Many Americans have a deep craving for meaningful ritual — for both private and public occasions which draw people together, give meaning to the different seasons of life, and evoke a sense of wonder about the mysteries of the human adventure. Levi (Burt Lancaster) is a widowed poet and philosopher who lives in a giant house in the Hamptons. His three daughters and son arrive with their families to celebrate his 77th birthday. One day on the beach, he tells his eight grandchildren that when he dies, he wants to be buried at sea. He describes an ancient Viking ritual in which the body of the deceased was placed in a boat, covered with straw, and pushed out to sea. Then the boat was set on fire with a flaming arrow shot by relatives on the beach. Family and friends watched as the pyre "vanished like a dream." If the color of the sky matched the color of the burning ship, it meant the person had had a good life. The grandchildren decide to fix up an old boat as a birthday present to Levi in hopes that he will use it for his burial at sea when the time comes.

Psychologist Rollo May has stated: "For human beings, the question is not to avoid death but through it creatively to go beyond the boundary of death, transmitting something that lives." In this touching film directed by Daniel Petrie, Levi's adult children have denied the possibility of their father's death by never asking about his burial wishes. His grandchildren are the ones, in the end, who understand him best. Rocket Gibralter is an unsual, worthwhile and emotionally affecting film.