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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “The Rocketeer” (1991) – The 30th Anniversary

Before “The Rocketeer” became one of the most underrated comic book movies of all time. The character is an homage to the Saturday matinee serial heroes from the 1930s through the 1950s and created by writer and artist Dave Stevens, where “The Rocketeer” had its genesis in a backup story in “Starslayer”, a fantasy comic by independent publisher Pacific Comics. “The Rocketeer” had first appeared in 1982 in the “Starslayer” issues numbered 2 and 3 by Mike Grell’s. The strip was promoted to the lead feature in the first two issues of the anthology “Pacific Presents” later that year. It was finally completed two years later in a “Rocketeer” special edition from Eclipse Comics. The change of publisher was notable; but unlike many creators who worked for hire, Stevens had retained the rights to his work, giving him full control of the characters’ use.

“The Rocketeer” was then published in 1988 from new publisher Comico. After just two issues, Comico folded and six years had passed before the final installment was published by Dark Horse Comics. The new tale was, even more majestically drawn than the earlier episodes that featured hard-boiled gangsters, old-time carnivals, freak shows and a crime-fighting patron inspired by “The Shadow”.

While “The Rocketeer” did well in comic book form, it had long before the first tale was ever completed, been optioned by Hollywood. Director Steve Miner (“Friday The 13th: Part 2 & 3”, “Forever Young” and “Lake Placid”) purchased the film rights from Stevens in 1983, but he strayed too far from the original concept and the rights reverted back to Dave Stevens. In 1985 Stevens gave writers Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo (both writers of the 90’s “The Flash” tv series, “Da 5 Bloods”), a free option on “The Rocketeer” rights. 

Stevens said in an interview for Cinefantastique “Their ideas for The Rocketeer were heartfelt and affectionate tributes to the 1930s movie serials with all the right dialogue and atmosphere. Most people would approach my characters contemporarily, but Danny and Paul saw them as pre-war mugs”. Stevens, Bilson and De Meo considered making “The Rocketeer” as a low budget film, shot in black & white and funded by independent investors. However, that same year, the trio approached William Dear (“Harry and The Henderson’s”, “If Looks Could Kill”) to direct and co-write “The Rocketeer” and with Dear onboard, they eventually dropped the low-budget idea. Bilson, De Meo and Dear kept the comic book’s basic plot intact, but fleshed it out to include a Hollywood setting and have a climactic battle against a Nazi Zeppelin. 

They also tweaked Cliff Secord’s girlfriend to avoid comparisons to Bettie Page, which was how she was drawn and written in Stevens’ comics. They also changed her name from Betty to Jenny and her profession from nude model to Hollywood extra, that also helped to make the film more family friendly. Stevens, Bilson, De Meo and Dear began to pitch “The Rocketeer” in 1986 to major film studios but all of them turned them down. In an interview with “Comic Book Artist Magazine”, Dave Stevens said: “This was 1986, long before Batman or Dick Tracy or anything similar. In those days, no studio was interested at all in an expensive comic book movie. We got there about three years too early for our own good!”. Walt Disney Studios eventually accepted “The Rocketeer” because they believed the film had toyetic potential and potential for merchandising. 

“The Rocketeer” was set to be released through Disney’s adult film company Touchstone Pictures. Stevens, Bilson, De Meo and Dear all signed a contract which would permit them to make a trilogy of “Rocketeer” films. However, Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg switched the film to a Walt Disney Pictures release. According to Stevens, “immediately, Betty and anything else ‘adult’ went right out with the bathwater. They really tried to shoehorn it into a kiddie property so they could sell toys. All they really wanted at the end of the day, was the name”. 

Initially, Disney executives wanted to set the film in contemporary times, out of concern that a period piece might not appeal to a large audience. Bilson and DeMeo argued that the success of the “Indiana Jones” trilogy proved that moviegoers would enjoy an adventure film set in the 1930s and therefore studio agreed.

Bilson and DeMeo then submitted their seven-page film treatment to Disney, but the studio put their script through an endless series of revisions. Over five years, Disney fired and rehired Bilson and DeMeo three times. DeMeo explained in an interview with Cinemafantastique, that “Disney felt that they needed a different approach to the script, which meant bringing in someone else. But those scripts were thrown out and we were always brought back on”. They found the studio’s constant tinkering with the screenplay to be a frustrating process as “Executives would like previously excised dialogue three months later. Scenes that had been thrown out two years ago were put back in. What was the point”? DeMeo said. 

