The World’s Fastest Indian
June 26, 2006
The World’s Fastest Indian (2005) is a fictionalized account of Burt Munro (Hopkins) from Invercargill, New Zealand, who personally modified his old 1920s Indian Scout 45 motorcycle into a 200 mph record-breaking machine. The film follows his journey to the United States where he broke the world land speed record for motorcycles with engines less than 1000cc at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in the late 1960s.
When we meet him, he’s friends with a neighbourhood boy (Murphy) who is fascinated by the man’s knowledge of bikes while his parents consider him to be a disruptive eccentric. Burt confides in the boy who asks him about his motivation. For Burt it’s simple: he’s addicted to speed. He lives for and loves the rush of driving at insanely fast speeds. The relationship between Burt and the young boy is nicely played with the child looking up to the man in a form of hero worship. He believes in Burt’s dream when few else do. Their scenes together aren’t too emotionally manipulative or cutesy thanks to the two actors.
Burt loses a simple race to a local motorcycle gang and suffers from narrowing of the arteries to his heart. He’s in the twilight years of his life but has no illusions that his time is running out. This only makes him more determined to realize his dream of taking his bike to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and break the land speed record. However, he doesn’t have the money to get to the United States, so he gets a loan from the bank and puts his house up as collateral.
Once in America, he finds himself at the mercy of the denizens of Los Angeles but manages to get his bearings with the help of a transvestite. When Burt begins his journey to Utah, the film becomes a road movie as he meets all sorts of colourful characters and places along the way.
Anthony Hopkins brings a grizzled optimism to the role. Despite the various obstacles that are put in his path, Burt perseveres with a boundless sense of wonderment but it doesn’t feel like a one-dimensional performance. On the contrary, it feels very heartfelt and quite moving once Burt gets close to realizing his dream.
Hopkins is supported by a strong cast of character actors that include the likes of Diane Ladd who makes a welcome appearance as a kind lady that helps Burt along his way to Utah. Chris Lawford plays a fellow racer who uses his pull to get Burt into the competition and does such a great job in the role that you’d swear he really was a professional driver. The Shield’s Walt Goggins also makes an appearance as one of the car enthusiasts who befriends Burt in Utah and it is nice to see him play such a different role.
The World’s Fastest Indian is the kind of movie that the Hollywood studios are not interested in making anymore because it doesn’t appeal to a lucrative youthful demographic. It is so refreshing to see a film with an older protagonist that does not pass him off as some kind of a clichéd senior citizen.
Director Roger Donaldson does a nice job of depicting New Zealand in the late 1960s complete with period clothes, hairdos and music that really transports you back in time. He also conveys the intense speed of the racing scenes through editing and his choice of perspective shots. This is a beautifully shot movie as Donaldson shows a real skill in depicting the vastness of the landscapes that Burt drives through and the awe-inspiring sight of the Salt Flats.
The World’s Fastest Indian swells in its national pride for New Zealand with scenes like the whole town, even the motorcycle gang that bested Burt, there to see the man off when he heads for the U.S. Fortunately, Donaldson plays it down in an understated way. The patriotism is there just not in your face. Burt’s irrepressible enthusiasm mirrors the film’s own which makes it something of anarchism in these jaded times. It evokes another biopic about an idealistic automotive dreamer, Tucker (1988), Francis Ford Coppola’s tribute to car manufacturer Preston Tucker. We need films like The World’s Fastest Indian because they remind us of the innovative spirit and the persistence to realize one’s dreams.
“Making of The World’s Fastest Indian” takes a look at this year-in-the-making project. Hopkins was attracted to the passion of life that Burt possessed. Cast and crew speak enthusiastically about the subject matter and Donaldson who has been obsessed with Burt and his achievements for many years. The actors also talk about his perfectionism and his habit of doing many takes until he gets what he wants.
There is an audio commentary by director Roger Donaldson. In 1971, he first explored the material depicted in this movie in a documentary. He actually got to meet the real Burt Munro so a lot of what is in the film is based on first hand experiences with the man. Donaldson talks about how he got Hopkins interested in doing the film and how he got it financed independently with the help of his wife. The director also points out what in the movie is based on fact and what was fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Donaldson is not only an expert on Burt but also a motorcycle aficionado, delivering an extremely informative track.
There are four deleted scenes, including Munro’s increasingly bad health that parallels the worsening condition of his car while heading for Utah. Another cut scene provides an example of Burt’s thrifty ways as he gets frees gas for his motorcycle and the car while at the competition.
In a really nice touch, Donaldson’s 1971 documentary, “Burt Munro: Offerings to the God of Speed” is included. The man was a living legend breaking several land speed records with his own unorthodox style. There is great footage of Burt in action and also of him telling some really good stories without a hint of ego. He comes across as a passionate man and watching this doc gives you an appreciation for how well Hopkins depicted him in the film.
Finally, there is “Southland: Burt’s Hometown of Invercargill,” an unabashed promotional ad of the beautiful-looking city that Burt hails from. This is strictly travelogue material intended to bolster their tourism.