The first film in the Comica Obscura Marathon wasn’t meant to be obscure, but it’s for the best that it stayed that way!
Screenplay By: Danny Bilson & Paul De Meo
Directed By: Joe Johnston
I have a fond place in my heart for classic Americana pulp storytelling. I remember when I first watched The Rocketeer I had no idea of the concept of pulp storytelling yet I understood that there was something special about the film. I watched The Rocketeer many times over the years and as my grasp of culture and the shifts in American society became more clear I better understood just what that something special was in The Rocketeer. This is a film that bleeds pulp just as much as it does red, white, and blue. It shouldn’t shock anyone that I love The Rocketeer as much as I do, it’s damn near a perfect comic book movie after all.
The pulpiness of The Rocketeer begins with its characters and the very clear lines they draw in the sand. There are no gray areas in The Rocketeer, this is not a world where such gray tones exist. The world of The Rocketeer is decidedly black and white, and damn proud of it. Our hero is a hero through and through and the bad guy isn’t just a bad guy. He’s such a bad guy that he makes the gangsters seem tame and he hangs with the worst baddie of them all, the Nazis. The Rockeeter revels in the clear cut lines of its characters, they never veer off track and they never offer a second of ambiguity. When Paul Sorvino’s mob boss character finds out that he’s been working for a Nazi there’s no doubt what his character will do. As he says, “he’s 100% American,” and in the world of The Rocketeer no honest American collaborates with a Nazi.
The character of Cliff, or the actual Rocketeer, is another form of classic pulp storytelling. He’s a good ole boy to the extreme. Everything he does comes with a slice of “gosh darn,” behind it. He intends well with every one of his actions and he easily becomes the surrogate for the audience. Cliff is enough of a blank slate that the audience can easily imagine themselves as Cliff. He’s wholesome enough that his actions are never in doubt and he’s shabby enough as the hero that we can see ourselves being much the same hero he turns out to be. In the end he even does the right thing and is rewarded for it, because in the world of the pulp America of black and white that’s how things work.
There are two scenes that wonderfully sum up the movie and what Joe Johnston is aiming for with his direction. First there is the duel between Cliff and Neville Sinclair aboard the zeppelin. The scene is awesome to begin with due in large part to Timothy Dalton’s lavishly hammy performance as Sinclair. But, what truly makes the scene is the way the fight is won. Cliff is a real American hero and thus he can not beat the evil Nazi with any high powered technology. He has to beat the evil of the Nazis with old fashioned American gumption. He does so and every second I was cheering him on, loving the pulpiness and “Ra ra,” Americana that the movie was so wonderfully constructing.
The other important scene is when Cliff gets his reward from Howard Hughes. The Nazis have been defeated and as much as Peevy wants to talk about the technological spoils of war that’s not what Cliff is interested in. Again, this is brilliant film making that perfectly sums up the American idea about the spoils of war. Sure, there are technological advances to be had, but good fortune and societal advancement matter not when compared to the true spoils of war in the form of the girl, the subsequent family, and the American dream. As The Rocketeer fades to black we know that everything will be okay, this is America, this is pulp. The bad guys have been defeated and they will always be defeated, while the hero will always get the girl and the spoils of war.
The Rocketeer came and went from theaters and outside of a modest cult following has pretty much been forgotten by both the world of cinema and comic book fandom. That’s a shame because The Rocketeer is a master class in pulp comic book sensibilities. The Rocketeer is a movie that screams Americana from beginning to end but does so in a way that is loving and enjoyable as opposed to obnoxious. Mr. Johnston went on to have a very mediocre career as a director, but for one shining moment he got it all right, and the world became a better place for having a movie like The Rocketeer to watch over and over again.
Make sure to read what Edgar has to say at Between The Seats.