One of Bilson and De Meo’s significant revisions to the script over the years was to make Cliff and Jenny’s romance more believable and avoid cliché aspects that would stereotype Jenny as a damsel in distress. The numerous project delays forced Dear to drop out as director as he moved on to direct John Lithgow in “Harry and The Hendersons” and “If Looks Could Kill”, the James Bond action comedy spoof starring Richard Grieco. Although without William Dear no longer as director, he is still credited as a story writer. 

Director Joe Johnston, was a fan of “The Rocketeer” comic book and immediately offered his services as director when he found out Disney had owned the film rights. Johnston had just released “Honey I Shrunk The Kids” for Disney and was quickly hired for “The Rocketeer” and pre-production started in early 1990. After Bilson and De Meo’s third major rewrite, Disney finally greenlit “The Rocketeer”. 

“The Rocketeer” director Joe Johnston worked previously as an art director and model maker at the George Lucas owned ILM (Industrial Light & Magic), before his film directing career took off. Johnston went on to direct the Robin Williams “Jumanji”, “Jurassic Park III” (the best one of the series), “Hidalgo”, “Wolfman” and “Captain America”. 

Casting the lead role of Cliff Secord (The Rocketeer) proved to be a struggle for the filmmakers. Disney executive Jeffrey Katzenberg even had one of the studio’s then-staff writers, Karey Kirkpatrick audition for the part. Kevin Costner and Matthew Modine (“Full Metal Jacket”) were the first actors to be considered for the role. When they both were unavailable, then actors Dennis Quaid, Kurt Russell, Bill Paxton and Emilio Estevez auditioned for the part. Johnny Depp was Disney’s favorite and first choice, while Bill Paxton had commented that he came “really close” to getting the lead. Vincent D’Onofrio (“Full Metal Jacket”, “Men In Black”) was the final actor offered the role, but turned it down. 

The decision to cast Billy Campbell as Cliff Secord caused mixed emotions among Disney executives. Director Joe Johnston and creator Dave Stevens believed Campbell was perfect for the role, but Disney wanted an A-list actor. Campbell who was an unknown actor, had only starred in small guest spots in a few TV series up until his appearance as “The Rocketeer”. Director Joe Johnston had eventually convinced Disney to cast Campbell. 

He was not familiar with the comic book when he got the part but quickly read it, along with books on aviation and continued to prepare by listening to 1940s period music. Campbell had a fear of flying but overcame it with the help of the film’s aerial coordinator, Craig Hosking. To ensure his safety, Campbell was doubled for almost all of the flying sequences in a conventional aircraft. Ultimately, a scale model devised by ILM puppeteer Tom St. Amand was used for all the rocket pack sequences. 

Later in his career, Billy Campbell made appearances in many TV series that included the lead role in the unfairly short lived drama “Once and Again”. As of 2021, he is set to star as the lead in the series “National Parks”, written by Oscar winner Kevin Costner. Campbell has starred in studio movies “Bram Stoker’s: Dracula”, “Enough”, “Ghost Town”, “Gettysburg”, “Gods and Generals” and “Killing Lincoln”. 

For the female lead of Cliff’s girlfriend Jenny. A few actresses such as: Kelly Preston, Diane Lane and Elizabeth McGovern were considered before Jennifer Connelly, who was eventually cast. Jennifer Connelly made her big screen debut in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon A Time In America”, starred in the fantasy epic “Labyrinth” and the John Hughes comedy “Career Opportunities” all before starring in “The Rocketeer”. 

Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly’s working relationship eventually led to a real romantic coupling off set. During their relationship, the 31 year-old Campbell had gotten engaged with the 20 year-old Jennifer Connelly before they broke up in 1996 after being involved for five years. Director Joe Johnston found their romance to be a technique of method acting that helped with their on-screen chemistry. 

For Secord’s sidekick of Peevy, Dave Stevens hoped that “SeaHunt” star Lloyd Bridges would play the part, but Bridges turned it down and Alan Arkin was casted. The part of villain Neville Sinclair was offered to Jeremy Irons (“Die Hard With A Vengeance”) and Charles Dance (“Last Action Hero”) before two time, “007” James Bond actor Timothy Dalton accepted the role. The characterization of Neville Sinclair was inspired by movie star Errol Flynn, or rather by the image of Flynn that had been popularized by Charles Higham’s unauthorized and fabricated biography of the actor, in which he asserted that Flynn was other than an actor, but also a Nazi spy. 

