Action, Adventure, Comedy, Family, Spy, War

Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986)

Comments Off on Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986) 16 May 2017

biggles blu

Production Company: Compact Yellowbill; Tambarle  

Blu-ray Distributed By: Kino Lorber

Blu-ray Release: November 29, 2016

Director: John Hough

Rating: PG

Reviewed By James M. Dubs

I’ll watch anything…including Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Modern-day American businessman Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) is propelled into a one-of-a-kind adventure when he is hurled through time into World War I. His mission could determine the end of the war… and destroy his life as he tries to save famed daredevil flying ace Captain James “Biggles” Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson) with the courageous help of Colonel William Raymond played by screen legend Peter Cushing (The Skull) in the final role of his iconic career. Ferguson soon finds himself going back and forth between contemporary London and a world of old-fashioned spy games and breathtaking aerial battles. Created by a real-life military hero, Captain W.E. Johns, Biggles is based on the character from Johns’ popular novels that has enthralled millions in Britain and Europe for decades and continues to do so. Wonderfully directed by cult-great John Hough (Sudden Terror, The Legend of Hell House, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry).

Film Rating: ★★★½☆

When books are adapted for screen I always make it known that I don’t care if the source material is honored or discarded. What matters to me is the production of a good film. Prior to watching Biggles: Adventures in Time I was clueless to the backstory of Captain Bigglesworth and when I held Kino Lorber’s blu-ray in my hand I was only aware of a handful of items. The film was an action/adventure with a time travel twist and starring the great Peter Cushing (Star Wars, Horror of Dracula) and Alex Hyde-White (Roger Corman’s The Fantastic Four).

The character of Biggles has been explored in nearly 100 books and a 1960’s TV show prior to the 1986 big screen version. American’s probably don’t know Biggles. He’s not part of our pop culture landscape and appears to have wider appeal in Britain and Europe. So it stands to reason why the film’s producers would attempt to make a movie based on the character. With a built in audience in Europe, and the opportunity to introduce the character for broader appeal in the States you can see the potential for the next James Bond or Indiana Jones franchise. However, as I would learn after the fact, the producers would take several “artistic liberties” with the source material that would prove fatal both commercially and critically. Those decisions would turn away the built-in fandom while also failing to capture those important American hearts and dollars.

From the opening frames, the film is decidedly dated and eighties. A synth, bombastic pop-song asks, “Do you wanna be a hero? Hero? Hero?… D…D…D…D…Do you wanna be a hero, hero, hero, hero?” It’s so damn catchy I find myself humming it right now as these words find themselves on the page. A lightning bolt streaks across the screen and reveals the title in fluorescent neon: Biggles (pictured above). Do you notice a curious omission? The title card doesn’t say “Adventures in Time”. A strange omission considering it is plastered on the cover of the blu-ray. No matter. We’ll simply file that away as an oddity (the first of many).

We soon meet Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White) in 1980’s New York City as he is being dropped off by girlfriend and co-worker, Debbie (Fiona Hutchison, Guiding Light). But Jim is unaware that in the shadows, a stranger watches. This mystery man (Peter Cushing) waits until Jim returns to his apartment. Once inside, the man steps out of the shadows and knocks on the unsuspecting man’s door. After a brief exchange in Jim’s doorstep where the elder gentleman asks a series of strange questions about events yet to unfold, Jim dismisses the seemingly confused old man and goes back to work. Suddenly a bolt of lightning strikes Jim’s apartment tower and…also hits Jim in his apartment? The lightning didn’t hit anyone else? No time to think about that because Jim suddenly finds himself thrust through time and on a battlefield. It’s a low budget battlefield because we don’t see signs of war, we simply hear the sounds of bombs dropping in the distance. Suddenly an Allied plane falls out of the sky and crashes right in front of Jim. Jim runs to the pilot’s aid and finds an unhurt but stuck James “Biggles” Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson) who quips, “Lend a hand. I’m in a bit of a pinch here, old man.” Jim saves Biggles from certain doom, and presumably, in turn changes history. But before Jim can learn too much more about the situation he leaps back to his apartment covered in dirt and grime (I’ll try to keep the Quantum Leap references to a minimum).

This brings me to my first question to the producers. For a film titled Biggles: Adventures in Time, why is the main protagonist an American businessman named Jim Ferguson? For better of worse, the character of Biggles takes a back seat to Jim Ferguson. With Jim’s constant and uncontrollable “Quantum Leaping” through time he has the most to lose and is the character we most relate with. That’s not a problem from a narrative sense. In fact, it makes complete sense to have a character you can get to know and sympathize with. However, your dyed-in-the-wool Biggles fans are going to be asking you, “why are we spending all of this time with this Yankee?” I can only assume the producers thought having an American character would help American audiences relate more to the story, but that would be the equivalent of having a James Bond movie with Bond featured as the sidekick to an American CIA agent. From a technical standpoint it could work, but why do it?

