Touchstone and Beyond: A History of Disney’s “The Rocketeer”

This week we travel back to 1991 for a film that was ahead of its time, The Rocketeer. A co-production between Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures, The Rocketeer found praise from critics but not enough box office success for a sequel.

The Plot

Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) has just crashed his plane that was going to take him to the national racing competition. All hope is not lost. When gangsters stash an experimental rocket in the hangar at his airport, Cliff finds the mysterious item and with his friend, an engineer named Peevy (Alan Arkin) they rework the rocket and Cliff starts to fly with just the jetpack on his back. After saving a pilot at the airshow, Cliff gets his picture in the paper with a new moniker, “The Rocketeer”, and a whole lot of attention.

The mafia led by Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) are looking for the rocket too. Employed by famed actor/Nazi spy, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who is using Valentine and his mob to feed the interest of Hitler and the Nazi war machine.

Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) is also looking for the rocket. As designer of the prototype Hughes knows the Nazi’s plans for his work. While Germany tried to make their own version of the rocket which failed, Hughes prototype is a hot commodity.

Sinclair tries to bait Cliff by kidnapping his girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) which results in a fiery clash at the Griffith Observatory. Cliff gallantly fights Sinclair on a Nazi zeppelin saving the day with Jenny, Peevy, and Howard Hughes. The FBI and Eddie’s gangsters join forces to shoot it out with Sinclair’s Nazi troops.

Cinematic Compliments

The film is a joy to watch. From the soundtrack to the scenery, The Rocketeer brings 1930’s Los Angeles to life. The scenery turns Hollywood into something magical, with the South Seas Club, the Bull Dog Café, and even the very real Griffith Observatory. As a viewer I want to step inside the television and visit this imaginary world.

Alan Arkin and Terry O’Quinn could not have been better cast for their roles. They bring intelligence, ingenuity, and power to their supporting roles.

Timothy Dalton is an excellent villain. He has the suave personality to be the mega star Neville Sinclair, but his turn to Nazi villain is perfect. It is easy to believe that Sinclair inhabits both worlds so seamlessly thanks to Dalton’s skill.

Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly are perfect as Cliff and Jenny. It is easy to see Cliff fall into the role of the Rocketeer, and Connelly makes Jenny standout from not being the damsel in distress character. There are multiple times where it is Jenny who saves Cliff.

Cinematic Complaints

I have loved this film since I first saw it when I was eleven, and I still love it now. If you are not a fan of period pieces, or pulpy comic book inspired films, then maybe The Rocketeer is not for you.

Fun Film Facts

  • Clint Howard (brother of Ron Howard) has a cameo in the film. He interrupts Sinclair and Jenny’s dinner at the South Seas Club with a message for Sinclair.
  • In the original graphic novel Cliff’s girlfriend was named Betty Page, named after the famous pin up girl of the 1950’s. The real Bettie Page refused to allow her name to be used in the film, so the character was changed to Jenny Blake.
  • Apparently, Billy Campbell read the graphic novel before auditioning and got a hair cut to make himself look like Cliff Secord in hopes that it would help him secure the role.
  • In the original graphic novel, it was Doc Savage who invented the rocket pack. Due to licensing agreements, Disney opted to replace Savage with Howard Hughes.
  • Billy Campbell was an unknown actor and casting him for the lead took some convincing by director Joe Johnston. Disney executives were very hesitant about his ability to lead the film.
  • The quest to find the perfect Cliff Secord had Disney looking at everyone from Kevin Costner, Johnny Depp, and Bill Paxton. The decision was settled when Johnstone got his way.
  • Frank Darabont had some uncredited work as a script doctor.
  • Joe Pesci turned down the role of Eddie Valentine. (Paul Sorvino is perfect for the part)
  • William Dear had been hired as the director before being replaced by Johnston. Dear contributed enough to the script that he received a story by credit in the film.
  • Disney did reboot The Rocketeer in a way. A follow up animated show premiered on Disney Junior in 2019.
  • While the original creator of The Rocketeer Dave Stevens saw the potential for a big screen blockbuster, he believed that Disney only warmed to the idea of the film because they saw an opportunity for lucrative toy sales related to the film.
  • The exterior set of the Bulldog Café was a main feature on the Disney-MGM Studios Backlot tour. It could be found in the boneyard section where other props and set pieces from Disney films were stored.

The Golden Popcorn Bucket Award

The Rocketeer gets an outstanding 4 Golden Popcorn Bucket rating. This is a film worth watching multiple times. It radiates joy with its happy ending and excellent performances. If Disney+ is looking for a film to reboot into a series, The Rocketeer should be the number one contender.

Coming Attractions

Next week we wander into the Amazon to look for the cure to cancer with Sean Connery and Lorraine Bracco with Hollywood Pictures 1993 film, Medicine Man.

Production Credits

Directed by Joe Johnston

Produced by Walt Disney Pictures / Touchstone Pictures

Starring:

  • Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord
  • Jennifer Connelly as Jenny Blake
  • Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair
  • Paul Sorvino as Eddie Valentine
  • Alan Arkin as Peevy
  • Terry O’Quinn as Howard Hughes          

Release Date: June 21, 1991

Budget: $35 million

Box Office Gross

Domestic: $46,704,056