Roughly based on the actual case of Gerhard Zucker (Ulrich Thomsen), a ‘rocket scientist' who toured Germany with his crackerjack fuselage designed to transport mail to and from isolated communities, the filmmakers took some fair dramatic license and transformed the bare facts of the Zucker case into a very odd drama that initially begins as a lighthearted tale of two outsiders who eventually loosen up to the personalities and culture of locals.
Eventually Zucker bonds with a local girl named Catriona (Shauna Macdonald), wins the friendship of her wary uncle Angus (Clive Russell), and gains the trust and respect of the community who suffered huge losses fighting Germans in WWI. Zucker's assistant, Heinz Dombrowski (Eddie Marsan), eventually quits in disgust and returns to Nazi Germany, where he figures he can be treated with greater respect, and live in far more comfortable quarters.
It's around this juncture the film slowly morphs from a lighthearted fish-out-of-water comedy into a romance, and then gradually builds towards a far more serious finale than expected – which may be one reason The Rocket Post never made it to North American theatres, or DVD.
You could argue period films like Malèna (2000) or Mediterraneo (1991) took similar risks by hooking audiences with a initially genial, cheeky tone before veering into bits of tragedy before a conclusion that restores some personal dignity and triumph to the characters, but Rocket Post is less grandiose in scale, and ultimately deals with two souls whose romance is clawed apart by some serious political issues. More surprising is how the filmmakers chose not to give in to audience expectations, and that probably made this lost gem a tough sell for American theatrical distributors.
The location filming in Scotland's isolated Isle of Scarp is drop-dead gorgeous, and the production design vividly captures an aging, insular community slowly trying to grab bits of twentieth century conveniences, while the mainland seems to deliberately starve the isle of the modern technology it needs to survive in the hopes of shutting down similarly underpopulated communities.
Like Mediterraneo, the film's lead character, Gerhad Zucker, finds solace and peace on the isle of Scarp, and he slows down to observe and appreciate its natural splendor; as his life becomes enriched; it also establishes a rift with his assistant (a virtual caricature of an emotionally detached Hun), and infers whatever bliss Zucker enjoys is undoubtedly ephemeral.
The true case of Zucker and Dombrowski was somewhat profiled on the BBC's Coast series (see Season 1, episode 7: Solway, Firth to Skye, where Zucker's original rocket test was repeated), and the curious can also find more basic facts online (see links in lower table), but be forewarned about reading further details of Zucker prior to seeing the film, as there are some significant changes the filmmakers applied to enhance the romantic thread (and Zucker's position as an unheralded scientist isn't all that true to reality).
Lionsgate's DVD sports a very lovely transfer of the film, with a rich sound mix that shows off a superb music score by the film's two composers. It's a pity the DVD doesn't come with any supportive extras, but part of the problem may stem from its director passing away prior to the film's release in early 2003; one gets a sense Stephen Whittaker was the film's driving creative force, but a commentary track by some of the cast and crew could've been edited to form a fitting tribute.
There are many familiar faces in Rocket Post, which should pique the interest of action and British TV watchers. In a case of two degrees of separation, Shauna Macdonald later appeared as the lead heroine in Neil Marshall's brutal The Descent (2005), while co-star Kevin McKidd, who plays Catriona's childhood sweetheart, co-starred in Marshall's werewolf thriller Dogs Soldiers (2002) before popping up in TV's Rome. Danish actor Ulrich Thomsen also appeared with McKidd in Kingdom of Heaven (2005) and TV's The Virgin Queen (2005), whereas Ian McNeice (trying very hard to sport an American accent as a military head-hunter for the U.S. Army) also appeared with McKidd in Rome, before earning wider appeal on ITV's Doc Martin.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan