Summer 2006 -- The World’s Fastest Indian. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Diane Ladd, Paul Rodriguez, Aaron Murphy, Christopher Lawford, Annie Whittle, Chris Williams, Jessica Cauffiel, and Saginaw Grant. Written and Directed by Roger Donaldson. (Magnolia Pictures, 2005, Color, 127 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)
In this independently released sleeper, consummate actor’s actor Anthony Hopkins brings a deceptively diminutive, real-life hero—legendary motorcyclist Burt Munro—to the big screen in a larger-than-life biopic. Directed with heartfelt passion by Australian Roger Donaldson, The World’s Fastest Indian tells the improbable story of one man’s all-consuming mission to become the fastest man on two wheels.
For twenty-five years, New Zealander Burt Munro has dreamed of trekking far from the shores of his town of Invercargill to take a shot at breaking the motorcycle land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. But as the movie opens, we find not some youth with the latest tricked-out bike, but a pensioner pushing seventy and nursing hardened arteries, for which he must take nitroglycerin pills to prevent his heart from giving out. Pushing his dream even farther from the reaches of reality, he plans to ride to glory on a mechanical antique—his beloved 1920 Indian Scout. The bike originally left the factory able to reach a top speed of fifty-four miles per hour; but Burt intends to reach 200.
Hopkins is brilliant in capturing the unassuming outer persona of Munro. His portrayal gives us the sense not that we are in the presence of greatness so much as resolute persistence. Burt Munro is a self-effacing charmer and tinkerer whose eccentric personality is out of phase with his stolid, suburbanite neighbors. They, understandably, are more than mildly annoyed by his loudly revving bike engine before the break of dawn, and by his absent-mindedness about getting around to mowing his lawn.
One neighbor, though, twelve-year-old Tom, sees in Burt not some tottering old crank, but a hero and mentor. The scenes in Burt’s tool shed as Tom listens to the old man’s reminisces and aspirations are among the movie’s most sincere and enchanting. Even as we are subtly prodded not to take Burt completely seriously, Tom’s uncorrupted awe and youthful idolization help stoke the man’s quiet inner passion to see his plan to fruition.
“If you don’t follow through on your dreams, you might as well be a vegetable,” he counsels the boy.
“What kind of vegetable?” Tom inquires.
With biting succinctness, Hopkins replies, “A cabbage.”
One thing that separates Burt from a legion of dreamers who abandon their ambitions is his resourcefulness. On a shoestring budget, he constantly employs his mechanical ingenuity to modify the Indian, with which he is more intimate than he is with any living person. Never taking a day off, not even for Christmas, he spends untold hours and days forging new pistons and souping up his “motorsicle,” readying it for the big trip.
Munro is a self-effacing charmer and tinkerer whose eccentric personality is out of phase with his stolid, suburbanite neighbors.
Much of the movie concerns itself with Burt’s personal odyssey to Bonneville for “Speed Week.” He finances part of the journey by working as a cook and dishwasher on a freighter bound for America. Upon arrival, he works late into the night repairing a cheap old clunker to tow the Indian across the desert to Utah. Along the way we meet a benevolent, motley crew who happen into and out of Burt’s life, including a fast-talking used car salesman (comedian Paul Rodriguez) whom Burt nearly kills while test driving on the left side of the road; a hotel desk clerk in drag (Chris Williams); an aging American Indian (Saginaw Grant) who helps Burt out of a tight spot; a widow, Ada (Diane Ladd), who takes a respite from loneliness during a brief encounter with Burt; and an Airman on furlough from Vietnam (Patrick Flueger).
In a quietly reflective scene, Burt relates to Ada what motivates him to push himself further:
A man is like a blade of grass. He grows up in the spring, strong and healthy and green. And, then he reaches middle age and he ripens, as it were. And, in the autumn, he finishes, he fades away and never comes back…I think that when you’re dead, you’re dead.
In this soliloquy Hopkins summarizes the film’s philosophy—that there’s no room for soothing stagnation on Earth by nurturing dreams to be fulfilled only in the hereafter. Life must be lived now, because tomorrow may never come.
Arriving in Bonneville, Burt must overcome new challenges strewn in his path: Speed Week organizers inform him that he forgot to pre-register; his ancient motorcycle has no safety equipment; he’s simply too old to be allowed to race in the time trials. But because of his dogged refusal to back down after traveling around the world, the race organizers humor Burt and allow him to enter the time trials.
The World’s Fastest Indian is superb in every respect. For director Donaldson, it represents the fulfillment of a double obsession: dramatizing Burt Munro’s breathtaking pursuit of his lifelong goal, and realizing Donaldson’s own quarter-century quest to bring his hero-friend’s incredible story to the screen. David Gribble’s lush cinematography is full of vibrant hues and astounding moving camerawork, expertly capturing racing vehicles traveling at speeds topping 200 miles per hour.
You’ll find in his quiet resolve the idealism you may have mislaid somewhere along the way.
But it’s Hopkins who ultimately makes this picture work so well, in his most heroic role since playing efficacious industrialist Charles Morse in 1997’s The Edge. Though not given to hyperbole, Hopkins proclaimed The World’s Fastest Indian “the best film I’ve been in.” I agree, absolutely. His natural, evocative portrayal of a man who refuses to resign himself to the tedium expected of one in old age will inspire viewers of all ages. His Burt Munro is not content merely to dream, but is that rare individual who makes his dreams reality. “For me, it’s a big change,” Hopkins commented about Munro, “because it’s a real winner of a guy. I’ve had a good career playing psychopaths or uptight people, and I’m fed up with those.”
Ironically, his rousing performance of this aging hero is the best depiction of the spirit of youth I’ve seen in a decade. Spend a couple hours with Burt Munro, and you’ll find in his quiet resolve the idealism you may have mislaid somewhere along the way.