New Zealand native Burt Munro is legendary in motorcycle racing circles. Self-taught, self-trained, and seemingly self-propelled, Munro got himself from the small town of Invercargill, New Zealand to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah on little more than a dream, his passion for life and his indefatigable optimism. In the 1960s Munro took his 1000 cc class vehicle to over 200 miles per hour on the Utah salt flats. The records he set hold to this day. More remarkable, he did this on a fifty-year-old chopped bike, a 1920 Indian Scout. (And "chopped" is putting it generously.)
In The World’s Fastest Indian, Munro’s vision, passion, and tenacity are matched by writer/director Roger Donaldson, who, in making the film, has fulfilled his own nearly life-long dream to tell Munro’s story. A fellow New Zealander, Donaldson first met Munro in 1971 while making a documentary about him, Offerings to the God of Speed. For over two decades Donaldson received repeated offers to fund his own film, The World’s Fastest Indian, but always only if he would rewrite the script into a more "marketable" story. The film Donaldson has actually made is a lovingly hagiographic paean and reflects the director’s careful study of films such Rocky, Billy Elliot and Chariots of Fire. In capturing the spirit of Munro it is especially satisfying, resulting in both a well-crafted message film and a candidly subjective documentary about a one-of-a-kind character.
In the 1960s, while pensioner Burt Munro was contemplating taking his motorcycle half way around the world to the Bonneville Salt Flats to clock its speed, he was leading a very humble life. His home was hardly more than a cinder-block tool shed on a small, weed-choked suburban tract. Instead of a toilet, he would urinate daily on his lemon tree, make coffee from the shed’s rain barrel, and used the very same barrel water to cool the metal casts—he economized by melting down scrap metal and casting his own replacement parts. The bane of his neighborhood, Burt inevitably restored the peace by exerting his personal charm.
In an early scene in The World’s Fastest Indian, signaling the spirit of the times, members of the local motorcycle gang, a bunch of Brando-esque young punks acting out a Kiwi version of The Wild One, try to taunt Munro. Showing his true grit, Munro challenges the entire gang to a drag race on the beach. Burt gives it his best, but wipes out soon enough. (It’s not whether you win or lose, Munro and Donaldson seem to say here, but how you play the game, no matter how ridiculous or crazy others may think you look.) Munro’s clearly unshakable self manifested here sets the stage for the tale to come.
Donaldson frames the story in three acts. Following the first act, the exposition of Munro’s character in domestic settings, the second act becomes a road film, as Munro discovers America on his own. From a classic taxi ride-from-hell vignette, wherein Munro is delivered from Los Angerles Airport to a by-the-hour motel room along Hollywood Boulevard, and befriends the first homosexual transvestite he meets, Burt quickly emerges as a quintessentially American-style frontiersman character (think Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan). At the start of the third act, Munro arrives in Bonneville with his motorcycle hitched to the rattle-trap he had bought and resurrected back in Los Angeles, and little else. The audience is left incredulous, yet with a strong premonition (this is all factual information from the historical record) that, somehow, Munro will succeed in talking his way into this world-class event.
Perhaps the most remarkable, and most satisfying, aspect of The World’s Fastest Indian is the casting of Sir Anthony Hopkins in the role of Burt Munro. Hopkins captures the mix of gruff and whimsical, of a man happy with his life, centered in himself, able to land on his feet in any situation. Except for the muddle of wrong accents (hardly a soul actually speaks with a real New Zealand accent in the film), Hopkins is convincing, by turns endearing or maddening, and brings a moving, understated dignity to his portrayal of the eccentric biker. The World’s Fastest Indian may prove to be the sleeper of the year.