The Rocketeer: What If Cliff Secord Never Stumbled Upon Howard Hughes’ Jetpack Prototype?

The Rocketeer soaring through the sky.

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30 years ago, Walt Disney Pictures released The Rocketeer onto an unsuspecting public. Hoping for the next Batman, a crowded summer dashed the hopes that the studio had of Cliff Secord’s adventures turning into the next consistently bankable franchise. Though in that failure, something greater resulted: a cult classic that still to this day brings a smile to many a person’s face. Fate’s funny like that, and the world within the movie we’re here to celebrate is another case where asking “what if” is even more dangerous than what already happened.

In honor of The Rocketeer exciting audiences for three decades, it’s time to look into one of the greatest alternate histories surrounding the film. No, we’re not going to ask what if that reboot/legacyquel that was on the books actually happened, but rather, what if Cliff Secord never discovered Howard Hughes’ mysterious jetpack? How much different would the world have been if Billy Campbell’s Disney hero had never laid eyes on that thing, just as he’d wished? And could Captain America somehow play into all of this? Let’s run through how things shook out in The Rocketeer as we know it, before jumping into how things could have turned out without Cliff Secord to save the day.

Peevy helps Cliff with the rocket in The Rocketeer.

The Established History Of The Rocketeer

In the course of events that made The Rocketeer a gem in the Disney Vault, the chase for Howard Hughes’ Cirrus X-3 prototype saw Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) fighting to keep this particular gadget out of the hands of movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). As it turned out, Sinclair was a Nazi spy embedded in Hollywood, and his purpose for retrieving that rocket was to send it back to his superiors. With ambitions of conquering Europe and the United States through a corps of rocket troops, Cliff’s role as The Rocketeer helped put an end to that nightmare rather quickly. But what if Howard Hughes’ prototype was delivered, as requested?

Cliff and Jenny on a date in The Rocketeer.

What If Cliff Secord Never Stumbled Upon The Rocket?

Changing the course of The Rocketeer’s history starts with something that might have brought the young aviator temporary happiness. As the inciting incident of the film was Cliff Secord wrecking his Gee Bee stunt plane, history will have to be rewritten right at the start. In our revised version of events, instead of Cliff crashing, his plane would have flown like a charm. With a smooth test flight in the books, that means Cliff Secord would have never been shot at by the hired thugs that Eddie Valentine (Paul Sorvino) had hired to take the Cirrus X-3. The good news is Cliff could have probably flown in, and won, at the Nationals. The bad news is this corner of Disney history is about to get a bit darker.

Neville Sinclair looking messy in the zeppelin in The Rocketeer.

Neville Sinclair Would Have Gotten The Rocket, Damage Free

With Eddie Valentine’s men successfully delivering the Cirrus X-3 rocket to Neville Sinclair, The Rocketeer’s big bad would have achieved his endgame with no fuss or muss. The rocket wouldn’t have even suffered the damage that Eddie’s men would inflict on the device after trying to recover it the second time, meaning that if Neville really wanted to, he could have flown the thing to Adolf Hitler himself. Of course, that most likely would have meant some grave consequences for Eddie himself.

Eddie Valentine surrounded by Sinclair's men in The Rocketeer.

Eddie Valentine Would Have Probably Been Killed

Now in possession of the rocket, Neville Sinclair is about to become a hero of the Third Reich, causing a lot of disastrous historical fallout. But in terms of Eddie Valentine, he would have been a loose end who would have served to expose Sinclair’s schemes sooner than he’d hoped. As a good spy, no matter what side he’s on, Neville Sinclair would have killed Eddie to preserve his cover, as well as his reputation for being a problem eliminator. Though that would have been the least of the world’s problems.

Howard Hughes speaking in his office in The Rocketeer.

World War II Would Have Played Out A Lot Differently

The whole reason the Nazis wanted to steal the Cirrus X-3 prototype was revealed in a chilling animated short featured in The Rocketeer. With Howard Hughes (Terry O’Quinn) basically doing the hard work for Nazi Germany’s scientists and delivering a workable model for proper rocket travel, it wouldn’t have taken long to refine and mass produce The Rocketeer’s central MacGuffin. Continental Europe and the United States would have been under attack by Adolf Hitler’s rocket corps, which could have led to not only a more devastating loss of life, but also an earlier entry into the war by US forces. Though there is another small silver lining in this scenario: Mr. Hughes might not have burned his original blueprints to the Cirrus X-3, and would have lent a hand to keep the United States competitive by refining and mass producing his own unit.

The Rocketeer posing next to the American flag.

Cliff Secord Probably Would Have Still Become The Rocketeer

After winning the Nationals and taking Jenny to the South Seas Club as intended, Cliff Secord would have more than likely served in World War II. He probably would have done that if The Rocketeer actually got to see any of the sequels and continuations it had hoped for, but this scenario would have been different. While this alternate history would have never seen Cliff become The Rocketeer as it originally happened, it feels like destiny would have still given him this opportunity.

As an ace stunt pilot and patriotic American, Cliff Secord would have definitely volunteered to be a test subject for the Cirrus X-3 program. Possessing the right stuff for the job, the United States would have had one hell of a propaganda tool with a flying man leading the charge against the Axis powers, as Steve Rogers wouldn’t be turned into Captain America: The First Avenger until some point around 1942. Which, in itself, asks a whole bunch of other questions, but let's obviously assume that Cliff and Steve exist in the same universe.

Would the Nazis still have pursued super soldiers when they had rocket traveling soldiers, thus allowing for Steve Rogers to become one himself? Probably, but again, we could totally talk out a Captain America/Rocketeer crossover another day. But the point is, though Cliff Secord may have regretted finding the Cirrus X-3 jetpack, it was going to happen one way or another. Losing his shot at the Nationals may have been a huge upset in Cliff’s personal history, but without his heroism, things could have turned out a lot worse in the world of The Rocketeer’s world history.

So on this, the day of The Rocketeer’s 30th anniversary, let’s celebrate Cliff Secord’s personal sacrifices in the name of peace and prosperity, as well as Disney’s decision to make the movie that depicted it all. If you’re a frequent flyer or a new recruit to [the legacy of The Rocketeer](, you can stream the film on Disney+. And should you need to enlist in the ranks of the subscribers that keep the platform flying high, we recommend you check out the current subscription offer that lets you take off with Disney+, ESPN+, and Hulu, for one monthly fee!

Mike Reyes
Senior Movies Contributor

Mike Reyes is the Senior Movie Contributor at CinemaBlend, though that title’s more of a guideline really. Passionate about entertainment since grade school, the movies have always held a special place in his life, which explains his current occupation. Mike graduated from Drew University with a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science, but swore off of running for public office a long time ago. Mike's expertise ranges from James Bond to everything Alita, making for a brilliantly eclectic resume. He fights for the user.