Tuesday, May 24, 2016

The Films of 1991: The Rocketeer

A strange factoid about superhero movies -- which I've written much about lately -- is that period pieces rarely succeed at the box office.

Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze (1975), The Shadow (1994), The Phantom (1996), and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (2004) are all examples of superhero movies set in yesteryear that failed to succeed with audiences. 

In 2011, Joe Johnston’s Captain America: The First Avenger beat that long-standing curse. Perhaps that success happened because the director had faced the same problem once before with 1991’s The Rocketeer, a brilliant and beautiful genre film that never achieved the success it so abundantly deserves.

Why do fans prefer modern superheroes over ones operating in the past? 

Perhaps it is because the superhero template is -- broadly -- similar to the Western format, only with some technological upgrades. Substitute a cool car like the Batmobile for Silver, and a man in a cape for a cowboy in a ten gallon hat, and one can detect how alike the genres truly are.

In both brands of stories, singular men (or sometimes women) tackle corruption and evil, and then, largely, go on their way…until needed again. 

So take a superhero hero movie out of the present, and you might just as well be watching a Western. 

Or perhaps it is just too difficult for us to suspend disbelief in a period superhero film. Audiences might accept a man in a cape fighting criminals in a modern day urban jungle, but if it happened in, say, 1939, how come nobody ever heard of the guy? 

My point is that a period superhero not only asks us to believe in one fantasy element (a person with super powers, for instance), but two, if you count alternate history.

One can speculate any number of reasons why modern audiences will readily accept an Indiana Jones, but not a Kit Walker or Lamont Cranston.  The point is, I suppose, that audiences seem to prefer superheroes with a hard, technological -- even futuristic -- edge.  We want them saving our world, today, operating on the bleeding edge of now.

And in the case of The Rocketeer, it’s a crying shame that our tastes run in this direction.  As critic David Ansen observed, regarding the film, it is “determinedly sweet,” and features “action scenes that are more bouncy than bone-crunching.”

Because of such virtues, I have always considered The Rocketeer the spiritual heir to Superman: The Movie (1978), my choice -- still -- for the best superhero film of all time. 

At one point in The Rocketeer, a character notes “you’d pay to see a man to fly, wouldn’t you?” And indeed, Superman’s famous tag-line was “You’ll believe a man can fly.” 

People flocked to Superman: The Movie in 1978 (in the immediate post-Watergate Age) because they wanted to dream about just such a thing being a reality; they wanted to “believe again.”

The Rocketeer understands perfectly that brand of emotional longing in general, and the long-standing human fascination with flight in particular. 

It depicts the magic of leaving terra firma behind as pilots attempt to touch Heaven itself.  Indeed, the film’s hero, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) discusses flight in precisely -- nay, explicitly -- those terms. 

In the film’s denouement, he discusses wearing the film’s rocket pack and getting as close to Heaven as is possible for a living mortal. “It was the closest I’ll ever get,” he says.

In pure human terms, The Rocketeer is very much about that yearning to touch the sky, and few modern superhero pictures feature such a direct and delightful, human through-line. Instead, they get bogged down in character backgrounds, villainous plans, and byzantine back-stories.

Beyond that accomplishment, The Rocketeer lovingly (and meticulously) revives 1930s Los Angeles, and features a great turn by Timothy Dalton as a flamboyant villain. 

Significantly, there is no angst in The Rocketeer.

There is no trademark genre darkness, cynicism or bitterness. 

The film doesn’t focus on revenge, either. 

Instead, The Rocketeer is really about joy; the joy of flight, and, in a way that can’t be diminished, the fact that love of country can bring people of unlike backgrounds together. The movie, after all, ends with Italian mobsters, a failed pilot, government agents and Howard Hughes banding together to stop a Nazi invasion.

What could be more American, or more ennobling, than that “flight” of fancy?

“I may not make an honest buck, but I’m 100% American. I don’t work for no two-bit Nazi.”

A young pilot, Cliff Secord (Bill Campbell) becomes embroiled, accidentally in a battle between Federal agents and gangsters. Through a strange set of coincidences, he ends up with his hands on a new super-weapon, a rocket-pack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) called the X-3.

Hoping to make a living after his plane is destroyed in the battle, Secord secretly keeps the X-3, and has his resourceful mechanic friend, Peeve (Alan Arkin) make him a helmet to go with the rocket.  

Before long, he emerges as a hero the press dubs “The Rocketeer.”

Unfortunately, the number 3 box office draw in America, Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton), is actually a Nazi spy and has been tasked with stealing the X-3 and returning it to the Fatherland.   He is allied with mobster Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino), though Valentine doesn’t know Sinclair’s true allegiance.

Sinclair attempts to ingratiate himself with Secord’s aspiring actress girlfriend, Jenny Blake (Jennifer Connelly) to get close to the X-3.  When that doesn’t work, however, he resorts to force. He abducts Jenny and makes a bargain with Secord: the rocket pack for the girl.

