One of the first movies I watched when I got my Disney + subscription was The Rocketeer (1991). It was a way for me to fill in a gap from my childhood when, for reasons I cannot recall, I had been prevented from seeing it. Me obtaining said subscription fell within the purview of The Legionnaire and its existence. Hence my surprise when thinking about this little remembered Disney classic, and finding that I had yet to write a review of it. Shame on me! I am now here to correct that mistake.
The Rocketeer is set in 1938 Los Angeles, a time when the United States was just waking up from the Great Depression, but still sleeping enough technologically speaking where flight was still a thrill. Hoping to take advantage of the public’s lingering fascination with airplanes is pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), and his friend and mechanic A. Peabody (Alan Arkin), “Peevy” to his friends. They are wheeling out their new Gee Bee racer plane, a fast flier that they hope to enter into an upcoming national competition. Unfortunately, shortly into its first run of being put through its paces, an ongoing car chase between agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and local gangsters results in an errant bullet striking the Gee Bee. Cliff manages to bring it down on the runaway, but the landing results in the plane being a total wreck. Meanwhile, after having lost the Feds, one of the gangsters swaps the engine-like package they had stolen with a nearby vacuum cleaner. The car is then run into a fuel tanker, which lights both vehicles on fire. Meanwhile, the FBI, led by Agent Fitch (Ed Lauter), inform the machine’s designer Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) that it had been destroyed in the explosion. This is not the message delivered to local crime boss Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), whose henchman had actually stashed it in one of the other planes in the hangar. Eddie then delivers this news to the man who had hired him to steal it, famous movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). When pressed, Neville informs Eddie that they had been tasked with pilfering a rocket pack, a device that would allow people to soar through the air like a bird. This is the same conclusion Cliff and Peevy come to when they discover the device in the seat of one of their biplanes, or at least the one they come to after a series of haphazard tests. With their dreams of fame and fortune gone with the loss of the Gee Bee, Cliff sees a new opportunity to earn an income. Peevy is skeptical, but being the engineering whiz that he is, sets to work on making it safer. While Peevy tinkers, Cliff picks up his girlfriend Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) for their date. It goes well until, while sitting in the diner frequented by people who work at the airfield, one of the patrons mentions the loss of the Gee Bee. Jenny feels hurt that Cliff did not tell her, and promptly ends their date. The next day, Cliff goes to the movie set where Jenny is working on a film starring Neville and tries to apologize, but inadvertently knocks over part of the set. When Neville finds out that Cliff is there to see Jenny, he orders her fired, but then overhears Cliff telling her about the rocket. He then promptly walks back his statement after Cliff leaves, hoping to get more information out of her. When Cliff returns to the airfield, he finds out that the person responsible for revealing this information to Jenny, Malcolm (Eddie Jones), has taken his spot in the air show to make up for the tension he caused. However, Malcolm is an older pilot, and when he starts getting in trouble, Cliff decides to put on the pack and take to the skies to save him. Doing so makes Cliff an instant sensation with the crowd, but also reveals the location of the rocket to Neville, Valentine’s men, and the FBI. Neville sends his muscle to Peevy’s place to take the rocket, but Cliff and Peevy manage to escape and take refuge at the diner. This is where Valentine’s henchmen find them, and during this they learn that not only are they working for Neville, but that is also out with Jenny at dinner at the swanky South Seas Club. Cliff manages to warn Jenny there, but she is taken hostage by Neville. Back at the actor’s estate, Jenny learns that Neville is working with the Nazi’s to steal the rocket. He then makes an arrangement with Cliff to exchange the rocket for Jenny, which he agrees to despite the objections of Howard Hughes and the FBI. The meeting is crashed not only by the FBI, but Valentine’s men as well, who turns against his former employer when he finds out Neville is a Nazi. The exchange goes wrong, and Cliff is forced to fly up to a waiting zeppelin to rescue Jenny. In the process, Neville gets a hold of the pack and attempts to escape. Yet, a hole punched in it by a bullet hole, and patched by chewing gum, is uncorked, resulting in a blast that kills Neville. To thank him for his service, Neville then gives Cliff a new version of the Gee Bee, and that is basically where the film ends.
In my review of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), I mentioned how Neville Sinclair was meant to be a version of Errol Flynn, except this time with real Nazi ties instead of rumors. You can read my review there for more detail, but I will add here that aspect of Neville’s character was done, I am guessing, to give the film a more realistic grounding. What I would like to talk more about instead is Cliff’s character. You would probably be lying if you did not admit that you have dreamed of flying like a bird. I know I have had those dreams. Never mind when the film is set, any fictional character with this ability seems to spark our imagination. With that in mind, I wonder how many of us would willingly hand over such a device as Cliff did, no matter the stakes? Ultimately, he was willing to part with it in order to get Jenny back. It is an idealized nobility that you often find in movies, particularly those made by Disney. However, Faith challenges us to live up to those same ideas, no matter how lofty they may seem. What is great about practicing your Faith is that it allows us to fall down and get up again in building our relationship with God. Oddly, what comes to mind when thinking about the film from this perspective is the tale of Job. Here was a man who had made a comfortable life for himself, and had everything he could want. Yet, God tested him to his limit by taking it all away. It is not an exact analog to Cliff, but he saw his dreams of racing in the nationals and his relationship with Jenny collapse in the span of a few days, all because of a jet pack he found in a hangar. Where I feel this comparison is strongest is in seeing how they handle the tests with which they are presented. When we can meet these challenges with Faith, God rewards us infinitely more. For Job it meant a larger family and more lands than he had before, a key indicator of wealth in Biblical times. For Cliff, it resulted in a new plane and the patronage of Howard Hughes, which, in the 1930s, was as good as gold. So, the next time you are struggling to get your toaster to work, think about the rewards of staying patient and persevering.
The best thing you can say about The Rocketeer is that it is fun. It is uncomplicated, and the good guys win. You may want to exercise a bit of caution with younger audiences given some of the violence in it, but it is never gratuitous. Instead, it is a well-paced adventure that keeps your interest throughout. See it.