You might say we nuked it, eh?
- James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth in Biggles. A film set in 1917.
The 1986 film Biggles, released in America as Biggles: Adventures in Time, is an abomination. A film that is most definitely less than the sum of its parts, it feels like an attempt to crowbar two contradictory, mutually incompatible plots into one film in order to create a lovingly crafted, incomprehensible mess. It is a film that asks the best left unanswered question, 'what would happen if we take a much-loved British character and add a time-travel plot for no real reason?'
Captain WE Johns and Biggles
Captain WE Johns (1893-1968) was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War who was shot down by an air ace, sentenced to death but escaped. In 1922 he wrote a series of short stories about a pilot named Biggles in the Popular Flying magazine. These short stories were published in anthology collection The Camels are Coming, the first of 97 Biggles books following the exploits of James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth. These included his flying a Sopwith Camel with the Royal Flying Corps during the Great War, fighting the Battle of Britain in the Second World War and then becoming a 'flying detective', fighting crime all around the world.
At the time the film was made over 100 million Biggles books had been sold in 20 different countries and 12 different languages. There had even been a 1960s television series based on the books.
Late at night in New York in the mid-1980s, Jim Ferguson is visited by a mysterious stranger, Colonel Raymond, who asks if anything strange has happened. After Raymond leaves, Jim finds himself briefly back on the Western Front in 1917, helping an airman named Biggles out of an exploding aircraft. The next day Jim gives a presentation hoping to launch his catering business but once again finds himself in the past at an inconvenient moment. He then has a second visit by Raymond, who despite having travelled all the way to New York just to talk to Jim, suddenly doesn't seem in the mood for discussion.
Jim has to go to London to continue the conversation, where he learns that he is Biggles' 'Time Twin', and that whenever Biggles is in danger, he will be pulled back in time to help rescue him. No further details about how someone becomes a 'Time Twin' is provided. He also learns that back during the Great War, Biggles was on a mission to find and destroy a top-secret German weapon.
A fierce, fearsome, incomprehensible noise has the power to disintegrate buildings and turn living beings to liquid – but more on the film's truly terrible soundtrack later. For the Germans have created a secret, sonic sound weapon that causes death and destruction on a nuclear scale and may win them the war. Even Raymond, despite having had 60 years in which to investigate it by the mid-1980s, knows little about it.
Will Biggles destroy the fearsome weapon and find his true love? Is Jim a religious, transvestite bank robber, or has he slipped back in the habit with barely a wimple? Why does Debbie decide to sit in a bin? Who thought that the soundtrack was a good idea? Will any of the film actually make sense?
|James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth||Neil Dickson|
|Jim Ferguson||Alex Hyde-White|
|Debbie Stephens||Fiona Hutchison|
|Air Commodore Colonel William Raymond||Peter Cushing|
|Erich von Stalhein||Marcus Gilbert|
|Chuck Dinsmore||William Hootkins|
|Marie Janis||Francesca Gonshaw|
|Algernon 'Algy' Montgomery Lacey||Michael Siberry|
|Lord Bertie Lissie||James Saxon|
|Ginger Hebblethwaite||Daniel Flynn|
|Bill Kizitski||Alan Polonsky|
The casting of the film is one of its strengths. Peter Cushing dominates every scene he is in, in what tragically would prove to be his last film role. It is easy to imagine him living eccentrically on Tower Bridge by a nice, warm fire. Neil Dickson also is well cast as Biggles, however he, as well as Algy, Bertie and Ginger, are given very little to do, with Biggles relegated to being a supporting character in his own film.
Although the film is set in 1917, some of the characters had not appeared in Biggles books set in that era. For instance Bertie first appeared in Biggles books set in the Second World War, Biggles met Ginger between the wars. The character of Marie first appeared in books set in 1918 rather than 1917. She is played by Francesca Gonshaw, who was best known for playing the similarly-named Maria in comedy series 'Allo 'Allo, making it very difficult to take the scenes in which she appears seriously1.
Made on location in New York – London - and the Western Front 1917
- End credits
Producer and co-writer Kent Walwin began work on Biggles in 1975 when he was one of the founders of film company Yellowbill and, between 1975 and 1977, purchased the rights to all 97 Biggles books. Quite why he did so seems a bit of a mystery; by the time the film was released it was apparent that all 97 books had not only been ignored but metaphorically shredded, chucked out the window and had their remains jumped and stamped on by the neighbour's tantruming toddler. Yet from the start Walwin believed Biggles would be the first film in a series. Walwin announced when he released the film,
We want to do not only another 'Biggles', but other films… by buying rights in a whole slew of books we foresaw the fact that we might be able to go on. We were looking for something with the quality of Bond, not just aesthetically in terms of what we could create, but financially. The subject lends itself to a mini-series – and there is almost certainly that somewhere down the line. And we could do another feature. What we are saying is that 'Biggles' is our Bond.
