What the ffolkes?
An obscure British thriller that's eerily prescient about the Gulf oil spill.
One day, the great Gulf oil spill movie will be made ("… and starring Michael Sheen as Tony Hayward …"), but for now we need to find other works of art to comfort or enrage us about the catastrophe. There Will Be Blood strikes a suitably bleak tone; the IMAX documentary The Fires of Kuwait is more inspirational; and the Saved by the Bell oil spill episode sends a surprisingly strong environmental message. But, for those who get their civic lessons from action movies, I would most recommend ffolkes, an obscure British thriller from 1980 that is eerily prescient about the BP spill.
ffolkes stars a pudgy, bearded, and vainglorious Roger Moore, then flush with 007 stardom, as Rufus Excalibur ffolkes, a freelance naval commando. (About that double, lower-case F—a few snooty British names have it, apparently because of a misreading of the Old English capital F.) Moore hams it up as ffolkes—a ruthless undersea killer who's also a woman-hating, cat-loving, needlepointing, alcoholic fop. ffolkes lives high in a Scottish castle and spends his days training his private squadron of scuba soldiers, "ffolkes' ffusiliers."
It's a carefree life until a team of American terrorists led by Anthony Perkins hijacks two North Sea oil rigs and threatens to blow them sky high if the British government doesn't pay a $25 million ransom. (In a nice touch, the terrorists finagle their way to the rigs by posing as reporters from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe.) The British Navy doesn't have the know-how to defeat the hijackers, so the Prime Minister turns to Lloyd's of London, which insures the rigs. Lloyd's summons the ffusiliers. It will not surprise you to learn that many helicopter rides, several shipboard chases, and one explosion later, the film ends with the rigs saved, villainous Anthony Perkins harpooned to a deck-chair, and ffolkes cuddling with three new kittens.
Until now, ffolkes has been known—insofar as it has been known—for helping inspire the much better movie Die Hard. That 1988 thriller may have borrowed from ffolkes the idea of taking hostage an entire huge structure. And Die Hard's villain, played by Alan Rickman, is a close imitation Perkins' terrorist mastermind—a nihilistic, apolitical wit, who can't decide which he likes better, making sarcastic quips or executing hostages.
But watching ffolkes in the wake of the BP spill gives the movie a new and urgent cast. We're not told whether the movie's North Sea rigs are owned by BP—though BP is a chief driller in that part of the world—and the rigs are drilling only 40 fathoms down, not 900 fathoms, but the looming threat in ffolkes is a Gulf-style disaster. Sinking the rigs would destroy the fishing industry, ruin the British shoreline, and cost 15 billion pounds (in 1980 money!), thus wrecking "the economic life of the nation." If the rigs go down, we're told, the wells might burn and leak for a year.
But the rigs don't blow, and this gets to the depressing way the BP catastrophe differs from ffolkes. In 1980, when I was 10, my family moved to London for a year. ffolkes was the in-flight movie on the way over. The movie stuck with me because it was my introduction to Great Britain. In ffolkes, I encountered a Britain populated by hypercompetent eccentrics, people who were oddly dressed, rude, and incredibly brave. And their enemies were vile, money-grubbing Americans. (Oh, and one of the Americans was, for good measure, a rapist.) ffolkes also showed me a Britain that was a Thatcherite fantasy. There was a hard-nosed female prime minister, who, when government couldn't solve the problem, immediately sought help from energetic private entrepreneurs, Lloyd's and ffolkes.
ffolkes, in other words, is a through-the-looking-glass version of today's crisis, a movie where environmentally conscious, capable Brits clean up a mess caused by greedy, destructive Americans, and where hard-headed British businessmen are ready and able to solve an intractable oil-rig catastrophe. Perhaps ffolkes could influence a future BP movie in one small way: American audiences would be exceedingly happy to see a gulf spill film end with a BP executive impaled on a harpoon.
David Plotz is the Editor of Slate. He's the author of The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank and Good Book. He appears on Slate's Political Gabfest.