Pulp Masterpieces, Part 5: The Rocketeer (1991)

Back in my Sky Captain article, I briefly spoke about the world of the ’30s and its fascination with aviation, how there were barnstormers and record breakers, and how there were pulp heroes that reflected America’s love affair with pilots. What was also going on at that time were not only airshows where daredevil pilots showed off their skill with feats of dangerous aerobatics, but races in which state of the art aircraft were pitted against one another to see what planes were the fastest and had the most endurance. Some of the more famous/prestigious races were the Bendix, the Pulitzer/National, the Schneider (which concerned sea planes and flying boats… I have no idea what the difference between a sea plane and a flying boat is; If you know, please feel free to enlighten me), and the Thompson, but there were others as well, such as the Women’s Air Derby of 1929. Everyone from Amelia Earhart to Jimmy Doolittle competed. Air races were a big deal, with pilots being as famous as NASCAR racers are today.

It is these air shows and races, combined with the sci-fi serials of the ’30s and ’40s when men would strap life-threatening devices full of volatile chemicals to their backs and take to the skies like living missiles that inspired writer/artist Dave Stevens to create one of the greatest comic characters of all time. That character would then get a grossly underrated movie. And that movie was… The Rocketeer!


The plot (as always, SPOILERS!), daredevil pilot Cliff Secord…

…gets his racing plane destroyed when FBI agents chase crooks onto his runway. Broke and desperate, he discovers what the criminals stole stashed in an old plane in his hangar. It’s a rocket pack invented by and stolen from Howard Hughes…

…and with the help of his friend, ace mechanic and engineer Peevey…

…Cliff learns how the rocket pack works. But there are others who want the rocket, such as mobster Eddie Valentine…

…who is being contracted to steal it by actor and Nazi fifth columnist Neville Sinclair…

…who threaten not only Secord, Peevey, and the American way of life, but also Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny.

Can Cliff rise to the occasion and become the hero needed to stop the Nazis?

It’s impossible for me to be objective when it comes to this movie. This was one of my dad’s favorite films; to this day, this poster still hangs framed in my mom’s family room:

The Christmas after this movie came out, I remember buying him the graphic novel that inspired it, as well as a Rocketeer mug. The local Blockbuster had a policy of giving stand-up displays to people who asked for them, so instead of pitching it in the trash they saved the Rocketeer stand-up for me, and the following Sunday I convinced the security guard at my dad’s work to let me in so I could put it in the middle of his office. That’s how much we both loved this movie. To both of us, its look and tone were spot-on perfect. Director Joe Johnston was the right man to direct; he understood what worked to make 1938 Los Angeles feel real and authentic, from a dusty airfield…

…to the Hollywood sets…

…to its glamorous nightlife.

The Clark Gable and W.C. Fields cameos were a nice touch, by the way.

Johnston is also great at cinematography, capturing some dramatic moments, from the Rocketeer on top of the iconic Griffith Park Observatory…

…to him landing on a zeppelin…

…Yeah, remember that thing I said back in my Sky Captain review about zeppelins? Still applies. I appreciate every detail both big and small, from the Beeman’s gum that Cliff carries everywhere, to the the magnificent GeeBee Z airplane:

If you think that an all-engine aircraft looks hard to fly, you should see the GeeBee R.

If it sounds like I’m fanboy gushing over every little thing, it’s because I am; I can’t help it.

Billy Campbell (credited as Bill Campbell here) does a wonderful job in regards to his portrayal of Cliff Secord. He’s impetuous and doesn’t always show good judgment, but his heart is in the right place and he’s gloriously heroic. I also get why he’s doing what he’s doing. The man is broke and wants to keep doing what he loves, so his motivations make sense, so it’s not like he finds a rocket pack and says, “Hey, I’m going to go fight crime!”

Campbell had been a television actor (Star Trek fans might remember him from the Next Generation episode “The Outrageous Okona”), and The Rocketeer was his first major motion picture. And while the studio could have possibly picked a bigger name like Johnny Depp, or Keanu Reeves, or Charlie Sheen, I’m glad they went with a relative unknown. Campbell more than holds his own opposite a troupe of veteran actors.

Jennifer Connelly was perfectly cast as Jenny, as she has the classic look of a ’30s Hollywood starlet. But more than that, Connelly is just a damn fine actress. You get why Jenny likes Cliff, but you also understand why the man frustrates her constantly.

Jenny is brave and smart; when she’s chloroformed by Sinclair, she doesn’t believe his “They’re blackmailing me story” for a second, despite the fact he’s “the number three box office star in America” (which does make me wonder who #1 and #2 are, according to this film). And when held hostage, she doesn’t hesitate to take an opportunity to help Cliff. No wilting flower here!