Unfortunately, Howard Hughes and the U.S. government also want the rocket pack back, and Cliff must make a difficult choice.

“How did it feel? Strapping that thing to your back and flying like a bat out of Hell?

The Rocketeer is adapted from the work of graphic novel writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, who first published the title in 1982.  And overall, the title, like the film, is an homage to and pastiche of the pulpy genre entertainment of yesteryear.

For example, the visual look of the title character seems inspired by Commando Cody, a hero who wears a leather flight suit, a bullet-shaped helmet, and a jet pack. The character head-lined in King of the Rocketmen (1952) and Radar Men of the Moon (1953).

The film, however, focuses much of its artistic vision on the 1930s milieu. The audience encounters Hollywood legends Clark Gable and W.C. Fields, for example. A singer in the South Seas Club croons tunes from Cole Porter.  And the soldier villain, Lothar (Tiny Ron) is a dead ringer for Rondo Hatton (1894-1946), a screen actor who suffered from Acromegaly, and put his fearsome visage to menacing use in films like The Brute Man (1946). 

The film also reveals the evolution of the landmark Hollywood sign. It goes from reading Hollywoodland (in 1923) to reading Hollywood (1949), all because of a Nazi incursion on American soil.  And Neville Sinclair, of course, is a variation on film idol Errol Flynn (who was once believed to be a Nazi spy, oddly enough…).

One of the best moments in The Rocketeer, for my money, however is the Nazi propaganda film featured in the last act. In a sort of Art Deco (or Futura) style, we see an animated representation of the Nazi plan for world domination using the X-3.  The terrifying (but beautifully-wrought) imagery shows rocket men destroying Washington DC, burning the American flag, and raising the Swastika.  This short film sells perfectly (and cheaply) the threat that America faces.

Thanks to production designer Jim Bissell and director of photography Hiro Narita, The Rocketeer looks fantastic.  But just as powerful, if not more so, is the movie’s sense of heart, and innocence. 

After Secord saves a fellow pilot (dressed as a clown for an air show), and takes off using the rocket for the first time, the film veritably soars.  One might attribute this feeling of emotional flight to James Horner’s musical score, or to the setting -- wide open wheat fields under Big American Sky. 

Whatever the cause, this inaugural flight sequence is one of the few in superhero movie history that legitimately deserves comparison to the Smallville interlude in Donner’s Superman: the Movie.  The overwhelming feeling is for an age -- an innocence -- lost, but also a yearning for Americana and the American Dream. 

What is that American Dream? In films such as The Rocketeer it involves the achievement of something more than wealth or success.  It involves doing great things; breaking barriers; going where none have gone before. Touching the sky.

It is an indicator of The Rocketeer’s unfettered gentleness and innocence that its call to patriotism in the final act plays not as cheesy or overdone, but as authentically stirring. We see a mobster, Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) make common cause with G-Men to stop a threat to America’s future: Nazi soldiers. 

Then, after he implores Secord to “go get” the bad-guys, we get the glorious shot of The Rocketeer posed next to Old Glory herself, the American flag. The not subtle (yet still wonderful…) message behind this imagery is that Americans may have many, many differences, but in times of strife and crisis, they come together. 

Mobster or G-Man, Americans draw strength from one another and defend their country -- and the ideals of their country -- when they are threatened. I still remember seeing the film in the theater, and the audience hooted and hollered with raucous energy when the Valentine expressed his love of country, and his urging for Secord to fight the good fight.  It gives me chills thinking about it, even today.

In some way, superhero movies are really about (or should be about…) the things we can’t always do; the ideals we can’t always live by, even though we wish to.

Like rising to the occasion in a crisis. 

Or strapping on a rocket pack and taking off into the sky; touching Heaven.  The Rocketeer absolutely understands this facet of the genre, and presents a kind of wish-fulfillment genre story of the highest order.

The Rocketeer is a light, joyous film that never focuses on special effects over people. The film’s feet never touch the ground, and the action scenes, particularly the final set-piece on the Nazi dirigible, are memorable and well-orchestrated.

So why didn’t audiences flock to the film?

I think that goes back to my original point about audiences deliberately not-seeking out period superhero efforts. Even Captain America, Joe Johnston’s genre follow-up to The Rocketeer, eventually reaches the 21st century, right?  Some people might see that development as hedging a bet; protecting against an undesirable outcome (financial failure).

Today, superhero films have largely become mechanical and formulaic. They give us everything we expect as part of some multi-media franchise experience (the teaser, the trailer, the second act surprise, and the post-credits reveal or preview for the next picture), but somehow forget to hold up as narratives, as movies that live and breathe and tell us something vital about human nature.

The Rocketeer makes us believe that a man (and America with him, in one of its darkest hours)…can fly. 

You’d pay to see that, wouldn’t you?

I know I would.

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