The Rocketeer: 20 Years Later

For most modern story-tellers, be they the makers of movies or the writers of books, there are a few select films that they say inspired them  and served as turning point in their movie going experience. Such a films come along in each generation. Now, while Star Wars, ET, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Superman: The Movie, and Tim Burton’s Batman, were certainly influential to me, I had experienced them all on home video first. I am talking about seeing the movie on the silver screen for the very first time.

If I were to list the five movies I saw in theaters that I would say “shaped my childhood”, would be Jurassic Park, The Lion King, Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, Toy Story and The Rocketeer. Some time ago I was browsing around on line and discovered that one of those films,  The Rocketeer, was celebrating its 20th  anniversary.

I can still remember seeing the movie back in 1991. It was early September, and my family and I were driving home from my grandma’s house and we passed the local dollar theater. I was just learning how to read but it had become a tradition of mine to ask my mom what movies were playing at the theater and  The Rocketeer had been one of the movies on the marquee. My dad had been helping out at my uncle’s comic book store and had heard of the movie and thought it sounded interesting. Our birthdays were in that same month so dad decided to take me to the movie to celebrate. The moment the opening credits rolled I was hooked. The film opened at an air field with the young hot shot pilot Cliff Secord getting ready to take his new stunt plane out for its first flight.

As soon as that plane took off , my imagination was in flight. The movie had a lot of action and adventure, and while there is a love interest, the romance is done “just right” as to not make my then seven-year-old-girls –have- cooties- mind sick to my stomach. As for the bad guys, they were truly “bad” seeing as they were Nazis, and they are the default villian in film and fiction.  At age 7, most of that went over my head as I had no idea who the Nazis were,  until they showed a newsreel ( seen bellow) that showed me at that age what kinds of things the Nazis could potentially do, had good men done nothing. While it may not have involved rocket-packs in the real world, the idea of the Nazis seeking global dominaton was portrayed as evil and I understood that.

Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord

Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord AKA The Rocketeer

The story followed the young pilot on his journey to becoming the Rocketeer. One day, his stunt plane gets shot down after getting caught in the cross fire between some FBI agents and some gangsters, Cliff Secord ( Billy Campbell ) and his old mechanic friend Peevey ( Alan Arkin) decided to start from scratch with an old clown act of theirs. When going through the plane they uncover the exact device the Feds and gangsters were looking for. A rocket pack, designed in the film by Howard Huges ( played by Lost’s Terry O’Quinn.)

When a friend and fellow pilot goes unconscious in the cockpit of a plane during one of their aerial shows, Cliff dons the pack and an art deco inspired helmet designed by Peevey to save him and becomes The Rocketeer. Meanwhile his actress girl friend Jenny Blake ( played by Jennifer Connelly) is being wooed by fellow actor Nevile Sinclaire  ( played by former James

Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake

Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake

Bond actor Timothy Dalton.) Once he learns that Cliff has the pack, Sinclair takes greater interest in Cliff and Jenny. Sinclair is a Nazi spy sent to steal the rocket pack and deliver it to the Führer so he can build a squad of flying comandoes. To achieve his goals, he enlists a gang of mobsters, and a big  Frankenstein-like thug named Lothar. As Cliff discovers this secret it’s up to him to save the day and the woman he loves from Nazis.

Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair

Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair

One  thing that makes  the movie so good is how well it tries to respect Dave Stevens’ source material. It isn’t played up as a parody like Joel Shumacher’s Batman& Robin, it wasn’t a hack-editing job like Superman IV, didn’t have cheesy song and dance numbers like Spider-Man 3,  it hasn’t been disowned and disavowed by the film makers like Howard the Duck, and it wasn’t a travesty like Steel, or Catwoman. While the film is very nostalgic, the sentiments are not played for laughs. Seeing Rocketeer pose by the American flag is treated with the same level of sincerity as when Christopher Reeve’s Superman tells Margot Kidder’s Lois Lane in Superman; The Movie , “I’m here to fight for truth justice and the American Way.”

The character of Cliff Secord is an earnest, hardworking decent kind of guy, who has his share of character flaws to make him well rounded ( he gets a bit jealous where his girl friend is involved and can be a bit reckless since he is a stunt pilot). Like Batman, Green Lantern, Captain America and Iron Man, he has no powers of his own, but acquires his “ability” and identity’ threw a series of strange events and lots of hard work and training. Peevey is

Alan Arkin as Peevey

Alan Arkin as Peevey

quick to offer both sage and technical advice, almost like a cross between Alfred Pennyworth with the down-home American folksy charm of Pa Kent. While his girlfriend goes by a different name in the book  Jennifer Connelly has the same classical cinema beauty qualities that her ink and paper counter part had, in fact she and Campbell were dead ringers for their respective characters in the comic book. The chemistry between Campbell and Connelly was pitch perfect and they are one of the best superhero couples on screen. Timothy Dalton makes a delightful bad guy, and Terry O’Quinn injects a bit of humanity into the enigmatic eccentric Howard Hughes.

