East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Biggles (1986)


So, the idea was proposed to do a few posts about movie franchises that never started. Movies, mostly shot in the 1980s, that were all set up to be the Next Star Wars, the Next Conan or the Next Indiana Jones, but for some reason (usually a mix of ineptitude, lack of funds and madness) went nowhere, and sometimes entered the legend.

And I like very much the idea, and I think I’ll start with a movie that believed so much in its First in a Series status, that it proclaimed it in the title itself – well, at least in some countries. Today it is considered a cult movie by some, and one of the most ludicrous movies ever by others. The fact that it came with a very well established pulp cred, and it featured Peter Cushing in his last big screen role, only make the whole a lot more painful.

The movie is of course the 1986 Biggles, sometimes known as Biggles, The Adventure Begins (ah!), but also as Biggles: Adventures in Time.

Before the movie there was, of course, the series of novels, penned by W.E. Johns, a former British air force pilot that between 1932 and 1970 published 96 Biggles novels and collections of stories. Johns actually died in 1968, but he left three complete novels and an incomplete one, and adding collected and uncollected stories, the Biggles canon comprises today 98 books.

Biggles, whose real name was James Bigglesworth, was a multi-talented pilot that starts his career during the Great War and goes on to fly any kind of plane, usually facing incredible odds and an assortment of bad guys. I wrote about the series in the early days of the blog, and I am sure WordPress will link that post here at the bottom of this one.

So, action and derring-do, knights of the skies, the evil Hun and his Fokkers and Zeppelins… perfect for a movie, right?
Yeah, right.

I will copy and paste the plot as provided by Wikipedia – because otherwise you wouldn’t believe me.

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.


You still there?
One can’t make this sort of stuff up.

I have often wondered why they did not simply stick to the classic plots, without all this nonsense about time twins, time holes and what else. But of course these were the mid-80s, and fantasy movies were big, good old-fashioned adventure was not (cue to the sad fate of two good little movies like High Road to China in 1983 and Lassiter in 1984) – a straightforward Biggles caper would have looked too much like a war movie. And also, I am sure, the production felt the need to provide a connection with the present – because evil German scientists with sonic weapons in 1917 was fantasy, but a few scenes shot in 1986 and featuring a few punks made everything better, right? More accessible, more fun…

The cast was adequate, if not exactly stellar. Peter Cushing could elevate the ugliest drivel with his measured acting, but he’s wasted. Alex Hyde-White is severely lacking in charisma, and Neil Dickson would probably have liked to have something more to do. The same goes for Fiona Hutchinson, a soap opera actress that is just a damsel in distress.

There are good planes, though, and the fact that they happen to be 1930s biplanes and not 1917 biplanes is still OK, because watching them soar is beautiful.
And the premise, while bonkers, might have worked, had they… no, OK, it can’t work, not like this. The hypothetical franchise was killed before it was born.

As a curiosity, the soundtrack featured Jon Anderson of Yes, Queen, Motley Crue and Deep Purple. But that went nowhere again.

A reboot of the franchise might be fun – the original stories should be heavily rewritten to sanitize the harshest politically incorrect elements, but the end result might be a fun adventure/espionage romp featuring biplanes.
Yeah, you are right, they’ll never make it.
It’s a pity, though.

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

11 thoughts on “Raiders of the Lost Franchise: Biggles (1986)

  1. Well, you’ve found a wonderful title for your series of post! Very catchy. I didn’t know this one, and effectively time travel + pulp from the 20’s doesn’t seem to be the best idea possible! It is also curious to realize how many attempts of create new franchises were linked to the pulp narrative (Rocketeer, the Shadow, the Phantom) between 80’s and 90’s. I imagine that they were trying to recreate the success of Indy.


    • The success of Indiana Jones actually brought a certain number of projects out of development limbo – cases in point, Romancing the Stone and High Road to China.
      But in fact they were trying to create new franchises or just ride on the success of a certain genre: think about all the “wasteland warriors” movies, mostly shot in Italy, trying to cash in on the success of the Mad Max series.


      • Yeah, it’s a mechanism deeply connected to how B-movies works (the Italian youttuber Federico Frusciante explained it very well): if there’s a succesful franchise strictly related to a specific genre, you’ll have 15 or 20 similar movies, made with half the original budget. However, I think that a certain wave of movies at the beginning of the 90’s was slightly different. I believe that Hollywood was trying to see how to treat properly superheroes. Given their popularity, superheroes could have become one of the most important source of money for the American industry (and it did happen, in the end), but ’till the 70’s they lacked of the technology to portray them. Richard Donner’s Superman was an exception, but also the first effort coronated with success. Tim Burton’s Batman was deeply linked to the style of the director, and in any case Batman was easier to portray for what concerns special effects. So, I think some producers tried to risk more expendable heroes: from The Shadow to Blade and Spawn, they made an amount of lost franchises (or total failures…) that paved the road for movies about more risky brands, such as Spiderman or the rest of the Marvel bunch. PS: can’t wait to see the next episode of your analysis!


        • I’m looking around for some tasty titles.
          I like your idea of the companies testing the characters – but also, I think, they were trying to tackle the sort of heroes that would not require enormous expenditures on SFX. Blade is a lot simpler to do than Spiderman, effects-wise.


          • Yeah, this is true – Blade required less effects, and less court cases too – the intellectual properties concerning Spiderman have been scattered among several enterprises through the years. The exception remains Rocketeer, that I watched during my childhood and met again maybe 15 years later on an Italian TV. But it was a Disney movie, and Disney always means, at least, a big budget and a great team of artists woking on the issue.


          • The Rocketeer – exactly as The Shadow – was a missed opportunity. And Disney was the wrong studio for the Rocketeer.


  2. You know, I’ve recently read the comic and yes, the story was probably too much…pulp (sexual references, a freak that tries to kill all the members of his former circus…) for Disney. But I have a very mixed feeling about Disney. It is probably due to the fact that I am an avid reader of Disney comics, and that I grew up when Disney was the monarch of animation (not like now….now, Disney rules EVERYTHING), during the 90’s. But I’ve always had a strong connection with Disney, in particular for two lost franchises (your definition has proved to be useful) that I saw during my childhood: The Black Cauldron and Return to Oz. Two movies that could even appear here, now that I think of it. Sorry, I always lose myself inside my own words. What I wanted to say is: yeah, Disney was probably the wrong studio for that movie – but I’ve always admired the amount of talent, skills and creativity shown by their ar and special effects department. Just big names there! Screenplays were butchered and characters were ofetn forgettable, but I admire the enormous technical effort behind every movie. When I saw The adventures of Rocketeer as a child, I was ASTONISHED by the special effects! Really, the flight scenes looked way ahead of their time. So,I always give a possibility to Disney (I even rewatched Atlantis, one of the greatest missed opportunities ever, with the coolest submarine I’ve ever seen). Can’t wait for The Shadow ‘s review (just two words: Tim Curry)!


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  4. I’ve seen this a couple of times as it’s one of those movies that always seems to be playing on one cable/satellite movie channel or another, usually at 2 or 3AM. The producers/writers obviously didn’t feel confident in the World War I setting and felt that modern day audiences needed the time travel element in order to have characters to “relate” to. And yeah, Biggles definitely deserves another shot at movie stardom. Or maybe a six episode series on Netflix or Amazon Prime.


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