James Bigglesworth, famously known as Biggles, is the heroic British World War One pilot who appeared in a series of 98 young-adult books by prolific author W.E. Johns. Like the best fictional British heroes he also travels in time… Or so we learn from his single sortie to the big screen – 1986’s Biggles: Adventures in Time.
The film sees Biggles, rescued in moments of mortal peril in the 1910s by an American salesman from the 1980s, Jim Ferguson. Back in the future Jim is sought out by Biggles’ former commanding officer – played by the legendary Peter Cushing in his last on-screen role – Ferguson learns that he and Biggles are ‘time twins’. With further trips back in time Ferguson gets caught up in the mission of Biggles, Algy, Bertie and Ginger to deal with a German secret weapon whilst his own life at home with Debbie, and at work with Chuck, spirals out of control.
The character of Biggles has been around since the 1930s but the idea for a movie didn’t occur until the early 1980s despite the continued popularity of the books (and even a Biggles-inspired 1950s BBC TV series Garry Halliday). It was supposedly the success of the Indiana Jones films that spurred on the idea of bringing the adventurous aviator to the silver screen.
Such an idea is pretty promising as a historical action/adventure with a hint of British war film and coming of age drama. Although the Biggles books did come to typify the ‘jolly adventures with public school accents’ stereotype, the early books about the Great War had a strong character arc and a grim undertone. The books’ ability to entertain young minds with action whilst informing them of history has proven them to be classic young-adult literature with plenty of potential for a strong film. Think Indiana Jones crossed with Aces High.
However, the film got stuck in development hell for a number of years. At one point a worringly mis-cast Dudley Moore was rumoured for the title role. In 1985 the success of Back to the Future gave the unlikely impetus to get the film made, providing the Biggles writers with a film to emulate, a mechanic to make World War One more relatable to the contemporary audience and a way of getting an American character involved in the story.
This inclusion of a main American character from the future is a hurdle which the film doesn’t quite clear. Including a contemporary American lead does make some sense as an audience identification figure with increased marketing potential across the Pond. However the move proves to be a double-edged sword, as it makes the events facing Jim Ferguson seem very, very trivial in comparison with the life and death struggles of Biggles.
As such Ferguson’s role ends up being closer to that of a comic foil. This means that the other American characters have to be grating comic relief just to make Jim look good. Ferguson does well as comic foil though, playing off Biggles with some great lines; demonstrating the contrast between eras when Ferguson explains to Biggles that “nuked” is an American slang term for over-reacting. Or, when the contrast between nationalities provides some good natured ribbing, with Biggles’ declaration: “Quick! Untie us before they realise you’re not a God, you’re just an American”.
The drawback of the comic foil also being the audience identification figure is that he effectively becomes the lead. Thus the more interesting 1917 sections of the plot, as well as the title character of the film, get criminally underused. But despite not being front and centre of the film Neil Dickson certainly does looks the part as the stoic British icon (though to be pedantic Biggles would’ve only been 18 in 1917) and captures the human warmth of the character in the books rather than just a stiff-upper lipped cliché. As it turns out Dickson even ended up effectively reprising his performance as Biggles in the Pet Shop Boys 1987 surreal pop-film-trip It Couldn’t Happen Here.
Although visibly not having the budget of the Hollywood films that partially inspired it, Adventures In Time does well with available resources. The crashed Sopwith Pup replica had a lot of attention paid to it so that it was even made to burn in an authentic manner. Northamptonshire does a decent job of standing in for Northern France behind the lines, but it is Beckton Gas Works that provides the most impressive location as the super-weapon test site. Combined with the great job by the effects department on the chilling flash of gore we see of the super-weapon victims, this creates an atmosphere that some horror films would be envious of.
The action itself looks good, particularly the aerial sequences – which clearly must have eaten up a fair chunk of the modest budget – whilst the production team pushed the boat out to film the first helicopter landing and take-off from a train moving at 40mph. As in many 1980s action films the combat is well served with the unabashed use of power-synth, irresistible in a Stockholm Syndrome style. Jon Anderson’s ‘Do You Want to be a Hero?’ being a genuine forgotten ’80s action score gem.
The stand out feature of the film, despite being the biggest deviation from the source material, is its use of time travel. The rather odd concept of time twins notwithstanding, the writers do utilise the temporal mechanics well. Perhaps most importantly, along with the source of humour it provides, is the ability to flit between time zones allowing the film to switch back to the 1980s before the tone of the First World War makes things too heavy. Conversely the film can also flit back to the thick of the action in 1917 without any tedious explanations. As such this temporal narrative device is very effective in moving the plot along at a fast pace, emphasising the tempo of the adventure and not allowing the viewer the time to dwell on the films shortcomings.
After having seen Rutherford come back in time throughout, the film performs a reversal in the final act as Biggles arrives in the 1980s and the action of the two time periods overlaps. Tying together the two halves of the story provides iconic anachronistic visuals and a light sci-fi resolution with future tech pitted against alt-historical. The mash-up of technologies and times evokes the same spirit of fun as diesel/steampunk, a little reminiscent of the sci-fi nods at the end of Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. It is this anachronistic fun that contributes so much geeky charm to the film.
It should be easy to despise this film. Readers of the original books could have every right to feel aggrieved. Geeks too, with our natural wish to see source material respected, could be expected to fly into a self-important nostalgic nerd-rage that leads us to howl at the internet. Yet by doing wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey things to such an iconic character, the film unexpectedly succeeds at being both enjoyable and a rather unique blend of disparate elements.
Biggles: Adventures In Time is like looking into a distorting mirror for the patriotic pilot. It isn’t a true reflection of the subject but it can still be both an interesting and fun thing to do. It is a light, British proto-steampunk classic as much as a result of, rather than despite, its dubious development decisions and financial failings. Perhaps the time has come to stop hiding the film under the bed as a guilty pleasure but to allow it pride of place amongst our cult classic collections.
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