Original British 1986 quad film poster
|Directed by||John Hough|
|Produced by||Pom Oliver|
|Screenplay by||John Groves|
|Based on||the Biggles books|
by W. E. Johns
|Music by||Stanislas Syrewicz|
|Edited by||Richard Trevor|
|Distributed by||UIP (UK)|
|Box office||$112,132 (USA)|
Biggles is a 1986 British sci-fi adventure film directed by John Hough (and later released in 1988 in the United States as Biggles: Adventures in Time). The plot involves a time traveller from the 1980s who travels to World War I to help the character Biggles from the series of novels by W. E. Johns and where Biggles also travels to the 1980s to save his new friend. The film stars Neil Dickson, Alex Hyde-White, and Peter Cushing in his final feature film role.
Catering salesman Jim Ferguson (Alex Hyde-White), living in present-day New York City, falls through a time hole to 1917 where he saves the life of dashing Royal Flying Corps pilot James "Biggles" Bigglesworth (Neil Dickson) after his photo recon mission is shot down. Before he can work out what has happened, Jim is zapped back to the 1980s. With assistance from Biggles' former commanding officer William Raymond (Peter Cushing) who lives in the Tower Bridge in London, Ferguson learns that he and Biggles are "time twins", spontaneously travelling through time when one or the other is in mortal danger. Together, Ferguson and Biggles fight across time and against the odds to stop the Germans changing the course of history by destroying a "Sound Weapon" with a Metropolitan Police helicopter that was stolen by Biggles while escaping a SWAT Team in 1986 London.
- Neil Dickson as Lieutenant James 'Biggles' Bigglesworth
- Alex Hyde-White as Jim Ferguson
- Fiona Hutchison as Debbie
- Peter Cushing as Air Commodore William Raymond
- Marcus Gilbert as Hauptmann Erich von Stalhein
- William Hootkins as Chuck
- Alan Polonsky as Bill
- Francesca Gonshaw as Marie
- Michael Siberry as Second Lieutenant The Honourable Algernon 'Algy' Montgomery Lacey
- James Saxon as Second Lieutenant Lord Bertie Lissie
- Daniel Flynn as Ginger Hebblethwaite
As early as 1968, and inspired by the success of films such as The Blue Max, there were plans to make a film based on W.E. Johns' books entitled Biggles Sweeps The Skies scripted by Chris Bryant to be filmed in Algeria and financed by Universal Pictures. Pre production work was done, including building replica period aircraft. James Fox was tapped to play Biggles and even appeared in promotional material. However, the film was cancelled due to budget and location problems.
Peter James bought the rights to the Biggles stories in 1976. The film was produced by Yellowbill Films, a company set up in 1979 by British producer Kent Walwin, and one of its first acquisitions was the rights to the Biggles character. Additional financing came from a subsidiary of Hammer Films, Tambarle Ab Ltd, and Heath Financial Services, a group of insurance brokers,[self-published source] which the film is copyrighted by. This made Biggles an entirely British funded project. The Eady Levy was about to expire in early 1985, so to take advantage of additional funding, the film was rushed into production. In 1988, Compact Yellowbill Ltd was set up, a company 50/50 owned by Kent Walwin and the other producer, Pom Oliver, and the film's production credit was changed to that. Walwin had the idea of creating a series of Biggles films in the same format as the James Bond series which the option on all of the books could have opened the door to.
John Hough had already directed several movies for Hammer Films and had had a box office hit with Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry. He had read the Biggles books as a child and signed to direct in November 1984.
The original script called for an adventure film in the mould of Raiders of the Lost Ark and would have been much more faithful to Johns' original novels. Some sources claim that during scriptwriting, however, Back to the Future was released and became a major hit, so the script was duly altered to follow this trend, in an attempt to capitalise on Back to the Future's popularity. However, Biggles had already completed filming by the date of Back to the Future's UK release date of December 1985.
Principal photography took place over six weeks between January and March of 1985.
Before Neil Dickson was cast as Biggles, Dudley Moore was in the running for the part. Dickson had been a fan of the original books since childhood and was very keen to appear in the film, however when he signed on, there was no final script written. Biggles was both Dickson's and Alex Hyde-White's first leading role in a motion picture. It was also Fiona Hutchison's first movie role. She described her character Debbie as 'trapped and terrified.'
The film was mostly shot in London and on various locations in the home counties. Some of the aerial sequences were shot near Millbrook Proving Ground in Bedfordshire. The 1917 weapon testing ground scene was shot at the Beckton Gas Works, which a year later was used for scenes in Full Metal Jacket and had been the location for the pre title sequence in the 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only and the finale of the John Wayne actioner Brannigan. The exterior church scenes were all filmed at All Saints Church, Holdenby, and the courtyard scenes were filmed by the stable blocks of Holdenby House.
Several aircraft were used in the film. These included a Stampe SV.4, which is flown by Biggles, and a Boeing Stearman, which is flown by his archrival, von Stalhein. Both these bi-planes are actually from the 1930s as flying and maintaining actual WWI aircraft was considered prohibitively expensive. The Stampe was flown by Stuart Goldspink while the Stearman was piloted by former WWII bomber pilot John Jordan. Also used in ground scenes are several genuine World War I aircraft from the Shuttleworth Collection, including the Avro 504 and LVG C.VI. The aircraft and flying scenes were based at and around Old Warden aerodrome in Bedfordshire.
