❉ An overlooked, Nazi-punching gem, lost in 1991’s battle of the box office.
At a glance, the genesis of The Rocketeer would appear to be that of a hit: like Star Wars, it was inspired by 1940s film serials (in particular, King of the Rocket Men); like ‘Indiana Jones’, it was a 1930s-set all-action extravaganza, harking back not just to another era of adventure, but also to one of film itself. It’s a film featuring a gallant hero who can get handy with colourful villains – Nazi villains at that! – while ably assisted by faithful sidekicks, and getting the beautiful girl to make the effort worthwhile; what’s not to love? And yet, while having gone on to achieve cult status, the film was regarded as an unmitigated flop. So what went wrong?
The character of the Rocketeer originally appeared in Dave Stevens’ four-part graphic story in 1982, and quickly gained interest as a potential film product. Unlike today, however, the market for comic movies was not exactly a boom trade. With a treatment put together by screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo, the project passed from studio to studio before finally being taken up by Walt Disney Pictures.
Keen to maintain their reputation as purveyors of family entertainment and seeing the potential for lucrative tie-in products, changes to the source material were in order. But this was no bad thing: reading the original comic, it is immediately apparent that Cliff Secord – the young flyer who becomes our titular hero – is not a particularly sympathetic lead. He is selfish, petty, childish, obstreperous, and behaves appallingly towards his girlfriend, Betty.
Employed as an artist’s model and seemingly existing only to wear as few clothes as possible, Betty was another factor that had to be altered. These changes, however, were definitely for the best: one of the more problematic events of the comic, for example, involves Cliff deliberately giving agents the address of her photographer to throw them off his scent. The two men therefore burst in on her in the following manner:
Worse still, when Cliff is subsequently told of this, he finds the whole misadventure extremely amusing.
Even more peculiar is the later revelation that Cliff had inadvertently caused the death of a lovelorn carnival midget, drowned while attempting to take his place as a magician’s assistant while Cliff was happily banging an attractive redhead in her caravan. Read that sentence as many times as you like.
Thankfully, the Cliff as depicted in the film – played by Billy Campbell – is a much more agreeable protagonist. A white-bread corn-fed all-American who has many friends of all ages, the Cliff of the movie wants to fly stunt planes, make an honest dollar, and do right by his girl, now called Jenny and portrayed by Jennifer Connolly.
Rounding out the main cast were character actors Alan Arkin and Paul Sorvino, and then-current Bond star Timothy Dalton as the dashing and iniquitous Neville Sinclair. Sinclair, a swashbuckling actor and covert Nazi agent (based on a since-disproven claim that Errol Flynn had been a spy for the Third Reich), was a completely original character for the film, providing not only a memorable villain but also a plot for Jenny, whose occupation was changed from model to aspiring actress and who now provides a link between Cliff and the sinister forces pursuing him.
Determined to seize the rocket pack – invented by Howard Hughes – as part of a plan aimed towards eventual Nazi conquest of America, Sinclair will stop at nothing to retrieve it.
So, the problems with the source material were ironed out, the cast was strong and the adventure was guaranteed. Why did the expected blockbuster, then, not materialise?
Firstly, and most obviously, the original comic was simply not well-known. Neither, unfortunately, were the two leads, and while the prospect of James Bond chewing some scenery would surely prove a draw, the film’s marketing failed to exploit this.
While the movie’s art deco posters were certainly eye-catching and wouldn’t be out of place in today’s cinemas, they sadly were not successful marketing tools among the actor-illustrated posters which were prominent during the summer of 1991. And it was also this timing, ultimately, which was to cause the film’s disappointing takings.
With a US release date of 21st June, it found itself facing competition from another swashbuckler in the form of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves – released one week earlier – before being swept aside by the release on 3rd July of the all-conquering Terminator 2: Judgement Day. While the film did garner favourable reviews, The Rocketeer’s theatrical release made only $46million in the US – the film’s budget had been $40million – and £1million in the UK.
Despite being deemed a flop, however, interest in the film did not wane. It quickly became seen as a cult classic and, despite the cancellation of planned sequels in what Disney had hoped to be a trilogy of movies, calls for a remake continued. In July 2016, Disney finally announced that a sequel was indeed in the works, featuring a female lead and a setting of the early Cold War. Where the original film invited comparisons to Indiana Jones, let’s hope the sequel won’t be a Crystal Skull affair.
But even if it does, the original is still an adventure that has aged well, and is hugely enjoyable. Featuring spectacular flight stunts and car chases, funny lines and likeable characters, gangster shootouts and – a personal favourite – Nazi-punching, The Rocketeer can now be viewed as an overlooked gem.
❉ Stephen Graham is available for children’s parties, specialising in recreating scenes from the Spanish Civil War via balloon-craft. He can be followed on Twitter @PlopGazette
❉ ‘The Rocketeer’ is available on DVD, Blu-Ray and Amazon Video.