Terry O'Quinn as Howard Hughes

Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes

The film is a period piece, which allows it to remain timeless. You don’t have to sit through Prince songs, U2 hits or be serenaded by Macy Gray in Rocketeer. The only non-orchestral score songs are a “The Lady of Winter” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and a few big band standards, that much like the use of “Rock Around the Clock” in Superman: The Movie, help cement the Americana feel of the film.

Much like the first Christopher Reeve Superman film, the Chris Nolan Batman films, the first Spider-man movie, the first two X-men films, and  Thor,  the star of the film , Billy Campbell,  was an unknown at the time. This allows viewers to avoid saying “hey, it’s that guy,” and enjoy the exploits of the hero. Much like the other aforementioned films, he is surrounded by very good, competent and well-known actors ( Dalton and Arkin).

Joe Johnston’s directing is sharp and respectful. Seeing as the first film he worked was Raiders of the Lost Ark, it’s not surprising. He learned how to take the material from a cheesy Saturday matinee serial and make a good film from the best. He also demonstrates an understanding on how to utilize the period dialogue in a way that brings directors and writers of the Narnia films to shame.  Cliff, Peevey, Jenny and co. “speak” convincingly like how some one in 1930’s LA would speak. The action and fight scenes are well paced and well timed. It is his work on the film that makes me excited for this summer’s Captain America.

Are the special effects as “snazzy” as Avatar? No. This film relies on practical effects like the Christopher Reeve Superman films, or the dinosaurs in the first Jurassic Park.   Many fans of the genre will say that there is something about watching a person, as apposed to a CGI figure “fly” that is much more convincing to the imagination. The scenes of  Cliff in flight are not in every moment of the film, but they are in there just the right amount of time to remind you and make you believe  he can use this jet pack to fly. It is the films simplicity that has enderead it so much to viewers.

Perhaps another aspect of the film that has allowed fans to fall in love with it is that it is  “one and done” deal. There had been plans for a sequal that fell through when the movie tanked at the box-office due to intense competition from Terminator 2 and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Many comic book movie fans feel that Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman and Sam Raimi’s first two Spider-Man films were tarnished by the sequals. The Rocketeer never got that chance, and as such has remained in the hearts of he fans as a breath of fresh air durring the dark age of comic book movies. They find themselves wondering “what-if” and in the end generate their own perfect sequals, so much so that a vast majority of fans never want to see a reboot or sequal, unless it were done like the 1992 Batman: The Animated Series.

I have recently read Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer graphic novel and love it almost as much as the film. While the film was a throw-back to the Saturday Matinee serials of the 1930s durring the golden age of film, the graphic novel is a throw-back to the pulps comics and dime novels of that same era. There is a certain charm that has been missing from today’s Frank Miller/Allan Moore influenced comic book universes. Cliff even encounters the classic pulp characters Doc Savage and The Shadow. The only modern graphic novels that come close to doing what Stevens did in capturing nostalgic charms with a modern sensibility are Alex Ross’s Justice, and Darwyn Cooke’s DC: New Frontier.

Both the film and the graphic novel are true gems in the world of the superhero genre, one every serious fan of this type of mythology should encounter. They have become well-loved by fans around the world, so much that this summer IDW publishing dusted off The Rocketeer franchise with a four issue limited mini-series. The series is written and illustrated by some of the best talent in the comic book industry, such as Alex Ross, Darwyn Cooke, Bruce Timm and Mark Waid. The end result was a series of brand-new thrilling adventures, that is not only respectful to Dave Steven’s work on the graphic novel, but to fans of both the graphic novel and the film. Reading one issue, I could even hear the James Horner score.

While the recent summers have been full of well done superhero films, many which I have liked and enjoyed, only three have been able to capture a sense of magic, wonder, adventure and excitement: Superman: The Movie, Thor, and most importantly the first superhero film I saw in theaters, The Rocketeer. I can only hope Captain America will be able to join their ranks.  Cliff Secord asks in the film when he first dons the helmet, ” How do I look?” I would have to say, “Rocketeer, it’s been 20 years, but you haven’t aged a day. Here’s to 20 more!”


About jonathondsvendsen

Hi! Thanks for stopping by my blog! Somehow you stumbled upon it. Whatever brought you around, I'm glad you're here. I am a free-lance writer and independent scholar of pop-cultural mythology, living and working in Minnesota. An aspiring mythmaker, I dream of voyages through space, fantastic worlds, and even my own superhero or two. I am also an established public speaker and have guest-lectured for college classes on the topic of comic book superheroes. I graduated from Bethel University in 2007 with a degree in Literature and Creative writing. I also write for the website Head on over and you can check out my book reviews , a few fun interviews and even my April Fools Day jokes.
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