Rocky IV Turns 20

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of Rocky IV, the greatest Cold War movie ever made. While others may prefer such films as Dr. Strangelove or The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I cast my lot with the Italian Stallion.

Rocky IV hit theaters on November 27, 1985, a week after President Ronald Reagan met with Mikhail Gorbachev in Geneva. In the film, Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa character confronts the Soviet menace in the form of the towering Russian boxer, Ivan Drago. Drago was portrayed by a former Fulbright scholar at MIT, Dolph Lundgren, who gave the pithiest performance in cinematic history.

Upon its release, the overtly pro-American film was mocked by the same media that ridiculed Reagan for referring to the Soviet Union as the “evil empire.”

Nina Darton of the New York Times may as well have been referring to Reagan when she lamented, “Outside the boxing arena, the greatest victory is compromise, a message Rocky refuses to learn, and a lesson his fans will never accept.”

But just as Reagan’s contribution to ending the Cold War was widely recognized after his death, so too should we give Rocky IV the credit it deserves. In a tight 91 minutes, the film summarizes the major events and themes of the Cold War, and foreshadows the fall of communism that was to occur just a few years after the film’s release.

Early in the action of the movie, Americans suffer a very Sputnik-like moment, when Drago brutally kills the charismatic American ex-champion, Apollo Creed, in an exhibition match in Las Vegas .

Different schools of thought emerge on how to respond to this crushing defeat. A skeptical media and Rocky’s concerned wife believe that fighting Drago would be “suicide” and therefore advocate a policy of “peaceful coexistence.” But Rocky adopts the Reaganite philosophy of “peace through strength” when he agrees to fight Drago in Moscow.

Drago is the machine-made byproduct of the Soviet state, training with a team of scientists and sophisticated computers, and achieving freakish size and strength with the help of steroids. “Drago is a look at the future,” a boastful Soviet official tells American reporters. He declares that Drago’s impending defeat of Rocky, “will be a perfect example of how pathetically weak your society has become.” This was consistent with Soviet braggadocio that was common even as its economic system was collapsing.

While Drago is the best that central planning has to offer, Rocky is the ultimate individualist. He is the man who rose from the streets of Philadelphia to become heavyweight champion, deriving inner strength from his faith and family.

When Rocky enters the ring for the climactic battle, the hostile Russian crowd boos him as the politburo (and a Gorby look-alike) look on. But just as those living beyond the Iron Curtain became obsessed with American popular culture once exposed to it, Rocky’s heroic performance against Drago wins over the crowd, which starts to chant, “Rocky!” during the bout.

Hearing this, a Soviet official scolds Drago for his performance. In a defining moment that would anticipate the fall of communism, Drago lifts his government handler by the throat, and declares, “I fight to win for me! For me!”

Rocky’s victory over Drago is a victory of individualism over collectivism and a vindication of the policy of “peace through strength.” It demonstrates the universal appeal of American ideals. At the end of the film Rocky says to the Russian crowd, “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change.” Is it any wonder that the Berlin Wall fell four years later?

Rocky IV became one of the highest grossing movies of 1985, along with the year’s other jingoistic Stallone film, Rambo II. Together, the films “brought the mythic American hero downstage center again, standing tall after years in hiding, ready to take on the world with guns, knives, gloves or bare knuckles,” Newsweek wrote that December.

Last month, Stallone announced plans to make Rocky VI. By all accounts, the story does not involve Rocky fighting a boxer who is a member of Al Qaeda. I guess we’ll have to wait for Rocky VII.