Based on the comic of the same name by Dave Stevens, The Rocketeer was a nostalgic film that looked back, with a nudge and a wink at the thrilling heroics of yesteryear. The film was a loving tribute to the action serials of a much earlier time while it also wasn’t afraid to look at the seamier side of Hollywood.
Set in 1938, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) is a stunt pilot who only cares about flying a beaten up Seabee to qualify for the national air races and spending what little time and money wasn’t invested in flying on his girl, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). Working to help Cliff achieve his goal was Peevy (Alan Arkin), a washed up mechanic who had an intrinsic understanding of anything mechanical.
After Cliff’s plane is destroyed upon landing, he and Peevy happen to find an experimental rocket pack that was hidden on the airfield by gangsters trying to get away from the FBI. While Peevy is the voice of reason, suggesting they turn the rocket pack over to the authorities, Cliff begs him for the opportunity to try it out, the ultimate flying experience.
Once he flies, Cliff is completely hooked, finding solid reasons to keep the jetpack, like rescuing a pilot who passed out while flying, but when the gangsters figure out that the guy with the jetpack is somehow connected to Jenny, he needs to use the pack to rescue her.
Campbell projects a sense of joy and inner glee that allows anyone watching the film empathize with him and he becomes a stand-in for the viewer. An everyman who has a beautiful girlfriend, good friends, and the ability to fly. His attitude is summed up when, after a somewhat disastrous early flight with the jetpack he looks at Peevy and says, “I like it.” However, Cliff is also given to fits of jealousy and often finds himself on the wrong end of a gun or a fist. It is that very fault, however, that allows him to become a hero.
Although Jenny could easily have been portrayed as a damsel in distress, the writers and Connelly have elected to give her a level of volition all her own. Although she goes into situations with stars in her eyes, she’s smart enough to figure out what’s going on and take actions to protect herself and even attempt to reach out to the proper authorities to let them know what is going on. If she has to be rescued by Cliff, it is certainly not because she’s helpless and it is clear that she is more than a match for him and his stubbornness on her own.
Tributes to Old Hollywood include a swanky nightclub with cameos by actors like W.C. Fields and Clark Gable, an Errol Flynnesque action star: Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), and an embodiment of actor Rondo Hatton (Ron Taylor). With the 1930s also the time of organized crime, the Hollywood glamor is balanced out by crime-lord Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), who provides much of the muscle Sinclair needs to achieve his goals.
While the film does view the classic Hollywood scene through the hazy glow of nostalgia, and Jenny has completely bought into the mystique of Hollywood, for Cliff it is a world apart from his own experience. Focusing on his own career as a pilot, he has no room for the glamor and fantasy of Hollywood, apart from what is forced upon him by Jenny. He even shows disdain for movies in general in an early scene in which Jenny chooses a film for them to see. Even if Cliff has no need for the Hollywood elite, he is allowed to have his own heroes, and Terry O’Brien does an excellent job playing the hero Cliff gets to meet.
Jenny’s world is signified by an evening at the South Seas Club, where she gets to hobnob with Clark Gable, W.C. Fields, and other celebrities, while
Cliff’s is shown by him hanging out at the Bulldog Café with Peevy and various pilots and mechanics. Jenny and Cliff show the spectrum of Los Angeles, from the workers to the magic the city wants to show the world.
Of course, any film set in Hollywood at the time seems to feel the need to show the destruction of the final four letters of the Hollywoodland sign and The Rocketeer is no different, giving a spotlight to the iconic sign in the film’s climax following a shootout between the FBI, the Rocketeer, the mobsters, and the films real bad guys at another Los Angeles icon, Griffith Observatory. (Although in our reality, it remained Hollywoodland until 1949 when they removed the last four letters during a repair job to the sign).
Based on a graphic novel by David Stevens, The Rocketeer offers a world where square-jawed heroes battle villains who have a veneer of class and sophistication hiding their evil schemes. Good guys and bad guys are both in positions to offer surprises to each other and the audience and the sense of adventure is fun and thrilling.
The Rocketeer’s theme music, by James Horner, captures the feel for the film. It begins with a simple theme picked out on a piano and adds elements to create the sense of an audio sunrise, eventually swelling to a crescendo that encapsulates the action sequences of the film. Previously in this series of articles, I’ve mentioned the musical score from The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr. and the theme song from The Greatest American Hero. Horner’s music easily stands among those pieces.
While The Rocketeer never got a direct sequel, in 2019, it did get a reboot as a children’s animated series with Billy Campbell providing the voice for Dave Secord, the father of the show’s hero, Kit (Kitana Turnbull) and a descendent of the character he played in the original film. Targeted at kids under seven, it misses much of the charm of the film and comic that inspired it.
The Rocketeer is currently streaming Disney+ and can be rented or purchased on Apple TV, Amazon Prime, Google Play, Youtube, Vudu, Microsoft, AMC On Demand, and DirecTV but must be purchased/rented on all of those services. DVDs and BluRay editions can be purchased.
Steven H Silver is a seventeen-time Hugo Award nominee and was the publisher of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Argentus as well as the editor and publisher of ISFiC Press for 8 years. He has also edited books for DAW, NESFA Press, and ZNB. His most recent anthology, Alternate Peace and his novel After Hastings, was published in 2020. Steven has chaired the first Midwest Construction, Windycon three times, and the SFWA Nebula Conference 6 times, as well as serving as the Event Coordinator for SFWA. He was programming chair for Chicon 2000 and Vice Chair of Chicon 7.