The local film archive theater recently screened Disney’s The Rocketeer as a Saturday matinee. Seeing it on the big screen again with an enthusiastic audience reminded me how much this film showcases many of the elements I consider essential to a good pulp story.
I’m no expert on the pulp literary or film genre. My limited experience focuses more on popular, modern media -- fare such as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Tales of the Gold Monkey (though I’m remiss in never having seen The Phantom with Billy Zane, though many recommend it) -- and less in the pulp “superhero” print, radio, and film serials popular in the first half of the 20th century; but I know what I enjoy in an engaging movie or game experience. Here are the elements I found best characterize The Rocketeer as a pulp adventure film:
Stereotypical Roles: Pulp character tropes abound in The Rocketeeer…the well-intentioned brash pilot with great aspirations; his mechanic sidekick who can fix or modify almost any machine; the plucky heroine who can intelligently hold her own; the gangster with a heart of gold (or a good streak of patriotism); the mysterious, wealthy benefactor; the dashing villain chewing on the scenery; even the impatiently screaming Nazi political agent and the sternly obedient officers on the zeppelin. Despite some over-the-top stereotyping on the Nazis, all the other actors sincerely immerse themselves in the roles (instead of simply playing them tongue-in-cheek) to offer authentic performances for the genre (there’s also nothing quite like a villainous Timothy Dalton chewing on the scenery…).
Aviation: For me the inclusion of aircraft remains one of the key pulp tropes for material set during “The Golden Age of Flight” (both between the wars and during World War II). Some scenes in the film still bring tears to my eyes because they remind me of the wonder of flight, the excitement of seeing humans fly, of hearing and feeling the aircraft. Aside from the rocket pack around which the action focuses, The Rocketeer includes a Gee Bee racer, an airshow (which helped popularize aviation at the time), an autogyro, the Nazi zeppelin, even “mysterious, wealthy benefactor” and aviation visionary Howard Hughes. The emphasis on aviation technology and the rocket pack help fulfill the pulp trope of amazing technology as a focal point.
Nefarious Villains: Although they’re not revealed until almost the end of the film, the Nazis’ presence as dire enemies underlies most of the film, from towering Lothar’s menacing presence to Neville Sinclair’s obviously villainous ulterior motives. In true pulp form the Nazis try harnessing technology in their plans for world domination. Despite the horrific historical realities, Nazis still serve as easily identifiable stock villains (one possible explanation why Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull were not as successful as the series’ other films with Nazis); those appearing in The Rocketeer often seem so caricatured and overplayed to uphold the stereotypical villain façade and offer some distance from the historical reality.
Historical Period: The inter-war years, as well as those covering World War II, lend themselves to pulp adventure themes. Aside from the historical villains, the era provides context for political posturing for the coming/current war and the related espionage required for factions to gain advantages over one another (also heavily grounded in the historical and fantastic technology like radios, aircraft, and rocket packs). The film also capitalizes on the role of criminal organizations of the time, both as antagonists as tools of the villains lurking in the wings and as patriotic allies in the fight against said villains. I’ll admit I like my pulp based in a firm historical foundation with the more fantastic elements lurking just beneath the surface (as displayed in my system-neutral roleplaying game sourcebooks Pulp Egypt and Heroes of Rura-Tonga); history often proves an excellent sourcebook for those writing in a particular period.
Comic Book Violence: With most of the violence in The Rocketeer falls within the film’s PG rating and acceptable cartoon violence standards (though some images, such as pilots exploding while wearing rocket packs, might seem startling). True to the pulp genre most of the violence remains implied by sound effects, shadows, and other indirect methods. Sure, it has plenty of punches, lots of gunfire, and people falling off zeppelins, but it thankfully lacks the flying blood and gore on which many current action films gratuitously rely.
Despite more than 20 years since its release and reliance on traditional special effects techniques with a minimal of CGI The Rocketeer still stands up as both an entertaining film and one which celebrates the pulp genre.
A Tragic Postscript
Upon returning from the afternoon matinee of The Rocketeer I heard of the tragic crash of a biplane during a wing-walker routine at a Dayton, OH, airshow. I was particularly saddened because last year my family had a chance to meet the pilot, Charlie Schwenker, and see him run his amazing Extra 300 aerobatic plane through its stunt routine at the nearby Bealeton Flying Circus. Wing-walker Jane Wicker also perished in the crash.
We had the pleasure of meeting Charlie last year at a Commemorative Air Force Open Hangar Day at Culpeper Airport. Apparently many aviators were there that day wooing sponsors for the annual Airfest at Culpeper every October, so we wandered the ramp checking out some fantastic planes (including a gorgeous Staggerwing Beech). Charlie was just about to put his Extra 300 in the hangar when we wandered by; but he took his time to walk us around the plane and tell us all about it. We chatted with him several times last summer when we enjoyed the Bealeton Flying Circus, including once after he flew the Extra 300 in an astounding aerobatic stunt routine. He was always very warm, friendly, and approachable, infecting everyone around him with the amazement and enthusiasm for aviation, whether in a classic Stearman biplane or one of his two fantastic stunt planes (the other was a Pitts S-1T). When speaking with him shortly after his aerobatic routine, he was still all aglow in the adrenaline rush from those incredible stunts.
Like The Rocketeer and the aviation exhibition in one of the early scenes, these daring aviators and modern airshows help us learn about and celebrate our rich aviation heritage. They offer the general public a small taste of the thrill of flying and encourage young people to pursue it as a hobby or even a career. Charlie and Jane’s passing is tragic, but they remind us to push the envelope, strive for what seems just beyond our reach, and celebrate our achievements with others.
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