1991’s The Rocketeer is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure which centres on Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell), a hotshot pilot who inadvertently stumbles on a rocket pack which enables its wearer to fly. Once he tries it on, Cliff soars directly into a dangerous underworld of mobsters, feds and Nazi spies.
Though set in the 1930s, The Rocketeer was ahead of its time in some ways. Boasting state of the art special effects, it was also the first major live action comic book adaptation made by Disney – a format the studio would pursue in a big way when it purchased Marvel Studios 18 years later.
Did you know the following facts about The Rocketeer? Let’s blast off and find out.
20. It took eight years to get the film made
Writer-artist Dave Stevens independently published his Rocketeer comic book all the way back in 1982.
Stevens sold the film rights the following year, considering the character a natural fit for the screen, as he’d been inspired by 1930s serial Commando Cody.
Unfortunately, comic book movies were not the guaranteed hit back then that they are now, and this resulted in many major studios turning down the idea.
Even though the comic itself had a decent following, nobody was convinced that these numbers would translate into ticket sales, and so Stevens had to accept the fact that just selling the rights was not quite enough to get the movie made.
Prospective directors Steve Miner and William Dear were linked to the project early on, but it wasn’t until Disney picked up the script in the late 80s that The Rocketeer really took off, with Joe Johnston attached.
19. Jennifer Connelly’s character was modelled on pin-up model Bettie Page
In the Rocketeer comics, Cliff Secord’s girlfriend is a nude model named Betty, and is directly modelled on 1950s pin-up Bettie Page.
In fact, this is partly what led to the resurgence of the model becoming a cult icon again, almost thirty years after her heyday.
However, Betty Page famously took pictures that were much edgier and more explicit than other pin-ups at the time, and this was deemed too risque for what was hoped to be a family film.
Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo subsequently changed Betty the model into Jenny the actress, in order to keep the fifties aesthetic without any of the non-family friendly connotations.
Jennifer Connelly was cast in the role, winning out over Diane Lane, Elizabeth McGovern, Sherilyn Fenn and Kelly Preston.
18. Johnny Depp and Kurt Russell auditioned for Cliff Secord before Billy Campbell was cast
Before they settled on Billy Campbell, Disney was keen to cast an A-list leading man as the Rocketeer himself.
To this end, a lot of big names came in to read for the role, among them Kevin Costner, Dennis Quaid, and Emilio Estevez, .
The studio even pushed for some more wild card names that they thought could garauntee a success, which led to people like Matthew Modine and Bill Paxton being proposed in the end.
Johnny Depp was the big-name candidate that stuck around the longest, with the studio even voicing that they thought the wrong decision had been made when they eventually went another way.
However, director Joe Johnston pushed for comparative unknown Billy Campbell (then known professionally as Bill). Creator Dave Stevens concurred, and the studio eventually gave their blessing.
17. The Neville Sinclair Nazi spy story is inspired by actual allegations against Errol Flynn
The Rocketeer’s villain Neville Sinclair is a Nazi spy, deep undercover in Hollywood as a superstar actor, whose look and persona are clearly modelled on 1930s screen legend Errol Flynn.
Screenwriters Billson and De Meo were inspired by a biography of Flynn by author Charles Higham, which alleged that the actor had actually been a Nazi spy.
The rumours stemmed from the confirmed fact that Flynn’s long-time girlfriend was Gertrude Anderson, a famous Swedish singer and documented Nazi sympathiser.
Anderson was constantly being spied on by the FBI, as she was considered a high risk of passing information onto the Nazis, something Flynn was suspected of by association.
It was later investigated and confirmed that the rumours were completely false, but they have stuck around as a popular old Hollywood conspiracy.
16. Timothy Dalton was cast as Neville Sinclair after Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance said no
Even though he was still officially James Bond at the time of his casting, Timothy Dalton was not the first choice to play Neville Sinclair, only being offered the role after Jeremy Irons and Charles Dance declined.
Ironically, Charles Dance would later accept a bad guy role which Dalton had turned down: Benedict, in 1993’s Last Action Hero.
With that said, although Dalton was not the first choice for the role, the film definitely ended up being shaped by his presence.
For example, in one scene in The Rocketeer, Cliff says to Neville “Where’s your stuntman now Sinclair?” to which he replies ” I do my own stunts”.
This is a reference to the fact that Dalton did all of his own stunts on James Bond, and was at the time the only Bond actor ever to do so.
15. Alan Arkin and Paul Sorvino were cast after Lloyd Bridges and Joe Pesci passed
Neville Sinclair wasn’t the only Rocketeer character played by a second choice actor.
The role of Cliff’s engineer mentor Peevy was first offered to film legend Lloyd Bridges, whilst Joe Pesci was first choice for mob boss Eddie Valentine.
Joe Pesci’s declining of the role was somewhat expected due to him being at the height of his fame at the time.
This was thanks to a string of hugely successful movies that he helped to make iconic, including the Home Alone franchise.