In 1979 the first draft 'Biggles' screenplay was written, with rumours suggesting Edward Fox would be cast in the title role. However the needed budget was estimated to be at least $30 million, far beyond the available finance. In the early 1980s new, cheaper screenplays were written. A deal was struck in which an investment company called Foreign & Colonial and insurance brokers the Robert Stigwood Organisation would provide the necessary finance. This meant that Biggles was a British film entirely funded by British investment. The film was produced by Kent Walwin and Pom Oliver, written by Walwin and John Groves and directed by John Hough.
As the Eady Levy2 was due to be revoked it was suddenly realised in 1984 that filming had to begin before the end of March 1985. The film was then suddenly rushed into production, even before they knew for certain that they had the money to finance the film. As Biggles was such a well-known and fondly remembered character in the UK, the production were given permission to do things that other filmmakers would not have been allowed, notably flying a helicopter backwards with a man hanging onto the outside above Tower Bridge.
A key aim was to ensure that the film would be seen by the widest possible audience. Although fondly remembered within Britain, Biggles was unknown in the key, profitable North American territory. In America, many recent, successful films had involved people travelling back in time, including The Terminator3 (1984) and Back to the Future (1985). It has often been suggested that Biggles jumped on the science-fiction bandwagon, which had proved popular since the release of Star Wars. Walwin described the idea behind the plot with the words,
What we are saying is that Biggles never told this story – except to Colonel Raymond. It never got into the books because it could seem very stupid that he had been rescued in 1917 by an American who claimed to have come from 1985. Raymond, of course, followed the story through to the moment in 1985 on the exact time anniversary, when he knocks on the door of the young American and asks if he is all right.
Filming took place in London, especially around London Bridge, as well as Stepney and Beckton4 in London, Chislehurst in Kent, and Bogborough and Cranfield in Bedfordshire. Made during one of the coldest winters on record, snow dominates many of the scenes set during 1917, which gives the film a special atmosphere. Holdenby House in Northamptonshire stood in as the convent while a London Brick Company Clay quarry was used as the site of the trenches.
Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines
If you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything.
- Biggles, Biggles.
The aerial sequences received a lot of media attention. Despite the film having a budget of only £7 million, the producers tried to replicate aerial combat of the Great War and hired the experienced Terry Coles, who had worked on films such as Battle of Britain. It was soon realised that using genuine Great War aircraft would be out of the question. They would be difficult to obtain, expensive to maintain and too fragile to perform the sort of stunts the film required, although genuine Great War aircraft from the Shuttleworth Collection were seen stationary in the scene in which Biggles flies over the aerodrome.
For the flying scenes a 1930's Boeing Stearman stood in for von Stalhein's biplane, which was flown by its owner John Jordan5 while Biggles flew a Belgian 1940 Stampe SV-4. These were still vintage aircraft and filming took place during the freezing conditions of January 1986. The low-level flying sequences involved flying the Stampe, an aircraft with a 33-foot wingspan, following a forest's narrow mile-long path which was never wider than 50-foot, with the aircraft actually clipping a few of the branches.
A replica Sopwith Pup was built by Skysport Engineering. This appears in the film's first scene set in 1917, where it is first seen flying over Jim's head, though in truth it was suspended by a crane. It is then seen crashing, with the plane designed to drop from 10 feet, while appearing as if it had fallen from 1,000, while ensuring the stuntman inside's safety. This beautifully detailed prop sadly does not last long before exploding.
Other stunts involved a helicopter, which at one point flies backwards over Tower Bridge. Another stunt involved flying along a railway line towards an approaching steam train moving at 40mph and landing on its flatbed wagon. This sequence, the first time a helicopter had been filmed landing on a moving train, took two days and had to be repeated 15 times before it was captured to the director's satisfaction. It was not easy for the biplane following the helicopter, which had to touch the rails with its wheels in front of the train while avoiding colliding with the telegraph poles alongside the track. As all the stunts were done for real it is remarkable that the only real damage to an aircraft was suffered when von Stalhein's biplane destroyed the helicopter and was hit by a piece of shrapnel in the subsequent explosion.
In addition to the film, a novelisation, soundtrack album and computer game were created.
There is a definite limit to the number of times you can hear the words 'Do you want to be a hero? Hero? Hero? Do you want to be a hero? Hero? Hero? Do you want to be a hero? Hero? Hero? Do you want to be a hero? Hero? Hero? Do you want to be a hero? Hero? Hero?' before it becomes rather annoying. Alas, this is not something that the chorus to the song 'Do you want to be a hero?' seems to have taken into account, and this song is heard constantly, non-stop, over and over and over and over like a broken record throughout the film.
Fortunately it is not the film's only song. How does the film's soundtrack encapsulate the heroic sacrifice and tragic loss of those who fought in the trenches on the Western Front during the Great War? What moving lyrics stand as a fitting tribute and ensure the viewers reflect on the lost generation who fought for their country and 'shall not grow old as those who were left grew old'?
Boys and girls in a whirl don't be thankful she's a handful… have you seen my baby have you seen my sugar have you seen my baby have you seen my sugar.6
The film does have a fun, catchy song, entitled 'There's No Turning Back'. This, though, only is played in the end credits. This enjoyable song is the only release by John Deacon of Queen's short-lived band The Immortals7. A rather fun music video appears on the DVD in which the band wears flying helmets and scarves in front of scenes of from the film, singing in front of old-fashioned microphones. This video heavily features Peter Cushing, who even has the last line8.
