Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Biggles: Adventures in Time (1986)

British boyhood literature back during the early 20th century really had it made! From characters like Bulldog Drummond to Biggles, there was never a shortage of spiffing military aces fighting for justice and freedom, and against those damn Huns! As for movies though they've been less lucky. Drummond got one of the longer running series's in classic Hollywood, but Biggles has only had the one film to date-1986's Adventures in Time...

Jim Ferguson is a mild-mannered American businessman, whose life turns upside down after a visit from a mysterious stranger. He finds himself transported back in time to World War I, where he helps a downed English pilot named James Bigglesworth. As he's flung back and forth from past to present, much to the growing concern of his friends, Jim realises time isn't quite as linear as he thought, and if he doesn't help Biggles find the Germans' new superweapon now, the outcome of the war could change for the worse...

Biggles: Adventures in Time is a strange movie from the offset, and a potentially frustrating one. It adapts the famous Biggles adventures, but apparently felt the need to spruce it up with time travel, making the whole affair verge on sci-fi, and adds in a bloody American to boot! Sounds infuriating, what? But it's a testament to the care and hard work on display here that the movie is such a success!

Despite its modern touches, these add to the overall story, and never feel out of place. Adventures in Time hearkens back to the age of classical British heroes. Dapper middle-class gentlemen with names like Puffy or Tonky, who'd say things like "Do be so good as to help me out of this plane, old bean". And it does so in a way that feels sincere, rather than taking the piss. It's a genuine spirit that can help elevate something that could otherwise come off as goofy, and turn out well.

The majority of the movie takes place on the Western Front, and it's a great depiction. It shows off the violence and dirtiness of the trenches, without ever being too dark for its intended audience. One could argue that the movie is a little biased in the favour of the British versus the Germans, maybe making the latter out to be worse than they were in this war, but if so it's never too egregious, and it's all in good fun.

There's always plenty of variety in the action. We've got daring nighttime raids, aerial battles, infiltration, and more. There's never a dull moment, and no two action scenes feel the same.

The characters are well written. Jim is a likeable hero, and he's enough of an everyman to be relatable, but shows enough talent in the action that he's not useless. Biggles on the other hand is a stylish and super talented guy, easily the star of his own movie, and he should've been here, since the movie does bear his name after all. But as the movie is, he's not underused or wasted, and he plays a good role.

Jim's girlfriend is an ok presence, and while her mistrust of her partner did bug me, it's a moot point since she's quickly dragged/taken along into the action. I appreciate this a lot. It's what Back to the Future set up, and could have done very well, but chose to bail on at the last possible minute. She has her ditzy moments here and there, but is enough of a help during the action that she never feels superfluous or unwanted.

Peter Cushing's character is suitably mysterious, and plays a good role, never just feeling like an excuse for exposition. His age confused me though! He's supposed to be Biggles' captain back in WWI, which would imply he was probably older, but even if he was a 20 year old captain, he'd still be over 100 by 1986!

Biggles' trio of comrades are good, despite their fairly limited screentime, and are all visually distinct from the other. And lastly, the comic relief is funny in some scenes, but comes across as too unlikeable in others, making you wonder why Jim is even friends with the dirtbag.

The film has a good sense of humour, and this is most apparent in the film's ending, which has one of the most hilarious lines I've ever heard at the expense of the Yanks!

The effects in Biggles are neat. There are explosions and gunfire aplenty, but where the film excels is in the weapon testing area, including one suprisingly gory moment for what's basically a family picture!

The score is a mixed bag, and likely to be a point of contention for some. As for how it sounds overall, it's great. There's a kickass main theme, which is 80s-tastic in the best way, and there are many more enjoyable tracks. The problem is just that. They sound like an 80s musician having fun with his synthesiser, in what's supposed to be a WWI set action movie! It is a little distracting to watch Biggles in a dogfight while synthpop plays. Some scenes handle it better, while others sound a bit off, amusingly so. The music that played during the superweapon test scene is really neat though. It has a unique and atmospheric feel to it, than really gels with the ooky almost apocalyptic visuals.

The acting here is all good. Neil Dickson does a perfect job as the title character, getting across everything you need to know about him in seconds. Alex Hyde-White does well as the main lead, and while he's not as charismatic as some of the other people he's working with, he still makes sure his character isn't forgettable. Fiona Hutchinson does a fine job, especially for her first film performance, while American expat William Hootkins could either be funny or annoying, depending on your opinion. The film contains a stable of reliable British character actors (Michael Siberry, James Saxon, and Daniel Flynn) as Biggles' comrades. Marcus Gilbert is a fine villain, and so convincingly German that I actually thought he was Wolf Kahler the whole time I watched this.

Of special note is Peter Cushing, appearing for his final film role. And what a final one it is! It's a good performance, and it's not a walk-on role either. He gets plenty to do, is always visually distinctive, and there are some spooky nods to his horror film past. Between these touches, to the classical source material, this feels like a fitting role to end his career on.

Biggles: Adventures in Time may seem like an odd adaption of the old stories, and goodness knows the world deserved more Biggles movies than just this one single film, but it's an enjoyable time to be had, and does justice to the old pilot...

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