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I say, would you chaps consider surrendering?


aka Biggles: Adventure in Time

Say something nice about Biggles. Well, Neil Dickson looks the part. The strange thing is, though, he makes for a better Biggles in his all-but-in-name turn as a fighter pilot in the Pet Shop Boys’ It Couldn’t Happen Here two years later, repeating the mantra “Two divided by!” as he attempts to strafe the haplessly dour pop duo. Here, he’s stuck playing second fiddle to Alex Hyde-White as his present-day “time twin” Jim Ferguson. The plot revolves around a secret sound weapon developed by the enemy: that’s right, Stanislas Syrewicz’ score is shockingly bad, enough to provoke a pulmonary embolism on aural contact (this is a too-too obvious joke, doubtless used by everyone commenting on the movie, so I’ll probably bring it out again later). The small consolation is that Biggles had a Royal Premiere; the attendees were doubtless regally assaulted in Dolby Stereo.

Biggles: I’m in a bit of a pinch here, old man.

While the deleterious effects of the score, exchanged intermittently for the equally atrocious Jon Yes Anderson song Do You Want to Be a Hero?, cannot be understated – it makes Keff McCulloch sound like Beethoven – the concept is no great shakes either. It’s no good just making a straight adaptation of Captain WE Johns’ famed hero. Oh no. It needs to have a contemporary gimmick, no matter how tacky. Biggles eventually crash landed in a post-Indy environment, one where various cheap cash-ins were failing to make a dent (The High Road to China, featuring nearly-Indy Tom Selleck as a biplane pilot; King Solomon’s Mines, which should have been a no-brainer but was made by Cannon). 

Spielberg even put his name on a Young Sherlock Holmes movie. It’s easy to assume Biggles was a cheesy attempt to profit from Back to the Future time-travel cred, but the filming dates (early ’85) suggest, barring prescience that Robert Zemeckis’ movie would be the biggest hit of the year, the writers had just seized on a crappy SF idea through lack of confidence in the core material. Because the likes of Time after Time, The Final Countdown and Somewhere in Time don’t exactly suggest sure-fire box office, and The Terminator doesn’t seem like a likely influence. Regardless of the actual inspiration, the entirely slipshod, “whatever” manner of its integration into the story really does smack of “Time travel is so hot right now! Let’s have some of that”.

Surely the better idea, if plundering others was the only option, would have been the Indy route of confronting Biggles with a supernatural element? Perhaps the choice was predominately fiscal, down to the expense of mounting a full-blooded period piece; in the finished movie, all you really have of WWI are the trenches and a convent, eschewing the costings that seemed to leave the project languishing for decades. James Fox version Biggles Sweeps the Skies was announced in the late 1960s, fanning itself with the notion that “Biggles is our Bond” (what with the action, the Britishness, and scores of books to plunder). Which, of course, meant none other than Dudley Moore was ideal for the role. And then Jeremy Irons (why not go to the opposite extreme), and then this. Perhaps a clearer antecedent is Doc Savage: Man of Bronze, in terms of failing to find a tone and content that would be embraced by the public (although, I quite like Doc. Sort of).

Biggles: If you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything.

Hough deserves credit for doing his best; the flying scenes are all decently realised, although it’s easy to assume no rhyme or reason was involved when they are witlessly accompanied by a discordant cacophony on the soundtrack. Hough had emerged from a stint with Disney, one he’d sought out (I’m guessing he was cheap, as the likes of Twins of Evil, The Legend of Hell House and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry don’t scream Walt), but his flush ’70s gave way to a very patchy ’80s that would include sequels (The Triumphs of a Man Called Horse, erm, Howling IV: The Original Nightmare) and an escalating return to TV fare. Hough makes effective use of the London Docklands (where Kubrick filmed soon after), has a helicopter fly over the trenches and, eschewing an airborne dogfight grand climax, Biggles lobs a grenade into nemesis Hauptmann Erich von Stalhein’s (Marcus Gilbert, soon of the execrable Doctor Who story Battlefield) cockpit as he flies over head. Genius.

Commodore Raymond: Time travel is not unknown in history. There’s evidence that it happens more often than anyone suspects.

Jim sells ready meals (“This is the finest dog puke I’ve ever tasted”). This is, of course, excellent training for bashing the Hun, since he’s repeatedly transported to 1917 at inopportune moments. Fortunately, Peter Cushing’s Air Commodore William Raymond – sans carpet slippers – is on hand to give him the skinny on why it’s happening (if Raymond’s a conservative early-20s in 1917, it means he must be in his 90s when we meet him). There’s a good, solid technical explanation for this, right? Oh. “It seems that for the moment, your lives are inextricably interwoven.

Commodore Raymond: History will be altered, and you’ll be stuck in 1917. A sort of time orphan, I suppose.

