The Rocketeer: Revisited

The Rocketeer revisited. In this series I re-watch a movie I haven’t seen in a long time to look at it with new eyes, and (hopefully) more experience. This time I revisit The Rocketeer.

For some reason I can’t remember much about The Rocketeer. Watching it again, I mostly recall the zeppelin at the end of the film. I wonder if I fell asleep the first time I watched it …

It’s certainly possible. Sometimes I did that as a kid on movie nights when I was bored. And re-watching The Rocketeer, I can see how that might have happened. The Rocketeer takes place in 1930’s Hollywood. The setting imbues the film with a sense of the era and it isn’t in a big ol’ hurry to get anywhere. On the surface it has pizzazz; The Rocketeer is about a struggling young pilot, Cliff (Billy Campbell), who stumbles across a jet pack that allows him to fly. Unfortunately, a lot people are pursuing that jet pack including the FBI, famous actor Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), some mobsters Sinclair hires, the Nazis, and a hulking brute named Lothar (Tiny Ron Taylor).

But the film is more about people and relationships than it is about The Rocketeer. Like Cliff’s relationship with Peevy (Alan Arkin), who is Cliff’s friend / roommate / father figure / mentor / partner (it’s a multi-layered relationship). Peevy is a modest mechanical genius who stays up half the night making Cliff a helmet after they find the jet pack, even though Peevy thinks using the jet pack is a bad idea. The other big relationship in the film is the one between Cliff and Jenny (Jennifer Connelly). Jenny is an up-and-coming actress who is just gaga for Cliff. When Cliff takes her to the local airfield diner for the umpteenth time and one of the bumbling regulars splashes soup on Jenny’s blouse, she let’s it slide. She simply takes Cliff’s hand and makes plans for their future, saying they should celebrate at a fancier place when Cliff wins the National Flying competition.

Whatever else The Rocketeer is about, it always comes back to Cliff wanting to become the kind of man who deserves Jenny. That’s something I wouldn’t have caught when I was younger.

Here are four things I noticed when I re-visited The Rocketeer.

The Rocketeer Comic

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As a kid, I didn’t know that The Rocketeer was based on a comic book. Nor did I know that the comic book was an homage to the the serials from the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.

There’s a purity of spirit to serials. As if they say, “we’re going on an adventure and you’re coming with us.”

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The Rocketeer comic aims to capture that same spirit. The comic has a complicated print history that spans several years and various collections with large gaps of time in-between. There seems to be a timeless quality not only to the story, but also to the characters. In the comic, Cliff is even more insecure than he is in the movie. He wants his girlfriend Betty (she’s called Betty in the comics) to spend all her time with him. He’s afraid that she’s going to leave him for a man with more money. Cliff is also worried about the other men in her life, like the photographer that does lingerie shoots with her.

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Betty is also very different from Cliff’s movie girlfriend Jenny, but Betty’s personality probably explains some of Jenny’s desires. Betty isn’t sure of how she feels about Cliff. She finds him too clingy and unsure of himself. Betty is also independent and self-interested; she really does seem to care more about her career than she does about Cliff. When the skeevy photographer asks her to come to Europe with him she accepts and leaves without saying goodbye to Cliff.

Cliff’s movie girlfriend Jenny is much more supportive and patient than Betty, but when you look at Jenny you can see the little bits of Betty that went into her.

 

Unusual Villain

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Neville Sinclair is a somewhat unusual villain, who is a combination of a few characters in the comic. He seems to be a combination of the photographer who steals Betty, and the inventor of the jet pack, Howard Hughes. In the comic Hughes is the one trying to re-locate the jet pack, and in the movie Sinclair is trying to get his hands on the jet pack. Likewise, both the photographer from the comic and Sinclar from the movie pursue Cliff’s girlfriend.

We know Sinclair the main villain from the start of the film because he’s after the jet pack and he’s employed the mob to find it. But we don’t know why. We discover his true identity later on in the film much like we would in a classic mystery tale.