The film includes a scene where Biggles lands the helicopter (a Bell 206 JetRanger) on a flat wagon on a moving train. This was filmed on the Nene Valley Railway and was apparently the first time such a stunt had been attempted. Fifteen takes were needed before the director was satisfied that the sequence was finished. The helicopter was flown by renowned stunt pilot Marc Wolff. The JetRanger used for filming was destroyed in a crash in January 1989. The Sopwith Pup biplane seen at the beginning of the film was specially built by Skysport Engineering and suspended on a crane for filming. During filming, the cable holding the prop biplane snapped, causing it to crash. With no replacement, the scene had to be rewritten.
The flying sequences were of major interest to aviation fans, so much so that features on the filming of the scenes appeared in specialist magazines.
The film takes much liberty with the storyline of the original novels. In addition to the introduction of a science-fiction plot, Biggles is much older than in the books (where he is only a teenager in 1917), and the characters Ginger and Bertie feature although they don't join Biggles until much later in the book series. However, the presence of Biggles' friend Algy, adversary Erich von Stahlein and love interest Marie fits with the earlier books in the series.
Biggles received a royal charity premiere on Thursday 22 May 1986 with Prince Charles and Princess Diana in attendance. The film went on general release in the UK on Friday 23 May 1986 at the Plaza Cinema on Lower Regent Street in London,. To promote the release of the film, the story was published in newspapers in comic strip form and promoted via ABC Cinemas with discounted tickets available.
David Robinson in The Times was not impressed, writing that "the flying ace might well have been made over into a sort of period James Bond. Instead there is a misguided and inept attempt to give the film an appeal for imagined mid-Atlantic teenage audiences", and concluded that "the script is witless, the direction is showy and the performances of the twin heroes (Neil Dixon as Biggles and Alex Hyde-White) are weakly amiable. The principal consolation is a cadaverous Peter Cushing as Biggles's old C.O., Captain Raymonds."
When released in the USA on 29 January 1988, Variety were more positive, praising the action scenes and Dickson's performance especially. Sheila Benson of The LA Times found the film enjoyable in parts, but overall disappointing.
Later reviewers have not been less critical, although Scott McKenzie at DVDActive.com concludes that while the whole plot idea "makes no sense whatsoever", the dialogue is "unbelievably corny", and the soundtrack "comes nowhere close to matching the mood of the movie", he finds the flying scenes "particularly impressive, with wing-mounted cameras putting the viewer right in the middle of the action. These sequences alone make Biggles an intriguing watch even for the most casual viewer."
The film was not a success at the box office but in the intervening years has gained a cult following.
Dickson and Hyde White both enjoyed making the film and became friends because of it. Both were disappointed that it was not a bigger success.
In other media
A novelisation of the script was published by Coronet Books in paperback and Severn House in hardcover reprint. The author was Trevor Hoyle, writing under the pseudonym "Larry Milne." The novel follows the film closely but expands certain scenes and ideas. At one point Biggles and Jim repel a mustard gas attack. The book features a chapter on the making of the film. A 48-page storybook entitled "Biggles: The Untold Story" was also produced, written by Peter James, it includes several photographs from the movie, and was published by Pan Books. A read-along storybook and cassette was also released for younger children.
Several of W.E. Johns' original novels were reprinted to tie in to the release of the film, including Biggles: Pioneer Air Fighter, the very first Biggles adventure.
A set of lobby cards was produced for some European releases.
Jon Anderson, frontman of Yes wrote the lyrics for the film's signature song, Do You Want to Be a Hero, while Stanislas composed the rhythm. Anderson and Stanislas were both signed to Island Records at the time and agreed to collaborate on the music.
- Jon Anderson – "Do You Want to Be a Hero"
- Jon Anderson – "Chocks Away"
- Deep Purple – "Knocking at Your Back Door"
- Mötley Crüe – "Knock 'Em Dead, Kid"
- Queen - "Another One Bites The Dust"
- The Immortals – "No Turning Back" Co-written by John Deacon in his second non-Queen recording. The track was released as a single, and the accompanying music video also starred Peter Cushing. The song failed to chart.
As a tie-in to the film, a video game with the same title was released in 1986 by Image Works for the Amstrad CPC, Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. The game was based on the movie's storyline and featured four different missions which including flying combat sequences with biplanes, a rooftop chase, searching for the secret weapon in a trench setting and first person helicopter gameplay. The game received mixed reviews.
- The Times, Saturday 17 May 1986, page 18: Films: Biggles - Plaza - From Friday Linked 2015-06-13
- "Biggles (1985)". BBFC. Retrieved 2015-06-12.
- IMDb: Biggles (1986) - Release info Linked 2015-06-12
- Decline and fall of the funny film The Observer 8 Feb 1976: 32
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- In All Sincerity... Peter Cushing, page 340. Christopher Gulb, Xlibris 2004 Linked 2015-06-12
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- In All Sincerity... Peter Cushing, page 341. Christopher Gulb, Xlibris 2004 Linked 2015-06-12
- IMDb: Biggles (1986) - Company Credits, Other Companies Linked 2015-06-12
- Endole: Compact Yellowbill Limited Linked 2015-06-12
- "Where was 'Biggles: Adventures in Time' filmed?". British Film Locations. Retrieved 6 June 2017.
- Biggles Fansite: A history of Biggles on film Re-linked 2015-06-12
- The Theatres Trust Theatre Database: Plaza Cinema Linked 2015-06-13
- The Times, 23 May 1986, page 15: Hollywood's idea of farce Linked 2015-06-13
- DVDActive.com: Guilty Pleasures: Biggles: Adventures in Time Re-linked 2015-06-13
- World Of Spectrum: Biggles Re-linked 2015-06-12