Edgar Wright’s newest film Baby Driver is out this week, and if early reviews are any indication, it can easily stand alongside his previously revered comedies such as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and The World’s End. Appearing on the Comedy Bang Bang podcast this week, Edgar dithered a little when asked if his newest was his fifth film. He explained that there is one other film that he made when he was 20 that is often forgotten by interviewers and he rarely corrects them, allowing him to rewrite history and call Shaun of the Dead his debut feature.
That film is 1995’s A Fistful of Fingers, which is probably the only Western/comedy to have been filmed in England. It was filmed over the span of 21 days, runs 78 minutes, and stars many of Edgar’s friends from high school. Today we dig into the archives and examine Shropshire’s most famous Western film and the true feature-length debut of one of the best out there.
Imagine what a movie made by a 20 year-old would look like. I don’t care if it’s a young Spielberg, you no doubt have a gut reaction to that idea. I am happy to report that while it is not a perfect movie, A Fistful of Fingers exceeds those expectations. There are costumes, a number of different props, the sound is consistently good throughout the film, and there is a score by François Evans that certainly isn’t the most intricate recording of all time, but is still one of the most professional elements of the production. While it’s missing many of the trademark editorial flourishes and camera tricks that would be adopted by the time Shaun of the Dead came around, it’s still a well-constructed, quickly paced piece of work.
In terms of plot, A Fistful of Fingers is quite simple: our main character, a Clint Eastwood-styled hero with no name (for the majority of the film, at least) is stopped by some outlaws who are quickly dispatched. He rides off to town on his horse, Easy. In the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, there are no actual horses in the film, but rather than coconuts, this time we have a fake horse (and fake legs on top of the horse) that the rider steps into. It is not, and is not meant to be, even a little convincing.
In town, The Man With No Name goes on the hunt for “The Squint,” the villain, played by Oli van der Vijver. There is a chase, some dynamite, and some gunplay, but when the bad guy is left with no other option, he produces a carrot and throws it over a cliff, which Easy follows to his death, where he explodes once he hits the ground. Our hero laments his fallen friend, which results in a song (“When a man loves a horse, there ain’t nothing he can do…”) and an extended montage of the pair in happier times, riding across the plains, sometimes man on horse, and sometimes man on horse on bicycle.
The next morning, as he makes his way in pursuit of The Squint he encounters a Native American with his bow drawn, at this point he realizes that there is a snake at his feet that has started crawling up his pant leg. The Native American, Running Sore, played by Martin Curtis, follows the snake with his nocked arrow and when it emerges from our hero’s fly, he shoots it with his bow.
Running Sore joins our The Man With No Name, but they find themselves stopped by another Native American who engages in another Holy Grail reference, telling them that “none shall pass!” When a woman in Catholic garb walks by him with no issue, our hero protests, but his obstacle clarifies: “NUN shall pass.” Running Sore and The Man With No Name exit, and reappear dressed as nuns, but it’s still not working. The nameless Native American begins to pummel them. When a couple of passers-by see this, they shoot him, believing they are rescuing two women of the cloth.
Eventually our heroes learn of the O-OK ranch: a utopia for bad guys. They rescue a handful of damsels in distress that we are only now learning about. Our hero shoots one bad fella with a trick shot off of a cauldron that is so impressive that he begins to celebrate and is joined by a couple of men in football uniforms. We cut to a color commentator who shows a slow-motion replay and declares the move “Peckinpah-tastic.”
When it’s time for the big showdown, The Man With No Name and The Squint initially square off with a debate as to if Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid die at the end of the movie. They each angrily give their arguments, citing the sequel, etc, but our hero seems to win the debate when he actually produces the pair from a nearby set of bushes (it’s two guys with very cheap paper Paul Newman and Robert Redford masks). The Squint wins the argument by shooting them both. This turns into a very literal spitting match, then a very short gunfight (they almost instantly shoot the guns out of each other’s hands simultaneously), and finally an obscene gesture-off, with “up yours” gestures that physically rock the combatants.
The Squint seems to have won as he has fired multiple times, literally shooting the clothes off of our hero, piece by piece, when a mysterious gunman appears and kills The Squint. We then learn that this man is the Sheriff Marshall, who (a) has been dead for ten years, (b) is the mysterious missing father of our hero, and (c) is also a ninja, known as The Milky Way Kid.
Suddenly the heroes come across Easy, the once-dead horse. Our hero is confused, when suddenly, Jeremy Beadle, an English prank show host, emerges and reveals that Easy had never died and it was all just an elaborate prank. With the hero reunited with his trusty horse, and with a new crew of companions at his side, together they ride off into the sunset.
In an interview with Empire, Edgar describes the low-point of the making of this film, which came during the post-production process. “I remember having a meltdown during editing, because I suddenly realized the film wasn’t that great. And it hit me: I can never make my first movie again. It turned out to be 78 minutes long, but if I did another edit it would probably end up being 50 minutes. There just wasn’t anything to cut to, to speed up the pace, because every shot is in there. I think I’ve over-compensated for it ever since, with the amount of coverage I get. You shoot more stuff to make the film faster.” Clearly the film was a learning experience for Wright, but there are still a number of elements that would carry over to his later work. While the humor in this film more closely resembles a Zucker Brothers film than his later work, there is still a use of pop culture references that would appear in his later films, and in particular, the TV show Spaced.
Wright may have for some time wished to erase A Fistful of Fingers from the memory, but it would seem that he now has come to embrace it. Recently it had its “American premiere” when it screened at Los Angeles’ Cinefamily theater, and Wright recently stated that he would like to see it released with an audio commentary in the future. It may not have been the debut picture he wanted, but it was certainly far better a debut than most would expect from a 20 year-old making a Western in the middle of England.