The film’s Neville Sinclair is, like Higham’s Flynn, a movie star known for his work in swashbuckler roles who is secretly a Nazi spy. Because Higham’s biography of Flynn was not refuted until the late 1980s, the image of Flynn as a closet Nazi, remained current all through the arduous process of writing and re-writing the script. Lastly, the part of Eddie Valentine was written with Joe Pesci in mind, but he turned it down that ended up going to Paul Sorvino. “Rocketeer” creator Dave Stevens has a cameo in the film, as the German test pilot who is killed when the Nazis’ version of a rocket backpack explodes during the takeoff sequence.

Principal photography for “The Rocketeer” started in September 1990 to January 1991. The film ended up going 50 days over schedule due to weather and mechanical problems. Creator Dave Stevens was heavily involved in the production process as possible and he secured as much artistic control as he could from Disney. The studio, in particular was not enthusiastic with Stevens’ involvement. Stevens commented “I was on the set day and night, from pre-production till post-production! And initially, I had to fight to prove that I was there for the benefit of the film and not for my own ego”. The sequence where Cliff rescues Malcolm was adapted shot-for-shot from Stevens’ comic book.

The original production budget was set at $25 million, but rose to $35 million. This happened after Disney became impressed with the films dailies. It seems that Disney realized, “The Rocketeer” was a bigger movie than they were anticipating and they approved the budget overages. 

Dave Stevens gave the production designer Jim Bissell and his two art directors his entire reference library pertaining to “The Rocketeer” at that time period, including blueprints for hangars to photos and drawings of the Bulldog Cafe, all the way down to the uniforms for the air circus staff and contacts for locating the vintage aircraft that were to be used. Stevens remembers that they “literally just took the reference and built the sets”. 

Disney had originally intended to change “The Rocketeer’s” trademark helmet design completely. Disney president Michael Eisner wanted a straight NASA-type helmet but director Joe Johnston threatened to quit production if the helmet was changed. Disney relented, but only after creating a number of prototype designs that were ultimately rejected by the filmmakers. Stevens asked Johnston for one week to produce a good helmet design. 

He proceeded to work with a sculptor he knew, made a cast of the film’s main stunt man’s head and brainstormed ideas with the help of his sketches. They produced a helmet that the filmmakers agreed looked appropriate from all angles; in most respects it was identical to the helmet design Stevens had used for his comics series. Legendary make-up artist Rick Baker had designed the prosthetic makeup design used for the Lothar character, portrayed by Tiny Ron Taylor. 

The visual effects of “The Rocketeer” were designed and created by George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic with Ken Ralston (“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” and Sony Pictures Imageworks founder) serving as the VFX supervisor. Director Joe Johnston had an insistence on making a realistic flying rocketman that led ILM to devise a lifelike Cliff Secord model that was filmed in “stop-motion animation”, coupled with an 18″ figurine that was manipulated by hand to create “motion-blur”.

“The Rocketeer’s” big climax on the Nazi Zeppelin was filmed over four months near Six Flags Magic Mountain amusement park in Valencia, California. Remaining visual effects footage took place at ILM’s headquarters in San Rafael and Hamilton Air Force Base. There, they constructed a 12 ft scale model of the Zeppelin, which was photographed against matte paintings that resembled 1938 Los Angeles for intercutting purposes. Just the Zeppelin explosion special effects alone cost $400,000.

To promote the film, Disney made tie-in endorsements with Pizza Hut and Mars candies (owners of M&M’s). An extensive product line followed of computer games, toys, posters, trading cards, pins, patches, buttons, T-shirtsand children’s clothing that were all licensed to coincide with the film’s opening. The studio also spent a further $19 million on TV advertising and also a special television documentary called “The Rocketeer: Excitement in the Air”, was broadcast on the Disney Channel in June 1991. Within that same month, a young adult novelization written by Peter David was published by Bantam Books, while a similar novelization by Ron Fontes was written for younger readers and published by Scholastic Books for Disney Press.

“The Rocketeer” had its world premiere at the El Capitan Theatre (that is able to seat 1100 people) on June 19th, 1991. This was the first premiere to take place at the El Capitan in more than two years, due to an Art Deco-like restoration project Disney had been working on. Although the film received positive reviews, it underperformed at the box office having opened in fourth place behind “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves”, “City Slickers” and “Dying Young”. With a final budget of $40 million, “The Rocketeer” only grossed a disappointing $46 million. This led to Disney choosing not to execute its planned option for a pair of sequels. 