When both actors declined, Alan Arkin landed the part of Peevy, whilst Pesci’s Goodfellas co-star Paul Sorvino became a natural fit for Valentine.
14. Billy Campbell was actually afraid of flying
Our hero Cliff Secord has a great love for being up in the air, but this was not a passion shared by actor Billy Campbell. In fact, Campbell suffered from a great fear of flying.
Craig Hoksing, co-ordinator of the film’s aerial stunt sequences, helped Campbell overcome his fear across the weeks on set.
Fortunately for Campbell, stunt doubles were already necessary for several shots in the film, so it wasn’t too much trouble to up their workload to alleviate his fears.
By the end of the movie, stunt doubles were extensively, predominently for both the Rocketeer and aeroplane scenes.
Campbell has said since that he loved working on the film, but did find dealing with heights the most challenging part.
13. The studio didn’t like how loyal to the comic the movie was
The Rocketeer has long been praised by comic book fans as one of the most loyal page-to-screen adaptations ever, with the character’s look and the settings near identical to Stevens’ designs.
Campbell even got his hair cut to match Cliff Secord as drawn.
However, director Joe Johnston was often at loggerheads with Disney over this, as the studio had been pushing for a more modernised look and feel to the film.
Like most conflicts about comic book movies today, there were questions about how well the over the top aesthetics of the page would translate into cinema.
Thankfully, they committed to a solid retro-future aesthetic at the insistence of Stevens, which is part of what has made the movie so iconic in the years since.
12. Billy Campbell had a three-picture deal to make a trilogy of Rocketeer films
Hopes were high all around that The Rocketeer could launch an Indiana Jones-style series of films.
Billy Campbell, for example, was signed up for a three-picture deal, whilst Connelly was signed up for two.
Alas, this was not to be. After making under $47 million at the box office, The Rocketeer was deemed a flop, and all plans for a sequel were soon scrapped.
Several teases for sequels have emerged since, with major publications reporting on rumours of a continuation of the universe, or at least a soft reboot.
However, the movie’s recent arrival on Disney+ may bring the franchise back to the forefront of people’s minds, perhaps encouraging Disney to rethink their abandonment of the property in a feature-length sense.
11. It’s inspired a new Disney Jr. cartoon series
While there have long been murmurs of a big-screen Rocketeer reboot, only one new screen take on the property has emerged.
Instead of a feature-length movie or a live-action serious, the reboot took the form of a Disney Junior cartoon series that premiered in November 2019.
This reinterpretation centres on 7-year-old girl Kit Secord, who takes up the rocket pack to save the day.
While Disney Junior’s The Rocketeer is pretty far removed from the movie and the comic, there is one link: Billy Campbell voices Kit’s father, Dave Secord.
However, the series has received positive feedback so far, which at least allows the property to be enjoyed by a whole new generation.
10. The movie was a flop
We’ve already discussed the fact that the movie was actually supposed to be three movies, but had its franchise potential crushed after a horrible outing at the box office.
What we haven’t talked about however, is why this happened, and what it had to do with the other movies coming out at the time.
Allegedly, Disney agreed to make the film after so many other studios passed for one reason, and that reason was Batman.
The Tim Burton 1991 Batman movie had a super pulpy and surreal tone, which Disney thought was similar to The Rocketeer and would help its chances of success.
Unfortunately, The Rocketeer suffered thanks to opening on the same day as some other heavy hitters, and lacking the big name star power of Batman.
9. The helmet caused some serious arguments
The Rocketeer’s helmet is basically the most recognisable part of him. Like Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield or Batman’s Batarang – it’s less an accessory and more the visual that defines the whole character.
Given that the helmet appears on the cover of every Rocketeer comic, writer/creator Stevens wasn’t happy when he heard that the studio would be encouraging him to change it.
The studio’s logic was that the helmet’s distinctive aerodynamic shape was just too goofy, and would work as panels on a page but not in a live-action movie.
They were also planning on moving the whole movie to a more modern aesthetic overall, and were worried that the helmet wouldn’t gel with this vision.
They didn’t need to worry, as Stevens put his foot down and said the movie just wouldn’t be The Rocketeer without the helmet, and the studio finally relented.
8. The score was written super quickly
The score is one of many iconic things about the movie The Rocketeer, and is maybe the biggest thing that creates the nostalgic and exciting retro-futuristic atmosphere.
With that said, despite the music sounding perfect for the movie now, there was no guarantee that the score was actually going to come together.
Oscar-winning composer James Horner was given only 100 days to create the whole score from start to finish, and was working under extremely chaotic conditions.
Scenes were being edited as they were being filmed, so Horner had to score and re-score scenes in order to keep them matching to the ever-changing cuts of the movie.
Horner was even required to score screen tests until the actual scenes were ready, leading to what he called one of the most stressful but enjoyable composing jobs of his life.
7. Disney invented shaky cam just for the movie
Film language is so ingrained in our cinema experience that we barely notice it anymore, let alone think about where it came from.
