This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.
It’s not often we see a short film debut by someone of Ridley Scott‘s generation. And even if one does exist and is made available on the Internet, the copy tends to be poor quality. Check out the film school works of Spielberg and Scorsese on YouTube and see what I mean. And those guys seem most likely to have preserved that early amateur stuff, or else embarrassingly kept it hidden away. Scott’s first film, though, still looks amazing after more than 50 years and even transferred to non-HD video. It’s not a total surprise. The 27-minute black and white short, Boy and Bicycle, was ultimately paid for by the British Film Institute, which probably retained a good print. So when it was time to include it on the DVDs for Scott’s first feature, The Duellists, it looked as well-cared for as any classic piece of cinema.
Whether we can consider it a classic piece of cinema is something else entirely. Boy and Bicycle is about a boy and, yes, his bike. Played by Ridley’s younger brother, fellow future filmmaker Tony Scott, he’s almost the only character on screen. The parents we hear fighting off camera are Ridley and Tony’s parents and I think the old man at the end is their father. The plot sees the boy playing hooky and navigating the city of Billingham, UK, on his day off like an earlier, poorer Ferris Bueller. Actually the film reminds me most of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, if only for the truancy and shoreline scenes. Otherwise it’s just too British, somewhere between the end of kitchen sink realism and the beginning of the more youth-oriented films of The Beatles and such. I just imagine the protagonist of the film going off and starting a band up in nearby Newcastle alongside The Animals.
The voiceover narration may seem a very British touch, as well, but I have to wonder if that was less a stylistic choice as a matter of what equipment he had to work with. According to William Parrill’s book on Scott, the Royal College of Art student (initially focused on graphic design) “happened to find” a wind-up Bolex camera. So he clearly had nothing to record sync sound with. There’s maybe one bit of diegetic dialogue, and it’s obviously dubbed. Still, it’s a lot of narration. I much prefer to just look at Boy and Bicycle. There is some incredible cinematography here for a 25-year-old who stumbled upon a light meter and a simple Bolex instruction manual, and it’s surprising he never worked as a DP professionally, even as his own. But it may partly explain why his films look so great by way of who he does collaborate with.
Some additional trivia about the film: It cost around £300 and wasn’t entirely completed and released until 1965 after composer John Barry (the 007 franchise) agreed to re-record a new version of his previously existing song “Onward Christian Spacemen” — all you film students, imagine if you snagged Michael Giacchino to score your thesis project. By the time the film did come out, Scott was working for the BBC, mostly as a designer before directing episodes of Adam Adamant Lives! A decade later, he directed a commercial for Hovis Bread commercial that seems to be a brief reworking of Boy and Bicycle, basically because it has a boy and a bicycle (watch it here). Before that, Scott returned the favor to his brother, appearing (but not starring) in Tony’s own short start from 1969, One of the Missing.
Watch Boy and Bicycle below or buy The Duellists on DVD for an even better quality version.