by Thomas Day
I’d read a review, in a local news rag that I’ll leave unnamed, that really panned this film and had almost convinced me to take a pass on it. The reviewer said that Sir Anthony Hopkins made an “unconvincing” Indian. I hadn’t read anything else about the story, so I assumed that Hopkins made as unconvincing an Indian as he had a serial murderer in “Hannibal.” A few days later, at a theater preview, I discovered what the movie was really about. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the “Indian” in “The World’s Fastest Indian” was a motorcycle. As terrific an actor as Hopkins can be, I’m pretty sure he couldn’t believably impersonate a motorcycle, so I have to assume the reviewer was motorcycle-impaired.
Like most things that aren’t right in front of me, I promptly forgot about watching for the film to appear locally. One evening a friend called to rave about The World’s Fastest Indian, a few days after the film opened here. My wife and I saw it a few days later and we both loved the film. My friend, apparently, thinks that I doubt his judgment, because when I told him that we appreciated his recommendation he was really surprised. I did, though. I think this was as good a film as I’ve seen in many years. Even if a Harley biker, half-deaf drummer, turned me on to the movie.
I have a habit of chasing down historical sources when a book or a movie introduces me to a new subject. Indian caused that kind of activity in the following weeks. Movies tend to believe that viewers are incapable of accepting the incredible stories of real life and this film is another example of that bet-hedging. The real story of Burt Munro is probably too amazing to be believed. That doesn’t stop me from wishing the movie had been a little closer to reality, though.
Burt Munro was born in 1899, just in time to see the beginning of the internal combustion age. Burt was a mechanical wizard, self-taught and intuitively brilliant. He started a love affair with an Indian Scout that began in the early 1920s and kept that flame burning until he died in 1978. The movie pictures him as being a poor hobbyist with a Bonneville dream, which is only a little true. Munro was setting New Zealand speed records as early as 1957 (131.38 mph at Oreti Beach*). The movie has Munro busting 200mph on his first try at Bonneville. His 1962 850cc world record of 178.971 mph was pretty incredible but not quite as incredible or simple as the movie would have you believe.
What the movie does incredibly well is portray this man’s spirit, ingenuity, and resourcefulness. Munro did build his own cylinders out of scrap iron and he fabricated his own cooling fins for the cylinders. He designed, from intuition and experiments, his bike’s aerodynamic bodywork. He rode that cobbled-together piece of backyard engineering past 200 mph multiple times, including at least one 200+ mph Bonneville crash that was incredibly portrayed in the movie.
This is not just an Anthony Hopkins movie, either. Every character in the film, from the New Zealand bikers Munro blasts past on the beach, to his New Zealand friends and supporters, to the so-far-from-today’s U.S. port authority officials, to the wild 1960’s L.A. and desert folks who help and hinder his quest, add something approaching the best in humanity to the story. The community of go-faster folks at Bonneville will make you wish you could go back 40 years in time, just to be there when it all happens.
The worst documentary “sins” of the “The World’s Fastest Indian” are sins of passion. The film maker and Hopkins busted their asses to make a movie that would put you inside of Munro’s head. Vicariously, we experience a little of the adventure he took on when he boxed up his beloved Indian and shipped it to America to take on the world’s fastest terrain. It’s practically unimaginable, completely inspiring, and terrific fun. You will love this film, I guarantee it.
* Check out http://www.indianmotorbikes.com/features/munro/munro.htm for a terrific history of this incredible homespun motorcycle engineer and rider.