rocky. This story of a struggling boxer in a decaying Philadelphia neighborhood presents an unsavory look at contemporary life in America. Rocky Balboa (ring name of “The Italian Stallion”) is a good natured, shy, and intellectually limited boxer who struggles to make ends meet in a depressed ethnic, blue-collar community. All around him are the signs of economic problems and a decaying social order, as Rocky walks down dirty streets populated with aimless youth. The tight-knit community is falling apart with increasing joblessness and crime–even Rocky must depend upon organized crime to help him survive.
By a twist of fate Rocky has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to fight for the title against the apparently undefeatable Apollo Creed (who was meant to remind the viewers of the great boxer Muhammed Ali), an image savvy, self-centered, and cynical black boxer. Told from the point of view of white, blue-collar ethnic Americans, the story exposed the frustrations with an America where patriotism had become passe, where hard working people with traditional values seemed to be left behind. In such depressing times Rocky represented an older America (one that many people thought was already gone) where hard work, decent living, and patriotism were widely practiced and approved.
While Creed had all of the advantages of the best trainers and the best equipment, Rocky worked out with primitive and makeshift equipment. The Italian Stallion, who represented the un-touted, obscure, hard working American, made no excuses—he only saw opportunity. While Rocky did not win the match, he made a very good show of himself, knocking down the champion several times and going the distance in a brutal match. For him and for his audience this was a major victory that reaffirmed all of the old values of loyalty, hard work, and individual initiative. It was a victory of the little guy against the established powers—yet unlike other movies that attacked the establishment this one affirmed a love of country and a set of values that many people associate with America.
Rocky became the big success story of 1976, winning at the box office and at the Academy Awards. Audiences could identify with the film as it at once gave expression to the frustrations and the ideals of many Americans—it pointed to what had gone wrong with the nation even as it pointed toward the ideals Americans invested in their nation. In 1976 many people yearned for a renewed sense of pride in the United States even as they had come to distrust their government and the many elites who, they believed, had brought it to ruin. In the coming years many Americans looked for leaders who understood their point of view, who could take America out of the hands of various elites, and who could project an image of a strong and prosperous America. This new populism made possible a political realignment that sundered the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics since 1936.