Rocky & Rambo: The American Dream & American Nightmare

Sylvester Gardenzio Stallone. Born July 6, 1946 in New York City, Stallone has been a polarizing figure in film. Some people make fun of him, his movies, his speech and basically scoff at his body of work. Then you have his fans, who laud him for his successes, including the Expendables Trilogy, Cobra, Tango & Cash, Cliffhanger, Demolition Man, the Specialist and Escape Plan (and will entirely ignore that he made a movie called “Stop or my Mom Will Shoot!). However, what most people ignore is, with the two franchises he is most well-known for, Stallone has perfectly encapsulated the pros and cons of the American Dream.

Let’s look at Rocky. The Italian Stallion, Rocky Balboa is the only son of Italian immigrants and lives in a poor section of Philadelphia. A virtual unknown, Rocky’s boxing career turns when he is plucked out of obscurity by World Heavyweight Champion, Apollo Creed. You would think Rocky is going to get pummeled by the champ, but with the aid of trainer Mickey Goldmill, who up until then had always criticized Rocky’s work effort, Balboa amps his training, doing whatever he can to prepare for the big fight. Just as the American Dream teaches you that if you put your head down and work hard, even someone from a slum can achieve greatness, which Rocky does by eventually overcoming Creed in the 2nd film. The next two films hammer home that point, showing montages of Rocky training for big fights, while his only downfall comes in the beginning of Rocky III, when he stops working hard and enjoys the limelight as champ.

Now compare that to Rambo. John Rambo is a man who left everything behind to serve his country and what does he get for his troubles? After enduring the horrors of war, he returns home, only to find that his country has seemingly turned its back to him. Passing through a small town in Washington, he is unceremoniously driven out of town by the local sheriff (representing “respectable” authority) and when Rambo returns, he is arrested for vagrancy, forced to strip and hosed down. All through these sequences, Rambo acts like beaten dog, his head down, the shock at his treatment etched on his face. When he decides to do something about it (which lets face it, we all would), he is treated like a criminal by the law. The old standby of the American soldier bravely serving for his country and returning home to a hero’s welcome has been put on its ear. In proceeding films, Rambo’s sense of cynicism grows deeper and by the third film, he has exiled himself from his home country. Only in the 4th film does he return home, but by then, a great chunk of his life has passed and his re-emergence in America is met with no fanfare, as he walks alone towards his family home.

So there you have it. The American Dream and the American Nightmare, all nicely wrapped up and explored in two of the greatest franchises in film history. So, the next time you hear someone say that Sylvester Stallone’s movies are all the same and contain no substance, remember these movies, because there’s a lot more to them than a simple boxer rising to the top or a Vietnam vet out for a body count.