Thursday, 7 June 2018

Film Review - Biggles

As a plane-mad boy growing up with no History Channel Biggles was a staple of my childhood, thanks to my parents taping the movie from ITV one Bank Holiday - a recording I ran to death. Biggles was created as a series of aerial adventure books by W. E. Johns, a World War I pilot himself, for younger readers in 1932. The books were a staple for boys from then until 1970, the series having enough of a loyal following to only end when the author died. Biggles' in-fiction career started off in 1916 but did move forwards through time, taking in post-war time in a charter plane foiling various plots against Britain and then reactivation for World War II, followed by a period as part of a special flying unit. This seems to have been possible by James "Biggles" Bigglesworth and his chums having some sort of sliding lifespan; initially his callow age was a feature but it froze when he hit about 30. The book's attitudes towards race and nationalism congealed at about the same point and by the sixties were firmly out of swing with much around it; one suspects by this point the readership was mainly made up of those who had been reading the books for decades.

Anyway, with Raiders of the Lost Ark showing old-fashioned period adventure could find an audience the newly set-up Yellowbill Films bought up the film rights from Johns' estate. Initially progress seems to have been slow but the success of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom probably reaffirmed the potential for box office and the script was green-lit. However, partway through writing Back to the Future came out and was an even bigger hit, leading to the decision to suffuse the nostalgia with a bit of time travel. This basically destroyed the film - which wasn't a radical commercial success in the event anyway, despite some solid promotion and the awkward subtitle Adventures in Time being added to American posters as Biggles was probably more famous as a member of the Spanish Inquisition on that side of the Atlantic anyway. There was certainly never any threat of the sequel the coda scene was angling for happening anyway.

Original plans had (reputedly) been for an entirely period-set aerial adventure film which would have been faithful to the books. Instead a plotline set in 1986 was grafted on concerning TV dinner pitchman Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-Pierce) travelling back in time to 1917 to meet Biggles (Neil Dickson). Ferguson was to be American, perhaps with an eye on transatlantic box office or perhaps because American cinema was rapidly overtaking domestic stuff as a sign of quality. But how to achieve this? A thought-provoking scientifically daring reason? No, Biggles and Jim are time twins - and that's all the explanation you get. The link between the two, Biggles' 1917 CO and present day Air Commodore Raymond (played by Peter Cushing, looking on the brink of death but still a cut above), simply drops this into a brisk explanation like it's a problem lots of people deal with and swiftly moves on before any follow-up questions can be asked.

Even taking that at face value the whole time travel aspect is nonsensical. Raymond in 1986 is frequently asking Ferguson about whether events in 1917 have been successful when he should know and none of the antics in the past make any impact in 1986 beyond inconveniencing Jim's personal and professional life. A study in pre-determinism or just crap scripting? Indeed, there's something of a cynical whiff to the present-day scenes. Jim's cardboard product, his budget John Candy colleague (played by the fat guy who gets shot down over the Death Star in the first Star Wars) who shifts arbitrarily from irritating financial backer to half-hearted antagonist to best man at Jim's wedding, the love plot with Debbie (Fiona Hutchison) that's so under-developed it's impossible to pinpoint at which point before the aforementioned wedding they actually become an item.

The shame of it all is that the 1917 sequences show how good the film could have been. It gets a pass for bunching Biggles' most famous associates - Algy, Ginger and Bertie - in at this point when he met the latter pair much later in much the same way you have to deal with Ant-Man not being a founding Avenger in the film adaptation, while the rest of it is excellent. Director John Hough (who did not have a particularly distinguished career, relative highlights including second-string Hammer horror Twins of Evil, a rescue job on the troubled Spanish-backed Orson Welles-starring Treasure Island and dippy star-laden war conspiracy yarn Brass Target) nails the action set pieces and the general tone of the World War I scenes. Everything is muddy and it looks bitterly cold, with a fortuitous outbreak of snow around location filming adding to the authenticity. Biggles himself is played fantastically by Dickson, and to be fair while Hyde-Pierce seems a little bit like his direction was "play it like Michael J Fox would" if he didn't have as much charm as he does the film would be a real turkey, his nonchalance, bemusement and timing helping some of the hokiest aspects come off better than they have any right to.

When Biggles actually gets to fly a plane the film delivers too; some excellent camera work and the use of actual physical planes (albeit slightly more modern than the time period) leads to a smashing chase between Biggles & a reluctant baffled Ferguson in a two-seater being chased by arch-enemy Von Stalhein over tree-tops. Sadly this is the only extended aeroplane scene; later the plot contrives to send the heroes back in time with a helicopter they eventually use to blow up the Huns' new sound weapon and to be fair that is also well-filmed, though any aviation bore would tell you that a bog-standard civilian copter would probably be easy game for a well-flown biplane. Though you can handwave Biggles easily being able to fly a helicopter as he's fucking Biggles.  Even then it's all done by stunt pilots and it really does work well as the thing swoops over muddy trenches and lands on trains to the bafflement of the German forces.

Other WW1 scenes are just as good, even if Biggles, Algy, Ginger and Bertie spend quite a lot of time scuffling with soldiers for a group of elite pilots. Winningly a lot of effort's actually gone to giving the trio some solid costumes, a few decent lines and a couple of shining moments, and if you take Ferguson's cover story (he claims to be an American secret agent) at face value you can really lose yourself in these scenes and imagine how great the movie might have been if it had been payed straight as historical action-adventure. Genre fans meanwhile will recognise James Saxon as Bertie; it's not a reach to suggest his turn as the similarly posh and excitable Oscar Botcherby in Doctor Who the previous year was perhaps an influence on his casting, though at the same time Saxon just seems to be like that. Another genre nerd point of interest to join Cushing, Saxon and Fat Guy Off Star Wars is the handsome Marcus Gilbert as von Stalheim, three years before his dashing turn as Ancelyn, also in Doctor Who. More generally the head of the French convent is Pam St Clement, i.e. Pat Butcher off EastEnders. Francesca Gonshaw meanwhile left 'Allo 'Allo to play Biggles' underwritten but attractive (and canon, though she disappeared from the books sharpish once Johns cottoned on to his readers thinking girls were icky) love Marie, while Ginger is played by Jerome Flynn's brother Daniel. Go back and watch it again, you'll see it now I've mentioned it.

The other weird duality comes from the score, which is mainly good sombre stuff from Stanislas Syrewicz, ably soundtracking perilous expeditions through tunnels under German lines, the aftermath of the sonic weapon testing and Biggles carrying an injured Marie back to a monastery, uncaring at von Stalhein's plane circling above. But for some reason someone decided that for the action scenes something very 1986 was needed, and who else to turn to but Yes singer Jon Anderson. He provides two tracks featuring some serious key-smashing on a Bontempi Home Organ. The second, "Chocks Away", filters his AOR voice heavily and might just be the worst song of all time, but both make an incongruous backing to daring flight over the Western Front.

So Biggles is a film of stark contrast, almost at war with itself. A Biggles film featuring hardly any flying and an absurd time travel plot should be unwatchable but there are a lot of genuinely good scenes, though how much of this is down to some rose-tinted flying goggles on my part I couldn't honestly tell you. As an adult, it's more a source of frustration - with better decisions made in the writing process it's clear there's the talent involved to have made a really great straightforward and joyfully ahistorical adventure movie but muddled decisions prevent it. And really it was probably the last chance - Biggles is even more out of date now than he was in 1986 and any future film would likely be all CGI, pop-culture references and eyebrow-waggling postmodernism. Shame.

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