Why do it? That’s a loaded question that wants to point directly at the time travel angle of Biggles: Adventures in Time. Once, again from the perspective of someone who never read a Biggles book, the time travel angle technically works. My kids enjoyed watching Jim and Biggles jump around through time, gunning down Germans in non-violent and bloodless fashion. From their point of view the time travel element made the film memorable. But it has absolutely nothing to do with anything the Biggles character has stood for historically. So why did the filmmakers feel time travel was a necessary plot device? The blu-ray’s supplements may hold a clue. During the brief interview conducted with Neil Dickson, he makes an educated guess that the popularity of 1985’s Back to the Future had producers believing that time travel was not only in fashion, but necessary to make an enjoyable family film. Flawed logic at it’s best, but nothing surprising coming from film producers. By this point Biggles fans have every reason to hate this film through and through, but is this film actually made for them?

Technically, the film is made for Biggles fans, but only by virtue that a character named “Biggles” flies a plane and fights Germans. In reality this film is not for them. The tone and action has more of a cartoonish quality where no one is ever really in danger, the action is never too scary, the good guys never get shot, and the bad guys fall over like bowling pins. The characters are charismatic, fun, and have a lot of good-natured mischief, especially as they try to topple the German’s generic doomsday device. It’s so reminiscent of Saturday morning cartoons, like G.I. Joe, that it’s easy to see the attraction for any 12-year-old and under. At one point, Jim Ferguson returns from a battle and inadvertently fires a machine gun at a line of London police officers. Today he would be filled with lead and left bleeding on the pavement, but in this film its played more like a childish “Oopsie” mistake. Sorry I almost killed you! I’ll run away and hide now!

By all accounts this is a very safe family film. Except sometimes it is not. At the very beginning of the film we are introduced to Jim’s company and his team. Jim sells a line of microwavable TV dinners called “Celebrity Dinners” which are supposedly good enough for Hollywood elite. One of Jim’s staff is the “obnoxious, funny, fat guy” named Chuck. Chuck is a pervert who has slapped a sexy cover on the label of the TV dinners and even pitches a line of snacks that will include photos of starlets “tastefully posed in provocative positions” that can be advertised on the Playboy channel. My kids are 6 and 3 so this sex stuff goes right over their heads. No harm, no foul. However, immediately following this scene another of Jim’s staff, referring to Chuck, asks, “Jim, when are we going to dump that mountain of shit?” My 6-year-old howled with laughter. My 3-year-old repeated, “Ha! Mountain of shit.” [FACE PALM]

Admittedly those instances are the exception to the rule with Biggles: Adventures in Time, and this feature is largely successful in providing an enjoyable and mindless ride that is low on logic and reason, but high on heart and adventure. It’s fun, plain and simple. And it’s a well executed movie from the acting, directing, and beyond, despite the long list of poor choices made by the producers. It’s most drastic flaw is that it tries to appeal broadly in all the wrong ways and ends up only appealing to a very young crowd. It fails to connect with true Biggles fans and fails to provide enough adult entertainment for an older crowd. Since both of those markets are where the dollars reside, it’s not surprising that the film tanked and was rarely heard from or seen.

Fortunately, Kino Lorber has produced a very nice blu-ray so audiences (especially children) can rediscover this simple and mildly underrated adventure. To sum it all up, I had fun regressing and watching it with my boys who sat quietly and gave the film their utmost attention (which is a huge accomplishment, I must add). Biggles: Adventures in Time comes recommended, so long as you don’t bring along any pre-Biggles baggage or preconceived ideas on the title character. A “true” Biggles film has yet to be made, so fans of the literary character will need to wait a little longer.

Special Features

  • Interview with Neil Dickson
  • Interview with Alex Hyde-White

Author

- who has written 64 posts on UnRated Film Review Magazine | Movie Reviews, Interviews.

James Dubs is a father and husband who loves his family first and movies a close second. He believes every movie is worth watching once and, as a film fan and critic, believes that even the worst movies offer something in return. His mission is to watch anything and report without pretension. Follow James Dubs on Twitter and send him suggestions on movies you would like reviewed - popular, obscure, independent, etc. He'll watch anything for you.

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