But when it comes to Jenny, Sinclair strays a little from the traditional villain’s path. Yes he kidnaps her, but at first he simply seduces her. And the thing he seduces is what she wants from Cliff; to be able to dress up sometimes and go to a fancy club.

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In this fashion, Sinclair threatens Cliff’s ultimate goal for the film, which is Jenny’s affection. And he does so (initially) in a non-threatening manner by asking her on a date. This results in a scene with a two-tiered layer of conflict. While Sinclair is out on a date with Jenny, the mob learns that Jenny is associated with the missing jet pack. So Cliff must go to the night club to warn Jenny that she’s in danger, but he also wants to stop Jenny’s date with another man. This creates a weird kind of tension, as though Sinclair asking Jenny to dance is ominous.

Despite the similarities between Sinclair and the antagonists from the comics, to my knowledge (I only read one comic collection of The Rocketeer), the decision to make Sinclair a Nazi sympathizer is unique to the film.

 

The Mob Working with the FBI

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There’s this amusing moment during the film’s climax with Nazi forces. Sinclair and the mob have captured Jenny and in order to get her back, Cliff must give them the jet pack. As the exchange occurs, Sinclair gets outed as a Nazi sympathizer and the mobsters turn on him. As they do, Sinclair calls out in German and a group of armed Nazis appear from the shadows.

Then the FBI shows up and both and the mobsters and the FBI end up in a gun fight with the Nazis. During the shooting, there’s this moment when the lead mobster and an FBI agent are firing at Nazis side by side. They stop firing for a moment and look at each other, realizing that they’re in a temporary alliance. Even though they’re enemies, they’re both Americans, right? And that’s more important. (Supposedly this is a nod to the fact mobsters helped the U.S. government discover Nazi spies during World War II.)

This nod is a part of a larger patriotic theme that suddenly appears in the last twenty minutes of The Rocketeer.

 

The Patriotism

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Near the end of The Rocketeer there is a brief but intense swell of American patriotism. Before this, there are a couple of bits of Nazi propaganda in the film (one that shows Nazi soldiers armed with jet packs flying to America and easily conquering it), as well as the quick reveal of Sinclair as a Nazi sympathizer, but it’s all brief and just at the tail end of the film.

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Maybe it’s tacked on because director Joe Johnston is a patriot. Maybe the script called for it. Maybe it hearkens back to the simplistic nature of the early serials by painting the bad guys the most sinister, darkest black and the good guys the brightest white possible. Maybe it’s a knowing nod to it’s own campy nature. But there’s just so much patriotism in a short span of time.

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There’s this line just before the Nazi troops appear where the lead mobster says, “I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American.” And then the FBI and the mobsters share that moment where they smile at each other because they’re both Americans fighting for America. And then The Rocketeer stands next to an American flag and the FBI shines a light on him. “Look it’s The Rocketeer!” an FBI guy shouts. And then James Horner’s theme swells. And then Cliff blasts away from the American flag and flies towards the evil Nazi zeppelin. And then the lead mobster looks up at the Rocketeer and says, “Go get ’em, kid.”

Good golly. It’s just too much patriotism at once. Right up until that moment The Rocketeer had me along for the adventure, but in those moments it lost me — it just didn’t fly.

2 Comments
  1. Reply automaton November 22, 2016 at 5:55 am

    Holy crap I had no idea a comic existed, that’s pretty cool. And, yet again you’ve found a movie I adored in my youth.

    I re-watched part of this movie a couple of months ago, and I was surprised by the patriotism in it. In my memory of the film, I actually never recalled it at all. All I remembered was the fact that he had a rocket and could fly, and I wanted one.

    Sadly, as an adult, I question the kind of man that is willing to fly something where the only thing separating him from a fiery death is a piece of gum. That’s just unnecessary risk taking.

    • Reply Movie Lists Man November 23, 2016 at 10:36 pm

      Yes. I found the gum particularly troubling as an adult.

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