While it is easy to appreciate sports for the exhilarating plays, breathtaking display of athleticism, and the thrill of victory, sports represent more than touchdowns or home runs, more than victories or losses, and more than individual or collective athletes. Some of the most profound lessons and meaningful anecdotes are communicated and understood through sports.
Recognizing this oft-overlooked fact, artists, using fact and fiction, have transmitted powerful, awe-inspiring stories to us through film and other means. In the recent film, 42, for instance, we’re reminded that the story of Jackie Robinson transcends athletic achievement; he courageously integrated blacks into professional baseball and, through is athletic achievements, helped heal a nation torn with racial strife.
Similarly, the fictional story told in the film, Rocky IV, is more than an inspiring underdog story. Beyond unfolding the heroics of the boxer and American heavyweight champion, Rocky Balboa, the story highlights the complexities of the grueling Cold War and the possibility of a nearly forgotten peace.
By the mid 1980s, decades into the infamous Cold War, the United States and the former Soviet Union had been embroiled in years of distrust, competition, and indirect armed conflict. Many significant and traumatic events involving these two superpowers had already begun or taken place under the guise of the Cold War, including the Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. In other words, by the mid 1980s, many people from around the world had been killed and countless others devastated by events stemming from the Cold War. Beyond fighting and threats of violence, competition between the United States and Soviet Union had taken place at many levels and in many arenas. Between these two countries, there was seemingly endless and undeniable suspicion, fear, and hatred. It’s no wonder that by the 1980s Americans had developed a renewed resolve to oppose the Soviet Union’s “evil empire.”
Within this context, Rocky IV was created in the year 1985. Creating in the mind of the viewer an intense level of emotion, the film parallels the historic tension of the Cold War. More importantly, the film communicates the powerful message that despite two countries’ long history of rivalry and hatred, everyone can change.
The fictional story of Rocky IV does an excellent job of conveying the significant cultural competition and mutual hostilities that had developed between the Americans and the Soviets during the Cold War. Soon after the film begins, the Soviet Union announces its entry into the international boxing world. The country’s most famous and fearsome boxer, Ivan Drago, would soon compete on an American stage. Eager to assert American superiority in the realm of boxing, the United States’ slugger, Apollo Creed, readily challenges the Russian. More than a renowned boxer, Creed was a friend and manager to the famous boxer, Rocky Balboa.
As the movie progresses, the sense of cultural competition between the warring countries also increases. In doing so, the producer cleverly conveys that throughout the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had been perpetrators and that both sides possessed undesirable characteristics and aggressive behaviors. For example, while the Russians are perceived as technology superior, they’re also often identified as arrogant in the film. After arriving in America to compete, Drago’s representatives, including his wife, spoke with the Media. They stated, “We wish to educate your country” about matters of body conditioning. Creed’s comments in the early parts of the movie exacerbate the cultural tension and portray the United States as belligerent and egotistical. During the press conference with Drago and his representatives, Apollo pompously declares, “I [ought] to teach this fellow to box, American Style!” Quickly thereafter, in the same tone of voice, he stated, “I just want to show the world that Russia doesn't have all the best athletes.” His words caused both parties to rise from their seats and confront each other. Apollo later explained to Rocky that his fight with Drago represented “us against them.”
The movie also recreates the reality and complexity of the Cold War by demonstrating the inevitability of death in War. The fight that ensued between Creed and Drago shocked the two nations. Unfit for his Russian opponent, Creed dropped unconscious and died in the second round. This scene represented direct fighting between representatives of two hostile countries, and the fighting resulted in death. Throughout the numerous events that unfolded during the Cold War, many died under the American banner as well as the communist banner. In the movie, as in reality, these deaths made threats real and palpable and significantly increased hostility toward the perceived enemy. As people stood in the ring after Creed’s fight with Drago, many wondered if Creed was still alive. Drago, in a cold-hearted tone, said: “If he dies, he dies.”
Perhaps reminding viewers that the Soviets weren't the only ones guilty of catastrophe during the Cold War, Drago’s wife, in yet another press conference, stated: “You [the Americans] have this belief that you are better than us. You have this belief that your country is so very good and we are so very bad. You have this belief that you are fair and we are so very cruel.” Following these thought-provoking comments, another Drago representative screamed: “It’s all lies and false propaganda to support this antagonistic and violent government!” A representative of Creed then yelled, “We don’t keep our people behind a wall with machine guns.”
It’s clear that, in only a matter of minutes, this stimulating film recreates the complexity and reality of the conflict between the Americans and the Soviets in the Cold War. In only a matter of minutes, the film also reminds us of the difficulty inherent in reconciliation. The true splendor of the story of Rocky IV is that despite these most extreme circumstances, peace is still possible and people can change.
Rocky Balboa now faced the fearsome Russian fighter in the boxing ring in front of a hostile Moscow audience. Predictably, Rocky was booed upon entering the ring, while Drago, fighting in the presence of the Russian Premier and other dignitaries, was enthusiastically received. As the fight developed, sentiments toward Rocky began to change. After eleven rounds of fighting, the once hostile crowd began to accept Rocky. By round 15, Rocky’s determination had astonished the entire crowd, and eventually Rocky won the match.
Despite a noticeable American bias, the film’s producer nevertheless communicates an important message in this final boxing match. Rocky, over the course of the fight, won the approval of the Moscow crowd. He no longer represented a hostile American; rather, he was recognized as a resilient individual. Standing victor in the ring, Rocky also shared his change of heart with the overlooking crowd:
The fictitious story of Rocky IV is just one of many examples that sports represent more than athletes, losses, and victories; sports can teach and communicate powerful messages. Rocky, in this movie, was a symbol of change. Culminating in his powerful speech, Rocky communicates that despite years of Cold War antagonism, competition, and bloodshed, it is still possible to make amends and to change.