Monday, December 12, 2016

Retro Review: BIGGLES (1986)

(UK - 1986; US release 1988)

Directed by John Hough. Written by John Groves and Kent Walwin. Cast: Neil Dickson, Alex Hyde-White, Peter Cushing, Fiona Hutchison, Marcus Gilbert, William Hootkins, Alan Polonsky, Francesca Gonshaw, Michael Siberry, James Saxon, Daniel Flynn. (PG, 93 mins)

Based on Captain W.E. Johns' long-running series of Biggles adventures for young readers, published from 1932 until several years after Johns' death in 1968, BIGGLES had a strong foundation in British pop culture, even though the books--nearly 100 altogether--were largely unknown in the US. Focusing on the ongoing adventures of WWI fighter pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth, the books moved ahead with the times (Biggles would later fight in WWII, and so on), and remained popular throughout its publishing run. It took until the mid-1980s until someone attempted a movie adaptation and by then, Biggles had grown passe and British youth had moved on. To make it more commercially appealing to the savvy, video-game kids of the '80s, the producers of BIGGLES decided to add sci-fi and time-traveling to the script since BACK TO THE FUTURE was a huge hit at the time. Now, before we get to Biggles himself, we're introduced to this film's Marty McFly in Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), a rising TV-dinner executive in NYC who's repeatedly sucked back in time to WWI France, where he keeps meeting Biggles (Neil Dickson). Ferguson is informed by elderly Col. Raymond (Peter Cushing), who was Biggles' commanding officer in the war, that he and Biggles are "time twins," with one summoned through holes in time to help when the other is in life-threatening danger. Ferguson eventually travels to London to be instructed in the ways of time travel by Raymond, and goes back to 1917 to accompany Biggles and his pals Algy (Michael Sibbery), Bertie (James Saxon), and Ginger (Daniel Flynn) on their mission to thwart evil German pilot and recurring Biggles villain Eric Van Stalhein (Marcus Gilbert), who has created a lethal sound weapon whose intensity is such that it can burn and melt flesh.

Though competently made and inoffensively watchable, BIGGLES is an almost total misfire. It's never able to overcome the black hole at the center that is Hyde-White's bland, boring shrug of a performance. Ferguson is a passive observer throughout the film, so much so that the time travel element is completely superfluous and comes off as exactly what it is: an obvious, desperate attempt to collect some BACK TO THE FUTURE table scraps. Ferguson never really serves a purpose once he's back in 1917 with Biggles other than functioning as anachronistic comic relief, such as when he hurls an electric razor at some German soldiers and they think it's a bomb. And humor's really the only reason for Biggles to eventually go through a hole in time and end up in present-day London, where he flies a high-tech helicopter back through to 1917 and promptly freaks everyone out with what they call a "flying windmill." British kids weren't reading Biggles adventures by 1986 anymore and the sci-fi and time travel elements come off as cynical ploys to cash in on a recognizable brand name. Someone like Terry Gilliam probably could've made a fun BIGGLES that was true to the stories, or at the very least, made the time-travel angle work, but John Hough, a journeyman who's made some revered cult classics over his career (TWINS OF EVIL, THE LEGEND OF HELL HOUSE, DIRTY MARY CRAZY LARRY), is in total yes-man, director-for-hire mode here. It looks pretty cheap, too, with some stock footage shots of NYC followed by an obvious London backlot that looks even less convincing than the NYC neighborhood of DEATH WISH 3, and the "lightning bolt" time travel visual effects are rudimentary at best. While Hyde-White is a complete blank as Ferguson, Dickson, who went on to a busy career in ADR and video game voice work, has some fun as Biggles, and the iconic Cushing, in what would prove to be his final film appearance (he retired from acting after BIGGLES and died in 1994), lends some authoritarian gravitas and genuine emotion to his few sporadic appearances as Raymond.

The film kicks off in the most 1986 way imaginable, with a rarity in the theme song "Do You Want To Be a Hero?" by then-Yes frontman Jon Anderson. There's also contributions from Deep Purple ("Knocking at Your Back Door") and Motley Crue ("Knock 'Em Dead Kid"), and the closing credits song "No Turning Back" ended up being the entire output of The Immortals, a one-off supergroup assembled just for the soundtrack, featuring Queen bassist John Deacon and occasional Alan Parsons Project vocalist Lenny Zakatek. BIGGLES tries to be a hip adventure epic for '80s audiences, but the dated source material just doesn't gel with the hard rock, special effects presentation. It was also another in a brief craze of wartime aviation adventure stories being made at the time: in addition to BIGGLES, there was SKY BANDITS and the John Hargreaves-starring SKY PIRATES, all of which bombed at the box office in 1986. Even boasting a tie-in video game, BIGGLES was an expensive flop in its native UK and it took two years before the short-lived New Century/Vista dumped it in a few US theaters with no publicity at all in early 1988. Running 108 minutes in the UK, the film was cut down to 93 and rechristened BIGGLES: ADVENTURES IN TIME for America, since no one in the States knew anything about the Biggles stories. Upon a cursory mention, the goofy name "Biggles" might've even led people to think it was another GREMLINS knockoff along the lines of GHOULIES and MUNCHIES. While it never really comes together as far as purpose and storytelling are concerned, BIGGLES does earn a little cred for some spectacular aerial sequences and some effective use of the ruins of the Beckton Gasworks, a location memorably featured as Hue City in the second half of Stanley Kubrick's FULL METAL JACKET. BIGGLES was recently rescued from obscurity by Kino Lorber, who released it on Blu-ray in its 93-minute American cut (the packaging erroneously lists it as the 108-minute version), with new interviews with Dickson and Hyde-White, both of whom have fond memories of the shoot and working with the legendary Cushing, even if the movie wasn't a success. The genre-hopping Hough, who enjoyed a brief tenure in the late '70s and early '80s as a go-to guy for Disney live action (he directed ESCAPE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN, RETURN FROM WITCH MOUNTAIN, and THE WATCHER IN THE WOODS), next helmed a pair of 1988 horror films--the underrated AMERICAN GOTHIC and the dismal HOWLING IV: THE ORIGINAL NIGHTMARE--before mainly focusing on TV movies. Now 76 and apparently retired, he hasn't directed since the low-budget 2002 Patsy Kensit horror movie HELL'S GATE.


  1. "with some stock footage shots of NYC" They actually shot on location a bit.

    "followed by an obvious London backlot" Nope. Definitely shot on location at Tower Bridge, please get your facts straight.

  2. I meant the scenes set in NYC are on an obvious London backlot. Thanks for reading and commenting on the snippiest tone possible, though!

  3. If Biggles is known in the US, its cos of Graham Chapman's portrayal in Monty Python. ODDLY, Cleese was linked for the title role in a Biggles TV show which metamorphosed into this film
    Dudley Moore and the Fox brothers were linked too