Love and Meaning in the End: The Final Shot of 'Rocky'

This is a still from the final shot of the final scene of the legendary film 'Rocky', and for certain reasons I think it is one of the greatest ever moments in cinematography:

It's a classic film which for many of us was first watched in our childhood. Whenever I watch Rocky, I feel it glows with that quality of wonder which I experienced often when I watched movies back then - as with films like Star Wars, Breakin', Ralph Bakshi's animation of Lord of the Rings, 2001: A Space Odyssey etc.

But I only recently came to appreciate the real nature of the victory in the film, which is encapsulated in this shot above. I am revisiting so many films these days with the perspective of Experience rather than Innocence, perhaps such new understandings are inevitable.

The story of the inception of Rocky is wonderful as it is famous - an unknown actor by the name of Sylvester Stallone was hitting thirty and could not get a good role for love nor money. So on a suggestion he wrote a screenplay to which he could be attached as the lead. He came up with Rocky, a film about a journeyman boxer on the wrong side of thirty whose career has taken him no further than being a glorified punch bag. He gets a break by pure luck to fight the heavyweight champion of the world, and captures hearts of millions.

Life mirrors art. And inasmuch, the film has inspired just as many. Not only real world-class boxers, but also artists, lawyers, fishermen, postmen, the struggling, the dispossessed, the disappointed, the depressed - anyone who has felt life's struggle bearing down on them, crippled with dread by the odds on the betting slip, with a sense that life has no particular place for them to be. Art is human technology for the emotions, and Rocky is a powerful tool at that.

Rocky is a film about finding your place, your value, your meaning. The climactic fight against Apollo Creed represents the bludgeoning gauntlet of life. Each round will challenge the fighter to bow out under its relentless onslaught. Rocky sets himself the goal of simply going the distance, staying on his feet - having this goal of survival can be enough to get you through.

But when the final bell rings, and although Rocky indeed loses the fight via a split decision, his indisputable victory is one of the most poignant in any story I can think of. He has survived the battle, he did not give in, and his famous success is recognised in cheers and theme music. But at that climactic point, the film does something extraordinary - and wonderful. Rocky does not see the crowd cheering, nor heed anyone in the ring, all he cares about is the woman he loves - he cries out desperately for her as though she is lost. She runs to the ring, and the camera closes tight, shutting out the entire world, the chaos and the fury of the crowd. The telephoto close-up crop creates an intimate space within the roaring finale of the boxing arena and the film itself. The final shot is not of Rocky standing tall receiving adulation and recognising his achievement in the grand accolades of the audience. The final shot is of a man finding meaning in an entirely self-defined way - he knows what is important, and that is the connection and sense of destination and home, lost in an embrace, on the shoulder of his love. The bruises are dark, but the eyes are closed, and the relief is powerful. It is a relief not just from the ordeal of the fight, but from being lost in life.