In The World’s Fastest Indian, writer/director Roger Donaldson lovingly chronicles the dream of a lifetime for real-life motorcycle enthusiast extraordinaire, Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins). The film provides two hours of pleasant entertainment and like an old pair of slippers feels comfortable and familiar even if the soles have worn out long ago.
For over a quarter century, Munro has been tinkering with his 1920 Old Indian Scout 45. Originally designed for a top speed of 54 mph, the aging Invercargill resident is determined to exceed 200 mph with his machine and have that feat officially recorded during speedweek at the Bonneville Salt Flats Speedway in Utah.
Living in an unkempt cinderblock garage and the bane of his neighbours George (Iain Rea) and Sarah (Tessa Mitchell), the brilliant mechanic’s quest is happily aided and abetted by young Tom (Aaron Murphy), who learns the secrets of making titanium tea from piston coolant and peeing on the lemon tree to add extra tartness and colour to the hardy fruit.
Munro’s love interest, Fran (affectionately played by Annie Whittle) doubles as his social security cashier. Together they attend the community’s birthday party/fundraiser (the target is two grand, enough to transport the fearless rider and his red rocket to the U.S.), which is politely crashed by the Antarctic Angels. Before you can say “cc envy,” a race on the beach pits the incorrigible old man against the James Dean wannabes.
At this juncture, the film, literally, shifts into high gear. David Gribble’s camera captures the chase with long shots that excite even if the close-ups of Munro are—necessarily—staged. After taking a turn for the worse, but with the potential for realizing his goal before the angina ends the run, Munro borrows the remaining cash, burns down his lawn (and nearly the neighbourhood—visual overkill that gets a quick laugh but rings entirely false with his character) and sails to Los Angeles.
From there it’s a feel good roadshow. Munro discovers that in America the menus have pictures, cars drive on the right and motel clerks can be ever-helpful transvestites (kudos to Chris Williams for his sensitive portrayal of Tina). The drive to Salt Lake features new friends Jake (Saginaw Grant) with a Buckley’s’-like cure for plugged prostates, Ada (Diane Ladd) who offers her own special treat for the lonely road warrior and Rusty (Patrick Fleuger) a Vietnam soldier on leave. These encounters keep the action moving but bog down in the sugary pronouncements to anyone who will listen: “Reward is in the doing of it … I’ve wanted to do something big …” and later at the track “After all it’s my life … just want to get over 200.”
Once in Bonneville the barriers mount up (some invented in the name of plot to help build suspense prior to the BIG test), but all are hurdled—soon everyone loves Munro.
From the first frame to the checkered flag, Donaldson’s admiration for his subject is obvious. Having Hopkins to play the stubborn racer ensures a professional and engaging recreation—if only he had more intelligent things to say. Two buckets of pixie dust ensure his survival of any calamity—real or invented.
After the salt has settled, the film’s real achievement is not so much capturing the mood and drive of an indefatigable old man in the early ‘60s, but instilling in everyone the Aristotelian notion that with a clear goal in mind and the patience to take the thousands of steps required, anything is possible. JWR