As for Alan Arkin, I’ve been a fan of his going back to when I was a kid and saw him on TV in Freebie and the Bean playing alongside James Caan in what may very well be the first true buddy cop movie.
Arkin seldom if ever disappoints me, and is able to add a quirkiness to his characters that fall just short of being annoying. Paul Sorvino is another favorite; I’ve liked him since Goodfellas. I especially appreciate how he and Johnston handle his character, a mobster with standards, who would never stoop so low as to consort with Nazis. Considering the relationship between Italian mobsters like “Lucky” Luciano and Jewish crooks like Benny Siegel and Meyer Lansky, I easily bought into Valentine turning his nose up at a Ratzi like Sinclair. Besides, it provides one of the best parts of the movie, when g-man and gangster join together:

Howard Hughes has been portrayed many times in film by many people. Tommy Lee Jones, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dean Stockwell, and most recently Warren Beatty have played the reclusive and mysterious billionaire and aviator. But for me, my favorite portrayal of the man is Terry O’Quinn in this film.

I’m not sure just how accurate O’Quinn’s portray of Hughes is; it could be entirely fictional. All I know is that like Sorvino, I always enjoy the man’s performances. His Hughes is confident and powerful, able to boss around G-men with impunity. But at the same time, he’s an engineer and pilot at heart, admiring Peevy’s work on the Rocketeer’s helmet and later in the movie coming to Cliff and Jenny’s rescue in the second most iconic example of pulp aviation, the autogyro:

A movie like this lives and dies with its villains. Fortunately, Timothy Dalton rises to the occasion. It’s obvious Dalton’s Neville Sinclair is inspired by Errol Flynn, who years after his death was unjustly libeled in a biography where the author accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer (for years, I thought Flynn actually was; it seemed to be “common knowledge”). Dalton is utterly awesome here as the charismatic and flamboyant actor/fifth columnist. He can be at times charming such as when he’s wooing Jenny, or menacing when he’s facing down Eddie Valentine. When he drops the façade and goes full-on Nazi he’s awesome.

And who can forget Neville’s henchman, Lothar?

Played by “Tiny” Ron Taylor, the character of Lothar was inspired by an actor from that era, Rondo Hatton, who suffered from a condition known as acromegaly. Lothar is a great minion who meets a suitably epic end.

One element of the film I’m torn on is the dialogue. On the one hand, I can understand why when you watch films taking place in another era, directors and writers are reluctant to fully adopt the manner in which a person might have spoken at the time, or the slang. I’ve been watching Ripper Street lately, which takes place in the late 1890s and frankly I love it, especially the dialogue, which sounds purely Victorian. I could listen to Mathew McFadyen and Jerome Flynn talk all day. However, if handled incorrectly, period dialogue can come across as hokey, silly, and inspire unintentional laughter. When the two g-men are interrogating a prisoner, we get lines like, “Your buddy is getting fitted for a pine overcoat. If you make it out of County General, Alcatraz is your new digs!”

God, I get shivers of delight hearing dialogue like that. But would anyone else? Or does constantly hearing people talk like that produce giggles? So yeah, while I love it, I get why Johnston didn’t decide to immerse himself so completely in the period.

One can’t talk about the Rocketeer movie without also discussing the graphic novel, and the similarities and differences between the two.

The graphic novel had Nazis as the bad guys, stealing a prototype aircraft. It also had Doc Savage as well as his helpers Ham and Monk, although perhaps for legal reasons they’re never mentioned by name. Cliff’s girlfriend is also pinup model Betty Page…

…and while I would have loved to have seen Jennifer Connelly play that role rather than Jenny, I can certainly understand why Disney decided that maybe… juuuust maybe… Page wasn’t suitable for a family film. Personally, I like the movie more than the source material. While it’s a fun read and Stevens clearly loves the era and the genre, the Disney version is a better story overall in my opinion. And the Disney movie has a zeppelin in it. We need more movies with zeppelins. And autogyros.

One awesome touch is when Hughes confronts Secord regarding the rocket, and he shows the man a pirated animated film made by a Nazi propaganda group (probably directed by Leni Riefenstahl) showing people how awesome an army of rocket-wearing soldiers would be. The scene where the American eagle becomes the Nazi eagle is chilling.

James Horner provides the soundtrack, and I think it’s one of his finest works, ranking right up there with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan or Willow (say what you will about the quality of that film, Horner’s soundtrack is epic). The composer really captures the glory of flight with his sweeping score, and to this day I feel Jenny’s theme is one of the loveliest pieces of music I’ve ever heard. If anyone doubts Horner’s place in history as one of Hollywood’s greatest performers, I strongly suggest you give this score a listen and you’ll see just how good the man was.

I read that during pre-production, an idea was bounced around to alter the look of the Rocketeer to change his helmet. Thank God that didn’t happen. I mean, just look at the costume:

Everything about it works, right down to the Mauser. Finally, The Rocketeer leaves things open for a sequel, but due to the modest returns, Disney decided not to pursue it. While at the time I would have loved to have seen more, now that I’m older and maybe a little bit wiser, and after seeing what’s happened to good films that get unnecessary sequels…

…I’m glad it didn’t happen. Not every movie needs to be part of a franchise, where more often than not there are diminishing returns. The Rocketeer stands great on its own, and is a true pulp masterpiece.

Tag: Pulp Masterpieces

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