Once in a blue moon, Walt Disney Disney Pictures surprises friend and foe with a steampunk or dieselpunk masterpiece. The Rocketeer (1991) is one of those masterpieces.
The movie is based on the dieselpunk comic book of the same name by writer and artist Dave Stevens. Stevens also served as co-producer to the film, which was a very wise choice as surely he knew the story best.
The year is 1938 and the place Los Angeles, where the events focus around a young stunt pilot called Clifford “Cliff” Secord with big dreams of winning the national championship airshow.
He’s having a bad day at the beginning of the movie, ending a test flight with a crash landing that would make DuckTales‘ Launchpad McQuack proud. The plane he and his friends worked on for two years ends up a total wreck, ruining his chances for the nationals, and his girlfriend, aspiring actress Jenny Blake, gets quite cross at him for not telling her the whole story when they go out that evening.
When he and his friend and housemate, the brilliant mechanic Peevy, find a rocketpack in their garage, it’s the beginning of a big adventure. Because while for Cliff and Peevy the rocket is just a way to make a quick buck to get a new plane, to the FBI, mob boss Eddie Valentine, Hollywood star Neville Sinclair and the Nazis, it’s far more than just a rocket. And when he makes the news and gets dubbed “The Rocketeer” due to an action where he saves a friend from a crashing airplane, he is quickly running with all the abovementioned on his tail, ending in a climactic event featuring as big a flying machine as a Hindenberg!
All the dieselpunk elements that make a movie within the genre great are there: mobsters, fashion, a Nazi spy, a zeppelin, a hideous assassin and the good guys winning in the end. It’s what makes films like the Indiana Jones series great, but this time it comes with some extras.
It has momentum, historical figures like Howard Hughes and Clark Gable (though you have to be very quick for the last one); even a Nazi propaganda movie (made by Disney especially for the feature). The connotations to real-world events are a nice touch, though you don’t have to know much about history to enjoy the story.
While it’s a fun-filled family adventure, it can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages, and it’s definitely a must-see for aficionados of dieselpunk!
This story first appeared in Gatehouse Gazette #13 (July 2010), p. 11, with the headline “The Rocketeer”.