Sylvester Stallone’s technical and artistic use of Russian montage in Rocky IV is apropos to the film’s initiative as a story.

Just months shy of the highly anticipated Director’s Cut of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky IV: Rocky vs. Drago, spectators await to witness the changes undergone in the film’s final cut. In 1985, Rocky IV was a box office smash that blew up with total earnings of $300,473,716 worldwide. Though the film was met with approbation, it received groundless criticism for its artistic, technically adept use of montage.

Sylvester Stallone punches Dolph Lundgren in a scene from the film ‘Rocky IV’, 1985. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

Montage was a cinematic technique developed into a stylized art of motion pictures in Russia during the silent film era. Though initially inspired by D.W. Griffith, the technique was formulated out of necessity by Sergei Eisenstein (Battleship Potemkin), Vsevolod Pudovkin and Lev Kuleshov. The use of montage in American cinema was superfluous, due to the literacy of moviegoers who comprehended subtitle cards during film viewing. In Russia, 90% of filmgoers were illiterate. This spawned the creation of a technique among Russian directors where all forms of essential communication between actors and the story had to be expressed with motion pictures.

Sylvester Stallone after winning in a scene from the film ‘Rocky IV’, 1985. (Photo by United Artists/Getty Images)

The cutting and editing of montage exemplified a jump in space and time. Various shots were intercut with one another, juxtaposing a meaning that depended on the shot placement in both linear and non-linear sequencing. The montage technique was beginning to evolve into a conceptualized form of cinematic art. It became less about using the technique to entertain the illiterate, and more about formulating into an alternate method of effective storytelling. Unfortunately, the progression and evolution of the technique came to a halt, due to the advent of sound. Russian cinema and American cinema would now rely on dialogue and music to convey a message and evoke a feeling; two forms of art which literacy is not needed for auditory comprehension.

American actor, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of his movie Rocky IV. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sylvester Stallone’s use of Russian montage in Rocky IV was by no means a mistake, mishap, or short-sighted creativity. It was a meticulously employed directorial decision that served the nature of the story, wholly pertaining to its underlying theme and character background. Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren) was an illiterate Soviet boxing champion who didn’t speak English. Moreover, the film was made amid the Cold War, where tensions between the US and USSR were elevated to the dangerous pedigree of World War. After the death of Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers), Rocky Balboa travelled to the ice lands of the former Soviet Union to train for defeating Drago with a vengeance. Stallone, as writer/director, intentionally utilized Russian montage in a film that correlated with the country of the technique’s origin. He implemented montage in a story where tumultuous emotions were embedded within characters. Disordered, confused and exciting sequences needed to be expressed in deeper ways than the use of dialogue, and Stallone capitalized.

Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren in a scene from the film ‘Rocky IV’ (directed by Sylvester Stallone), Los Angeles, California, 1984. (Photo by Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty Images)

From Paulie (Burt Young) to Adrian (Talia Shire) and Duke (Tony Burton), starry vehemence needed to be conveyed in ways that differed from the franchise’s previous three installments. Stallone ingeniously implemented the use of montage to intercut correlating scenes while expressing the heightened passions of both sides. The interior, psychological monologue of Drago and Ludmilla (Brigitte Nielsen) were exhibited affectively through motion pictures by focusing on what their eyes communicated. Sequences of Rocky’s exterior physical training amid mother nature were intercut with the artificial interior methods of Drago’s gymnasiums and PEDs. This conveyed the advantages between training styles, and the moral ethics of each nation. The use of the Kuleshov effect with carefully timed editing gave these montage sequences a purpose. The training excerpts in Rocky IV are not music videos, but intricately detailed segments transmitting a profound message to the spectator, using a classic filmmaking technique invented by Russian cinema. The use of plot and dialogue in exchange for cinematic montage would have been a disservice to the story, maintaining implausibility’s due to the language barriers immanent between characters.

Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren with American actor, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of his movie Rocky IV. (Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

At this juncture in 1985, Stallone was a veteran filmmaker from-the-trenches, embarking on his 5th film as director. His use of montage is in direct relation to the film’s depiction of characters from the former Soviet Union. The montage technique directly coincided with the subject matter on-screen, leading to a post-climactic speech in the aftermath, as Rocky delivers his famed “change” address to the Moscow audience (with the use of a translator). The language barrier was heavily prevalent throughout Rocky IV. Both in story and on-camera, it was only fitting to use the montage technique. Stallone ingeniously directed a film that reliably correlated with Russia in both screenplay and directorial technicality. It’s almost Stallone’s tip-of-the-hat to Russia (both in front and behind the camera) with intentions of unity and compromise hidden in the subtext of his crafty screenplay. In both politics and art, Stallone proved his case and point.

American actor, director and screenwriter Sylvester Stallone on the set of his movie Rocky IV.
(Photo by Sunset Boulevard/Corbis via Getty Images)

An Italian-American filmmaker paid tribute to his revered artistic predecessors of Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Kuleshov, using their montage craft in a film that pertains to the Russian populace. To criticize Stallone’s use of this Russian art implies a critical short-sightedness of film history. Stallone continued the progression of what Russian filmmakers had created during the silent-era, with the evolution of a technique that showed great potential for advanced storytelling. With the absence of Bill Conti (Rocky, Rocky II, Rocky III) composing the 4th installment of the Rocky saga, Vince DiCola’s musical score was able to add a supplemental tempo to the montage sequences, and at proper times, gave Rocky IV an optimum degree of rhythm and pacing. Rocky IV resulted in a film that cinephiles have adored for decades, due to these aforementioned intricacies. Fathoming an opportunity to appreciate this cinematic gem even more (with the 4K release of an ultimate Director’s Cut) is quite the treat Rocky IV and its fans deserve, come November 2021. One would merely hope that spectators will cease to fallaciously criticize the film on ill-founded, baseless grounds, and appreciate it for its nature, a film as art.

written by ardalan pourvali

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