A novelisation by Larry Milne was published. This was 176 pages long with a further 16 pages describing the making of the film as well as 12 pages of colour stills from the film. The novelisation follows the plot of the film extremely closely, with one minor addition in a scene set in 1917, in which the Germans use chlorine gas against Biggles, Jim and Debbie. Biggles, being a gentleman, gives Debbie his gasmask while applying his own uric acid to his flying scarf to use as rudimentary protection. In the film, however, suffice it to say that Biggles is not seen urinating at any time. In another change, the police helicopter in the novel is armed with rockets and machine-guns, rather than just a loudspeaker as in the film. The novelisation also mentions other Biggles characters, Smyth and Wat Tyler, who do not appear in the film. It also speculates that Merlin and King Arthur were Time Twins too.
A game was released for the Commodore 64, ZX Spectrum and Amstrad in 1986. This contained levels set in trenches, at the weapon test site, flying on a recon mission to locate and photograph the secret weapon, travelling through the time tunnel and flying the helicopter over the Western Front.
Like many films made before and since, Biggles has been released for the home video market. The first DVD release prominently featured a picture of Biggles and a Spitfire on the front cover. The Spitfire was an aircraft famed for its performance during the Second World War; as Biggles is set in the First World War, no Spitfires appear at any point in the film. The DVD does contain a wealth of extras, including samples of how the film was promoted in April 1986 on BBC programmes Saturday Superstore and Blue Peter.
When Biggles was released, the producers stressed how they hoped that this would be the first in a series of Biggles films that would rival James Bond. This it failed to do. They also boasted how Biggles was a film made with British money and featuring a traditional British character, but that does not explain why he is sidelined to make way for the story of whether an American company can successfully launch a dinner range.
The film never really decides what sort of film it wants to be. It tries ever so hard to be Star Wars, complete with cast members Peter Cushing and William Hootkins9. Just as Luke had plans of the enemy's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, and faced the black-helmeted Vader in a space dogfight, Biggles has photographs of the enemy's ultimate weapon, a sonic device, and faces the black-helmeted von Stalhein in an aerial dogfight.
There can be no denying that the aerial sequences are spectacularly done and the stunt work is excellent. It is, however, apparent that Biggles is flying over the peaceful British countryside and not the war-torn Western Front. He is above a snowy, green and pleasant land, not No Man's Land. There are more telegraph poles than trenches beneath the aircraft. Instead of a desolate landscape covered in bomb craters, there are picture-perfect, untouched forests close to the front line without even a charred branch or leaf out of place. The trenches that do appear are rather shallow, only appearing waist deep and providing very little protection for those who have been living in them full time. Yet viewers do get to see Biggles' biplane land in a snowy aerodrome.
The plot, though, is incoherent. One minute Raymond knows exactly what is going on and is explaining events to Ferguson, the next he is ignorant of the events of his own past, asking Ferguson what happened. One moment the despised character Chuck, who Jim has only employed because his uncle runs the bank financing Jim's company, is trying to have Jim arrested or sectioned, believing him to be a religious transvestite bank robber. The next he is Jim's Best Man when he spontaneously gets married in London, despite both he and Debbie being from New York. Even more bizarrely, shortly after machine-gunning a group of policemen, stealing a helicopter and, after a long, drawn out manhunt, finally being arrested (following a brief trip back in time which the policemen of the 1980s are ignorant of), Jim is allowed to just wander off.
In fact, perhaps an opportunity was missed as in this story about time travel, no character appears in their youth in 1917 and elderly in the 1980s to tie the two times together, leaving them feeling disjointed events. The man who should have done this is Raymond, who we are told was Biggles' commanding officer back in 1917, yet he does not appear in the past sequences at all. The producers describe him as being Biggles' equivalent of 'M' from the Bond series, with a rather cosy lair tucked inside Tower Bridge that rather suits his character. It seems such a shame that after the perfect casting of Peter Cushing, when he is introduced by handing over his business card that clearly calls him 'Air Commodore', Jim reads 'Commander' out loud. This is the sort of minor mistake that should have been picked up on.
Other unexplained parts of the film include why, after Debbie is asked to find a way to distract the police following Jim, she is next seen sitting in a bin. Nor why the police decide to leave a helicopter unattended at a major crime scene involving someone they perceive as a machine-gunning madman. Even granting that Biggles is so experienced and natural a pilot that he can pilot a helicopter instantly seconds after seeing one for the first time, how does he recognise other objects at a glance, such as a microphone and loudspeaker, and know how they affect each other? Also, after Bertie, Algy and Ginger decide that they cannot fight the Germans inside the convent because of the extremely high risk of civilian casualties, why is it that at the end of the film they decide to fight the Germans in the same convent which contains exactly the same number of civilians?
Overall, there can be no denying that a lot of time and effort was spent on making this film, as it has some really enjoyable moments. You can see that it is trying very, very hard to be good but never quite managing it. Frustratingly, whenever one satisfactory moment appears a truly dreadful one is not far behind, sabotaging all that they have achieved.