The answer as to why is “Shit happens”. Likewise, the web of time here leaves something to be desired, since it isn’t as if the Germans have been doing any lucky time travelling (that we’re privy to; they’re yet to locate the Dial of Destiny). Rather, one has to assume Raymond has construed that, without Jim’s presence, it might be curtains for the war effort: “If the enemy has developed a weapon that allows him to break through the allied lines… then Germany could well win the First World War”. Rather absurdly, he has to rely on risky business as the means of portalling to the past: “It opens when one or the other is in mortal danger”. That’s just great. Obviously, there’s zero interest in the logistics of time travel, of potential paradoxes or original timelines.

All that said, the idea of time travel in the early part of the century, combined with directed energy weapons (DEWs), leads us inevitably to Nikola Tesla. Admittedly, the technology here isn’t of the EM-pulse variety, less still the scalar or longitudinal type favoured by Nikola, hence their also being known as Tesla Waves. While Germany’s alt-tech would develop a singularly mythic reputation with the Nazis, the weather modifying Scalar Interferometer used by the Soviet Union is a more obvious port of call along Biggles’ lines. I know, the link comes from rationalwiki, but one simply needs to assume going in that anything they debunk is actually true. Well, aside from the space shuttle Columbia bit (that scalar weapons brought it down: that would be assuming it was going up in the first place). 

Although, curiously, the space shuttle earns a mention here, when Jim notes the ceramic tiles protecting the “Eskimo” weapon control centre in the Docklands, which can “withstand a lot of heat”. The Ra Material, in Book 5 – the stuff they weren’t sure about including in the main body – references Tesla, particle beams and psychotronic weaponry “used in many cases to alter weather patterns”. Or degrade or enhance human health. Hmm. I wonder which option the military would favour.

Biggles: They’ve perfected a bloody sound weapon!

Nothing so fancy here. Indeed, while sonic weapons are officially designated non-lethal, the Germans have one that can do the deadly business (there’s an edit in the version I watched, where the grisly evidence of its efficacy has been excised, but the full version can be seen on YouTube). The lucky part of this is, Biggles and Jim have arrived armed with the movie soundtrack – “I’m going to fight sound with sound!” – something against which the Germans are no match. The sonic device promptly admits defeat and blows up. Hurrah!

If Biggles is the pits, there are at least the occasional intrusions of choice dialogue or amusing moments, most of which would be the first to end up on the cutting-room floor now. Jim arrives in WWII with nowt but a towel preserving his modesty – Hough decides on a very odd framing of Jim spread on some tables in a Jesus Christ pose, surrounded by nuns, which is… well, he’s hardly Ken Russell – such that he has to borrow some clobber. From the nuns. On returning to London, in a flash of blue fizz, William Hootkins promptly exclaims “He’s become a religious transvestite!” Biggles, in response to rotter von Stalhein’s aeronautic antics, comments “Let’s show the sausage guzzler what this thing can do”, which very nearly justifies the wholly sorry affair. His reaction to some 1985 punks is also one to be sympathised with (“It’s beyond comprehension!”). If only he knew the Vulcan nerve pinch.

The movie ends, much as Doc Savage did, on a cliffhanger; Biggles and co have been dunked in a large cooking pot belonging to an unfriendly tribe. Again, we’re talking classic unreconstituted material here! This was Cushing’s last film, of course. A shame he didn’t go out on a high, but you’ll be hard pressed to find any gems in his filmography post-Star Wars. Biggles’ chums include Algy (Michael Siberry, Bingo Little in Jeeves and Wooster) and Lord Bertie (James Saxon aka Roland Rat’s agent D’Arcy DeFarcy). Hyde-White would play Henry Jones Sr in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade a few years later (Hootkins, meanwhile, had a scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark).

The time to adapt Biggles probably was the ’60s, if it was happening at all. To the extent that the character has endured, it’s been through outright parody. Russ Abbot did Biggles. As did Monty Python, a number of times (you can be sure they’d all have read them). And Mr Bigglesworth was Doctor Evil’s cat, of course. If the only way you can do a “straight” adaptation is to mutilate source material beyond all recognition, it’s invariably better just not to go there. Even here, Biggles is way older than the character was in WWI (he fights in both world wars). 

Jim: Yo, Biggles! Hold on a second here!

Had the producers the funds and chosen to go the fantasy Biggles route, there were WE Johns precedents they might have followed. These included 8-foot crabs and electrically-controlled centipedes – through hybridisation, including “snakes and scorpions and all sorts of horrors”, in an adventure also involving invisibility and a death ray – dodos, Hollow Earth troglodytes, giant condors, cattle drained of blood by a new breed of bat (rather than Vril), giant octopuses and (nice, 9-foot) Patagonian giants. So yeah, Biggles: Adventure in Time missed a trick. You don’t want to be a hero. Not like this.

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