Donald Clarke: Is Stallone’s Sico knockout just a publicity stunt?

The disappearance of Rocky’s robotic butler has the conspiracy censors twitching

The tale of the vanishing robot from Rocky IV won't go away. A month or so ago, Sylvester Stallone announced he would be cutting Sico, amusing mechanical helper, from the upcoming rerelease of the 1985 boxing epic. This week, in an interview with Empire magazine, Robert Doornick, creator of the robot, slammed the decision.

“I know why he’s doing it, because I know he loves the robot,” he said. “By causing turmoil among the fans of Sico, it generates more publicity. And by removing the robot from the movie, it saves money in royalty fees, because he [Sico] is a member of the Screen Actors Guild.”

We can probably dismiss the argument about SAG. Even if Sico were drawing cheques – not terribly likely – the amounts would not be enough to trouble the Rocky empire. “The robot is going to the junkyard forever,” Stallone said in late August. “I don’t like the robot anymore.”

The appearance of Sico has long been celebrated as one of the oddest moments from Hollywood's oddest decade. Rocky IV, by some margin the highest grossing film in the series, was the one in which the mumbling pugilist went up against Dolph Lundgren's mountainous personification of Soviet infamy. Coming plumb in the middle of the decade, Rocky IV remains a key text of the Reaganite ascendancy. Brigitte Nielsen swaggers like an Amazon. James Brown sings Living in America. At the close, as the hitherto hostile Russians cheer a courageous Rocky, Stallone looks to have won the Cold War four years early.


Insectile eyes

Despite all this rampant vulgarity, the appearance of Sico still sets one back a little. A gift from Rocky to his amiable brother-in-law Paulie, the robot, absurdly huge with insectile eyes, acts as a domestic assistant. It is closer to Twiki from Buck Rogers in the 25th Century than to anything bearing the Terminator brand.

Why not? Rocky IV marked the point at which a franchise that began in Kazan-lite grit finally surged into fantasy overdrive. It’s not as if the novelty robot appeared in the near-contemporaneous Fanny and Alexander (though that would have been interesting).

When the campaign goes viral, the creator – delighted at the extra publicity – can apologise profusely and reinstate the elements he never intended ditching

Over the years, a cult following has pored over the machine’s interesting history. It seems as if Stallone saw Doornick promoting Sico on a talk show and wondered if the creation might interest his autistic son. “We got a call from the Stallone family,” Doornick recalled some years ago. “They were very interested in how the robot could work with his son. One thing led to another and Stallone completely became enamoured with Sico.”

All this sets the conspiracy censors twitching. Is Stallone, as Doornick implies, embarking on one of those marketing stunts in which a creator pretends to defile a much-loved entity in the hope that angry fans will launch an online backlash? When the campaign goes viral, the creator – delighted at the extra publicity – can apologise profusely and reinstate the elements he never intended ditching.

It’s possible. After all, you almost certainly hadn’t heard of Rocky IV’s 35th anniversary reissue until you read this column. Right?

Rare phenomenon

If the re-editing does go ahead then we will be left with a rare phenomenon. It is not unknown for films to be recut after release and for sequences to be removed. Remember that the "director's cut" of Blade Runner was a minute shorter than the original release version. Voiceover and a tacked-on happy ending were removed.

Many are the fabled scenes that failed to appear in various versions of classic movies. The so-called spider-walk sequence was excised from The Exorcist right before release and then reinstated in a reissue from 2000. The famous French plantation sequence has been in and out of Apocalypse Now.

Yes, film is a more fluid medium than painting. Few artists would go back and erase figures from a long-admired picture

The notion of cutting images because the filmmaker has had second thoughts is, however, less common. Ridley Scott was pressurised into the initial compromises on Blade Runner, but nobody forced Steven Spielberg to include sidearms in ET: The Extra-Terrestrial. His decision to digitally replace the FBI agents' guns with walkie-talkies for a 2000 reissue now feels prissy.

It also messes with the integrity of the original work. Yes, film is a more fluid medium than painting. Few artists would go back and erase figures from a long-admired picture. The painting is the painting. Novels sit somewhere in between. Works such as Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and John Fowles’ The Magus have undergone revisions. The more common habit of recutting films interferes with the notion that one incarnation exists as the thing itself.

Scorsese strategy

Martin Scorsese is among those who agree. Speaking to me some years ago, Thelma Schoonmaker, the director's inseparable editor, explained his strategy. "Marty doesn't believe in director's cuts," she said. "He feels you should fight for what you believe in during the editing stage and then live with the consequences. You shouldn't think, 'Oh, it's okay to cut that because I can always put it back later'. He'll fight to the death."

Thelma and Marty would leave Paulie’s robot where it is.