From the beginning, creator Dave Stevens and screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo envisioned “The Rocketeer” as the first entry of a trilogy. Both Billy Campbell and Jennifer Connelly were contracted for the sequels, Campbell for two more and Connelly for only one. However, with the film’s disappointing box office performance, plans for a sequel were halted in July 1991. “Unfortunately the movie didn’t make as much money as Disney had hoped”, Campbell reflected in a January 2008 interview with MTV News. “And that coupled with the acrimonious relationship that the director Joe Johnston and the studio had, contributed to them not even considering it”.

Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens acknowledged he was “satisfied with 70% of the film” and highly praised Joe Johnston’s direction. “The overall spirit and sweetness of the series is still there and intact. We lost some good character stuff in editing for time, but the tone of it is still what I was trying to project in the comic pages. I also thought Joe’s casting choices were excellent. To his credit, Joe did not fill out the cast with a bunch of ‘Beverly Hills, 90210’ Barbie and Ken-type kids”. Stevens found Billy Campbell to be “a good-looking guy, but he also happens to be Cliff! I would never have cast him based on good looks alone, but he came into the audition and just nailed it shut. He was made for it. The part was his”.

Released on the home video market in 1991–1992 on LaserDisc, VHS and Beta videotape formats, where “The Rocketeer” earned an additional $23.18 million in rentals. “The Rocketeer” was released on DVD in August 1999, with no special features included on the DVD release although the 1991 LaserDischad included the original theatrical trailer. A bare bones and remastered, 20th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray was released in December 2011.

A TV series based on the movie premiered on Disney Junior in November 2019. It focused on Kit Secord, the 7-year-old great granddaughter of Cliff who receives the jetpack and becomes the new “Rocketeer”. In 2012, Disney was reportedly developing a remake of “The Rocketeer” with “Saw” series creator James Wan in talks to directing the film. 

In July 2016, it was rumored that Walt Disney Pictures was once again rebooting “The Rocketeer”, titled “The Rocketeers”. It was reported that “The Rocketeers” will be a reboot sequel that takes place six years after the original film with a black female pilot in the lead role. The film’s plot sees the lead take on the mantle of The Rocketeer after Cliff Secord has gone missing while fighting the Nazis. The new Rocketeer goes on a mission to stop a corrupt scientist from stealing jetpack technology and shifting the balance of the Cold War.

Peter Ramsey (“Spider Man: Into The Spider-Verse”) expressed interest in directing the sequel and also suggested several other directors like Gina Prince-Bythewood (“Love & Basketball”) and Amma Asante (“A United Kingdom”) for the project, as well. In February 2020, it was reported that a new draft for the sequel was written, which will be released on Disney’s streaming service Disney+, although no new developments have yet been released. 

As with many films of this genre, “The Rocketeer” has built up a cult following in both the United States and Japan. The original Dave Stevens comics are still in demand and movie memorabilia continues to have a ready audience. In addition, “The Rocketeer” is still being published through comic book publisher IDW comic books. Following several years of struggling with uncommon hairy cell leukemia, caused a gradual reduction in his artistic output and Dave Stevens died on March 11th 2008, in California.

“The Rocketeer” is that rare foray into the Steven Spielberg and the George Lucas world of retro adventuring. Beautifully directed by Joe Johnston, featuring a high flying production, teeming with all sorts of classic Hollywood throwbacks and comic book touches. On it’s opening weekend “The Rocketeer” died a slow and painful death, with matinee showings becoming a ghost town. Although it was heartening to see a positive word of mouth, it sadly was far too late to matter. It’s one of Disney’s most underrated films and I can’t for the life of me figure out why it never took off. 

Thirty years later and I still sustain a love for this film, one that’s lost none of its appeal. It’s got it’s heart in the right place and is a lot of fun. “The Rocketeer” has everything a kid or adult of any age could wish for from a movie with chase scenes, aerial stunts, swordfights, even classic old Hollywood romance. Unlike other summer blockbusters, “The Rocketeer” isn’t all just special effects and starpower. There is an emphasis on story, characters and it’s stunning period piece look. “The Rocketeer” has got the heart, wit and a real movie going feel that proved movies can still be made like they used to.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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