1991’s The Rocketeer is a rollicking old-fashioned adventure about a hotshot pilot in 1930s Hollywood who inadvertently stumbles on a rocket pack that enables its wearer to fly. Though it wasn’t a huge success on release, director Joe Johnston’s film has since developed a huge fanbase, and is considered a key influence on the contemporary comic book movie genre. Here are some facts you might not have known about the film.
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, and sold the film rights the following year. 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.
Prospective directors Steve Miner and William Dear were linked to the project early on, but failed to get it airborne (so to speak). 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 originally 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. The comic’s portrayal of Page had a large role to play in her resurgence as a cult icon, almost thirty years after her heyday. However, when it came time for The Rocketeer to become a movie, studio Disney felt that making the hero’s girlfriend a pin-up model was too racy.
Screenwriters Danny Bilson and Paul De Meo subsequently changed Betty the model into Jenny the actress, in order to keep the vintage aesthetic without any of the non-family friendly connotations. Labyrinth actress Jennifer Connelly was cast in the role, winning out over some pretty stiff competition from 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. 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.
The studio even pushed for some more wild card names that they thought might have marquee value, with Matthew Modine and Bill Paxton being suggested. The slightly older but suitably manly Kurt Russell was also under consideration for the part at one point. 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
James Bond actor Timothy Dalton plays The Rocketeer’s villain Neville Sinclair, a swashbuckling Hollywood superstar whose look and persona are clearly modelled on 1930s screen legend Errol Flynn. Believe it or not, the more outlandish aspects of Sinclair’s character – i.e. the fact that he’s an undercover Nazi agent – were inspired by Hollywood legend.
Screenwriters Billson and De Meo were influenced by a biography of Flynn by author Charles Higham, which alleged that the actor had actually been a Nazi spy. It was later investigated and confirmed that the rumours were completely false, but they have stuck around as a popular old Hollywood conspiracy theory.
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. The esteemed Welsh actor was only offered the role after it was declined by both Jeremy Irons (a recent Best Actor Oscar winner for Reversal of Fortune) and Charles Dance. 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 Rocketeer definitely ended up being shaped by his presence. For example, in one fight scene, 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 (almost) all of his own stunts as 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 character in The Rocketeer played by an actor who wasn’t the first choice. The role of Cliff’s engineer mentor Peevy was first offered to film legend Lloyd Bridges. Meanwhile, for the secondary antagonist of mob boss Eddie Valentine, the filmmakers first pursued Joe Pesci, then at the height of his fame from Goodfellas and the Home Alone.
When both Bridges and Pesci declined offers to appear in The Rocketeer, 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 the anxious actor, stunt doubles were already necessary for several shots in the film.
This being the case, it wasn’t too much trouble to up their workload to alleviate his fears. By the end of the movie, stunt doubles were extensively used 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 title character’s look and various key sets looking near enough identical to the illustrations of Dave Stevens. Leading man Billy Campbell even got his hair cut specifically to match Cliff Secord as Stevens drew him.
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. Thankfully, the studio ultimately agreed to the film’s retro-futuristic aesthetic, 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. In the end, however, this was not to be. After costing somewhere between $35-40 million to make, The Rocketeer took under $47 million at the US box office.
This, in short, meant that the film was considered a flop, and all plans for a franchise were immediately abandoned. 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.
11. It’s inspired a very different 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 series, 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.
At first glance, Disney Junior’s The Rocketeer appears to be pretty far removed from the movie and the comic. There is at least one common link, however, as Billy Campbell voices Kit’s father, Dave Secord (presumably named in honour of creator Dave Stevens).
10. Disney had hoped that it would succeed in the wake of Batman
We’ve already discussed the fact that The Rocketeer was intended to be the first of three movies, but any hope for a franchise was 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.
Director’s Tim Burton 1989 film had a super pulpy and vaguely surreal tone, which Disney thought was similar to The Rocketeer and would help its chances of success. Unfortunately, The Rocketeer is nowhere near as famous a comic book character as Batman, so audiences were less interested.
9. The helmet caused some serious arguments
Aside from his rocket pack, The Rocketeer’s helmet is basically the most recognisable part of him. Like Thor’s hammer, Captain America’s shield or Batman’s cowl, it’s less an accessory and more the emblem 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. However, both Stevens and director Joe Johnston insisted the movie just wouldn’t be right 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. The composer was even required to score screen tests until the actual scenes were ready. Horner (who sadly died in 2015) would later call The Rocketeer one of the most stressful but enjoyable jobs of his career.
7. Disney invented ‘shaky cam’ just for the movie – then ended up not using it
The filmmakers ran into a problem on The Rocketeer, when 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. Even so, similar camera tricks would be utilised on many more films in the years that followed.
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 glamorous old Hollywood actresses. That aside, another element of the story that feels unbelievable is the setting, or more specifically The Bulldog Cafe. This, like the Rocketeer’s helmet and costume, is accurately recreated on film from Dave Stevens’ original comic art.
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 incredibly popular.
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 Dave Stevens was doing research for the comics, he made notes on the historical accuracy of everything.
This covered everything from the hangers to the bleachers to the Bulldog Cafe, and beyond. 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 taste for Beeman’s gum is entirely true to the period and setting. This was one among the many interesting and historically accurate details which carried over from Dave Stevens’ research.
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, a compound that contains antacid, meaning 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 Gee-Bee Racer, specifically a model Z from 1931. This was once the fastest land plane 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.
2. Billy Campell looked way different before the movie came out
The Rocketeer was Billy Campbell’s big break (or at least it was supposed to be), but prior to landing the role of Cliff Secord he was using his acting abilities in a rather different role. 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.
However, once he entered the audition process for The Rocketeer, Campbell gave it his all. After reading all the comics, he had cut his hair just like the character, and both the producers and Dave Stevens himself were blown away by how much he looked like the character.
1. Disney changed the inventor of the rocket pack
In the original comic book, the creator of the rocket pack was a pre-existing character named Doc Savage, the star of his own comic book and pulp novels dating back to the 1930s. This lent the comic continuity and a sense of a bigger universe, but using another intellectual property in the movie meant paying for the rights, which Disney weren’t keen to do.
Instead, they changed the creator of the rocket pack to Howard Hughes, the famed real-life inventor, aviator and film producer who was prolific during the time period. Future Lost actor Terry O’Quinn was cast in the role.