Guilty Pleasures: Biggles: Adventures in Time
Scott McKenzie takes another trip back in time and finds himself in the dock...
There will be many members of the jury who have not seen the 1986 movie Biggles: Adventures in Time, but you must not let that cloud your judgement. Just because there were only a handful of people in the cinema when the accused went to see this movie on its opening weekend and it doesn't receive much love from TV broadcasters, that doesn't mean he shouldn’t be ashamed at his misplaced love of this relic. The fact that a movie based on Captain W.E. Johns' characters was put into production should be applauded. The early twentieth century adventures of his stories should have been well-received by young cinema-goers following the release of the first two Indiana Jones movies but the makers of Biggles made one fatal flaw.
Undoubtedly with their eye on the US market and reacting to the influence of Back to the Future, the writers bashed a story together that involved sending a young American guy back in time to the first world war. The plot device they dreamed up to do this is to invent the theory of 'time twins', whereby someone will be taken through a hole in time to help out their time twin if they are in mortal danger. What's amazing isn't the fact that it makes no sense whatsoever, but the fact that that's the best the writers could come up with! After all, the plot centres round Biggles attempting to foil the nefarious scientific plans of those evil Germans—why not have our goggle-wearing hero discover that the Hun have built a time machine and take it from there?
Exhibit A: 'If you can fly a Sopwith Camel...'
Another failure of the writers is with the unbelievably corny dialogue. When they aren't drawing directly from the Olde English 'chocks away, what what' playbook, they're explaining away Biggles' success at piloting a helicopter on the first attempt with the toe-curling line 'if you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything' (exhibit A). The soundtrack is no better. I guarantee that by the mid-point of the movie you will be tearing your hair out upon hearing the opening bars of Jon Anderson's 'Do You Want to Be a Hero' or, God forbid, the appalling song that seems to be blaring from the helicopter most of the time. If the songs have made you lose the will to live, then the background music will almost certainly send you over the edge. Biggles should be studied by film students as an example of how to come up with a score that comes nowhere close to matching the mood of the movie. The best way I can think of describing the score is to ask you to imagine an electronic Casio keyboard with severe flatulence.
Exhibit B: Look out for the telegraph poles, old bean!
The producers obviously thought they could knock together an Indiana Jones-lite movie and walk away with a tidy profit but there's just so much about Biggles that betrays its low budget. First of all, the dogfights between Biggles and his arch enemy Von Stalhein were filmed in the British midlands, in1985, which explains the presence of telegraph poles in the shot (see exhibit B). The visual effects are pure Doctor Who standard, and I'm talking Doctor Who circa 1986, not 2008. The supporting cast don't make things any more bearable, in particular the incredibly annoying Chuck, played by William Hootkins, also known to science fiction fans as Porkins, the only member of Red Squadron who had to keep his X-Wing in a lower gear. To finish, I would like to present the jury with a clip from British kids' TV show Blue Peter from 1986 (exhibit C). Both fans of the movie will probably find the making-of sequences interesting but the biggest indicator of the producers' lack of faith in their movie is the competition at the end offering fifty (yes, fifty!) pairs of tickets as prizes.
Exhibit C: When TV competitions actually required brainpower
I'm willing to concede that Biggles is a cynical piece of filmmaking made to cash in on the popularity of mid-80s sci-fi adventures and the 'time twin' plot device is nonsense, however it does make for a simple and efficient movie. Biggles' main weakness is also the reason for one of its greatest strengths. By transporting Jim Ferguson back in time whenever Biggles is in trouble, the audience knows that a nice bit of action can't be far behind. This means that the writers don't have to insult the viewer's intelligence by stringing together tenuous contrivances to get Biggles and his gang from one place to another and also minimises the time we have to spend in the 80s. Once the viewer stops questioning the theory of time twins, it makes the movie all the more enjoyable.
Exhibit D: The late great Peter Cushing
You will also find no argument from me on the subject of the low budget; however some key scenes are shot with surprising flair. Given that this is the last screen performance of the great Peter Cushing (exhibit D), due deference is given to his presence, with eerie framing whenever he is on screen.
Prosecution: Objection! It just looks like the camera is on the wonk whenever Peter Cushing shows up.
The flying scenes are particularly impressive, with wing-mounted cameras putting the viewer right in the middle of the action. These sequences alone make Biggles an intriguing watch even for the most casual viewer. In addition, there's even a nice touch of gore thrown in that generally gets cut whenever Biggles is shown on TV (exhibit E).
Exhibit E: Eeeeewwww
The performances of the supporting cast may be dodgy to say the least, but there is genuine chemistry between Neil Dickson as Biggles and Alex Hyde-White as Jim Ferguson, who didn't go on to bigger and better things and unfortunately showed up as Mr Fantastic in the Fantastic Four movie that never was. Ending on a cliff-hanger, it's a crying shame that Biggles underperformed at the box office because it had the potential to spawn not one but two franchises. First of all we could follow the further adventures of Jim and Biggles but secondly, and possibly more intriguingly, we could have been given more stories of different sets of time twins.
Before I retire to my chamber and start work on the pilot of the Time Twins TV show that I've just thought of, I'd like the jury to consider the trailer for Biggles (exhibit F) and then ask them to honestly tell me that they wouldn't like to watch the whole movie. Ignore the music of course...
Exhibit F: Yes, I want to be a hero!
So now I must put the question to the DVDActive jury. Biggles: Adventures in Time... guilty pleasure or not guilty?
Editorial by Scott McKenzie
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