It’s not often you can revisit an awful sci-fi action adventure movie you liked from the early 1990s and find that it’s still enjoyable. Yes, I realize that’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but I knew when I saw Biggles: Adventures in Time long ago that it was a pretty stupid movie and it remains such, but I was entertained back then and I was still entertained when we watched it as a Netflix DVD the other night.
Let me repeat that the movie really is awful, but it’s awful in an entertainingly fun way that makes you wish there were Joel (or Mike) and the ’bots to add color commentary and occasionally there are moments when you think there might have been a good movie, had there been different music, actors, special effects and scripts.
To explain the movie, you’ll first need to know about the very long running series of books by Capt. W.E. Johns, featuring British World War I ace James “Biggles” Bigglesworth and his friends, Algy, Ginger and Bertie. Biggles is your basic upright Englishman who plays by the rules, even during the horrors of World War I (he actually serves long enough to fly jets), and goes from callow youth to seasoned professional. I first learned of Biggles from Monty Python parodies.
Apparently there had been interest in making a Biggles movie because of the popularity of the Indiana Jones movies, but when the Back to the Future movies were made, the producers decided to add a time travel element. So somehow they came up with the idea of “time twins,” people who travel through time to aid their endangered twin. Biggles’ time twin is James Ferguson (played by Alex Hyde-White, son of Wilfred Hyde-White), an American businessman promoting celebrity-endorsed TV dinners. After a mysterious visit from Air Commodore William Raymond (played by Peter Cushing in what I think is his last film role), Ferguson is sent back to a French battlefield to rescue Biggles (played by Neil Dickson), whose plane crash lands after a secret mission to photograph a German secret weapon.
Ferguson returns to the present day (the movie was released in 1986) and abruptly tells his fiancée (played by Fiona Hutchison) and business partner Chuck (played by William Hootkins; “Porkins” from Star Wars) that he must immediately leave for London. He finds Commodore Raymond at his super cool office at No. 1A Tower Bridge, and Raymond explains the whole improbable “time twin” story. Because Ferguson has already time traveled, the explanation is readily accepted.
So the rest of the movie involves Ferguson zapping back and forth through time, always resulting in embarrassing and amusing situations. When Ferguson’s fiancée and Chuck follow him to London, they find him wearing a nun’s habit. Chuck exclaims, “He’s a religious transvestite.” Later when Ferguson accidentally fires a machine pistol at the police, he amends his statement: “He’s a religious transvestite terrorist.”
With each visit, Ferguson and Biggles learn a little more about the secret weapon. Biggles also encounters his adversary, Eric Von Stalhein, both in the air and when Von Stalhein captures Biggles, Algy, Bertie and Ginger. The foursome were on a secret mission for the then Major Raymond. This mission involves a convent and Biggles’ love from a previous adventure, the double agent Marie, who’s helping the sisters nurse the wounded. That’s how Ferguson ends up in a nun’s habit.
Of course Ferguson’s fiancée also has to travel with him at some point, just so we can have the image of a woman with ’80s hair and a fur coat in the trenches of World War I. She even saves the day when they’re captured yet again while investigating a curious flying-saucer shaped ceramic tile covered observation dome from which they see the full effect of the German secret weapon. Cue the cheesy Doctor Who cheesy special effects.
But the special effects pale in comparison to the ’80s music. A lot of it is supplied by an unholy collaboration between Yes frontman Jon Anderson and Stanislaw Syrewicz channeling a poor man‘s Vangelis. There’s a lot of cat walking on a synthesizer power chords and too many repetitions of the song “Do You Want to be a Hero?”
OK, I realize I haven’t given you too many reasons to like this movie yet, but some of the aerial sequences are quite good, even if the producers couldn’t scrounge any authentic World War I airplanes. I really like the idea behind the German secret weapon and I love the observation dome and the one-liners that are so bad they’re good.
One also has to be impressed with Biggles’ flying skills when he, after being zapped to 1980s because Ferguson is in danger, returns to the Western Front at the controls of a police helicopter. “If you can fly a Sopwith Camel, you can fly anything!” And the thing is, readers of the original stories probably would accept this. Biggles is just that competent.
And apparently I’m not alone in my odd fondness for this movie. There’s a silly sort of appeal that has actually improved over time. I’m sure I didn’t notice the awful music at the time (after all, I was rocking to The Friends of Mr Cairo at the time) and I was watching the even cheesier special effects of Blakes 7.
I’m now rather disappointed that there’s never been a sequel, as is hinted, I think, in the final scene. Biggles and the Headhunter Adventures in Time (or whatever) would probably be just as wonderfully awful.
By the way, I apologize if this movie brings up bad memories to the legions who still adore the real adventures of Biggles.