The Best Movie You Never Saw: The Rocketeer

Welcome to The Best Movie You NEVER Saw, a column dedicated to examining films that have flown under the radar or gained traction throughout the years, earning them a place as a cult classic or underrated gem that was either before it’s time and/or has aged like a fine wine.

This week we’ll be looking at THE ROCKETEER!

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THE STORY: A young pilot named Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) finds a futuristic rocket pack, which he heroically uses in an air show, earning him the moniker, The Rocketeer. Unfortunately for Cliff, the rocket is also being sought after by a Nazi cabal, headed by a Hollywood swashbuckler named Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton) who tries to get to Cliff by seducing his girlfriend, Jenny (Jennifer Connelly).

THE PLAYERS: Starring: Bill Campbell, Jennifer Connelly, Timothy Dalton, Paul Sorvino, and Alan Arkin. Music by James Horner. Directed by Joe Johnson.

“I enjoyed it hugely, and I loved working with Joe [Johnston]. It’s not every day that you get to do a big Hollywood studio movie. I mean, most movies are made out of Hollywood, away somewhere. And that was made in Hollywood. It was a great experience to do that and be part of it, and I thought it was a terrific film.”- Timothy Dalton – Random Roles Interview

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THE HISTORY: In the summer of 1990, Touchstone Pictures had a sizable hit with Warren Beatty’s DICK TRACY, based on the classic 1930’s comic. This, combined with the retro action of the Indiana Jones franchise inspired Hollywood dealmakers to look at pulp material from the era in the hopes of crafting the next big franchise. Thus, we got films like THE SHADOW and THE PHANTOM. Disney was not immune, but rather than buy actual thirties pulp, they instead bought the rights to a comic book character by Dave Stevens, which was only set in the thirties, and indeed, seemed inspired by the adventures of a certain Nazi-fighting archaeologist.

In a risky move, studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg opted to make this a Walt Disney Pictures release, meaning anything risqué from the comics had to be toned way down in favor of a family-friendly PG-rated movie. This was long before the era of Marvel when Disney wouldn’t think twice about releasing a PG-13. Back then, Disney meant families, and indeed this switch is likely what doomed THE ROCKETEER at the box office, with the older kid and teen audience, who should have flocked to see this, skipping it thinking it would be a “kiddie” movie. Despite great reviews, THE ROCKETEER topped out at $46 million domestically, not a bad number but far below what was needed to guarantee a franchise.

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WHY IT’S GREAT: Count me among the kids growing up in the nineties that decided to skip THE ROCKETEER in theaters, thinking it would be a kids film. While I was only nine years old, the adventure movie I was dying to see in the summer of 1991 was ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES and my interest in THE ROCKETEER was so low that I didn’t see it until a few years later when my mother, of all people, thought it would be worth checking out on VHS. Strangely, I wasn’t interested in seeing it, despite being a James Bond maniac at the time, with Timothy Dalton arguably the biggest draw in the cast, with him playing the antagonist, Neville Sinclair.

Of course, when I saw it I loved it. THE ROCKETEER is an old-fashioned Hollywood adventure, very much in the vein of the Indiana Jones films, with Bill Campbell playing our square-jawed, Gary Cooper-esque hero, Cliff Secord. Campbell should have been a star but it didn’t quite work out for him, however, he would eventually go on to small screen stardom in several popular TV shows. Casting him was a risky bet as he was an unknown, as was his co-star, a twenty-year-old Jennifer Connelly, then best known for LABYRINTH. They make an appealing duo that should have spawned a series of films, but alas it was not to be.

Certainly, one cannot say Disney didn’t swing for the fences, with the film using some pretty state of the art CGI for the flying scenes, while the art deco Rocketeer costume is a thing of beauty. The supporting cast is top shelf, including a wigged Alan Arkin as Cliff’s ornery sidekick/mentor, while Paul Sorvino is the James Cagney-esque gangster bad guy – until a heroic reversal towards the end. They’ve also got “Tiny” Ron Taylor as the hulking Rondo Hatton style henchman, plus one of James Horner’s all-time best scores.

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All that said, the thing that makes THE ROCKETEER, for me anyway, a genuine classic is an iconic turn by Timothy Dalton as Neville Sinclair. For those who don’t know, Sinclair is basically Errol Flynn. At the time this movie was made, a biography had come out that said Errol Flynn was a Nazi, even suggesting he may have been undercover for them in Hollywood. This rumor has since been debunked. Flynn was many things but he was no Nazi. Sadly, his reputation never really recovered, and to this day its become Hollywood folklore (and a pretty damn irresponsible piece of reportage by Charles Higham, with some even going so far as to say he altered documents to make his case). Nevertheless, it makes for a good story and Dalton plays it to the hilt.

“I think Joe was a terrific director, and I liked him very much. He went on to make one of my favorite films, October Sky. It’s a lovely film, a wonderful film.” – Timothy Dalton – Random Roles Interview

BEST SCENE: One of my favorite scenes in THE ROCKETEER is when Paul Sorvino’s gangster baddie suddenly switches sides when he realizes Sinclair is a baddie, resulting in a sensational gunfight where the FBI and the gangsters – wielding Tommy Guns – take on the Nazi goons. This is only part of the scene, but it’s a gem.

SEE IT: If you’re looking for THE ROCKETEER, you sure don’t have to look far. It’s available in a beautiful transfer on Disney +!

PARTING SHOT: THE ROCKETEER is a great, old fashioned piece of escapism. It’s a movie I’ve always been fond of revisiting, and it’s a shame it was never able to spawn a franchise. Even still, it’s one of those big swings, similar to JOHN CARTER, that maybe don’t pay off financially, but look great in hindsight. Check it out!

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