It’s easy to forget that somebody had to invent dolly zooms, steady cam and dutch angles, and all of these were created to solve problems made by certain scenes.
Disney ran into a problem with The Rocketeer, where they were struggling to convey the power of the Zepplin.
They solved this with the invention of what they called “Shaky Cam”, where the camera would vibrate to show the power of the engines.
Unfortunately, the effect did not make it into the final cut of the movie, as it didn’t come across on screen the way they wanted it to.
6. The Bulldog Cafe was inspired by Stevens’ own life
There are a lot of things in The Rocketeer that don’t feel like real life, from rocket powered heroes to glamourous old Hollywood actresses.
That aside, another element of the story that feels unbelievable is the setting, or more specifically The Bulldog Cafe.
The huge dog-shaped ice-cream shop might seem completely random and implausible, but it was actually inspired by Steven’s own family life.
His grandparents lived in Southern California in the time period within which The Rocketeer is set, and novelty architecture shaped like food and animals was increasingly popular.
Not only that, but when the Great Depression hit, Steven’s family were forced to move into an apartment shaped like the bottom of a giant ice-cream cone.
5. The art department had to do essentially no research
One of the biggest strengths of The Rocketeer is the exciting and immersive worldbuilding, which encapsulates everything from the Zepplin design to the meticulous fashion choices.
For most movies, these details are the hardest thing that the production and design team have to be in charge of, but this was not the case for The Rocketeer.
This is because when Steven’s was doing research for the comics, he made notes on the historical accuracy of everything, from the hangers to the bleachers to the Bulldog Cafe.
He even had detailed pictures showing what uniforms everybody would be wearing, and other tiny period-accurate details that made the movie so convincing.
He handed over the binder of reference images to the design team, and all the had to do was copy the sets and costumes from his specification.
4. The thing about pilots loving Beeman’s gum was actually accurate
There’s an ongoing joke in The Rocketeer wherein Cliff loves Beeman’s gum, and it’s even a pretty important part of the plot, despite being such a tiny detail.
However, as well as being a surprisingly large part of the movie, Cliff’s preoccupation with Beeman’s gum is actually entirely accurate, and was one of the factual things Stevens drew on for inspiration.
Almost all pilots of the era chewed gum while flying, because it helped them avoid motion sickness and maintain their equilibrium.
However, they specifically preferred the brand Beeman’s because of one particular ingredient that set it apart: pepsin.
Pepsin is a compound that contains antacid, which meant it helped to prevent nausea and sickness in pilots.
3. Cliff’s opening plane was one of the fastest in the world
The plane flown by Cliff in the opening of the movie is a Bee-Gee Racer, specifically a model Z from 1931. It was once the fastest landplane in the world, owing mostly to its compact size and lightweight.
Unfortunately for Cliff, in the real world, the plane got nicknames like “The Widowmaker” and “The Flying Coffin”, because it was so difficult to keep control of and was prone to crashing.
Given that the plane on set was a genuine antique, they were only allowed to film with it for a very limited time, and only in very specific ways.
For example, they were only allowed to film the plane landing so many times, because landing is particularly hard on the brakes of this specific model.
The choice of plane was definitely an accurate choice to the spirit of the film, given that pilots used to race it despite the danger, thanks mostly to its manoeuvrability.
2. Billy Campell looked way different before the movie came out
It’s common knowledge that The Rocketeer was Billy Campbell’s big break, or at least it was supposed to be, since it was the first feature by a major studio that he had a starring role in.
However, we’ve already discussed the fact that his casting was far from certain, due mostly to the fact that the studio wanted to cast a big star with more of a resemblance to the comic book character.
Campbell was working at a renaissance fair at the time, which meant growing his hair out long, as well as maintaining a beard for the sake of historical accuracy.
Luckily for him, his art school background meant he had a serious love of comic books, so he read all of the original Rocketeer issues, and finally figured out what the character should look like.
When he went back to do the callback, he had cut his hair just like the character, and both the producers and Stevens himself were blown away by how much like the character he looked.
1. Disney changed the inventor of the rocket pack
The worst part of making any movie based on a book or a movie, is the threat of adaptation. Fans hate it when things change, while studios are always wary of sticking so closely to the stranger parts of the source material.
Disney are pretty notorious when it comes to adaptation, but in this case the problem with the Rocketeer wasn’t a story element or a setting change, it was entirely financial.
In the original comic book, the creator of the rocket pack was a hero named Doc Savage, the star of his own pulp comic book in the 1930’s called “Man Of Bronze”.
This lent the comic continuity and a sense of a bigger universe, but Disney weren’t too keen on the idea of animating in a character made of metal that the audience would be confused by, and they also didn’t want to pay for the rights.
Instead, they changed the creator of the rocket pack to Howard Hughes, a real-life film producer and inventor that was prolific during the time period.
Howard Hughes was a good choice for Disney as they didn’t have to seek permission from Conde Nast to use the likeness, and the inventor was famous for experimenting with flight.