Wednesday, 5 July 2006

The World's Fastest Indian (2005)

Burt Munro was also a member of the Beyond Thunderdome reenactment society

Burt Munro is a relic in 1967. Played by Anthony Hopkins, Burt is a feisty octogenarian who should be enjoying his retirement begins his mornings test running his motorcycle engine, making a racket that wakes the neighbourhood. Burt’s dream is to tinker and modify his custom-made Indian motorcycle so it can participate in a US motorcycle race and break some land speed records. Burt’s derring-do, gallantry, and easy charm endear him to his neighbours and fellow citizens in Invercargill, a small town in New Zealand, even though most remain sceptical about his ability to ride his rickety bike at any speed.

Once Burt manages to raise sufficient funds for his journey (you just have to see the scene where he takes on a motorcycle gang!), the fun is on as Burt negotiates an ocean trip, and then a cross-country trip across America to get to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, where the annual Speed Week is held. A little low on funds, Burt may come across to his American big city hosts as some kind of Don Quixote, an old man after what must be an impossible goal. Yet Burt is rich in charm and luck, and it is a cinematic spectacle just to witness how the guileless old timer wins the trust and liking of his companions, fellow travellers, and even competitors at the race so effortlessly.

The World’s Fastest Indian is both a sports movie and a road movie. While there isn’t much motorcycle action until the final third of the movie, the first two thirds on the road manage to communicate extremely well just how much the sport means to Burt, and why he feels compelled to take part in it, even at his age, and even if he had to sleep in a rented car. When the time finally comes for Burt to don his helmet and enter his motorcycle, it’s a sure bet that audiences, along with all the characters at the Speed Week event, will not only cheer him on, but believe that he can do it. That, in spite of the fact that Burt’s motorcycle is an antique, or that he made almost every part himself, with homebrew materials. High speed tyres? Just carve out the threads in ordinary tyres with a kitchen knife! It’s impossible not to root for such a DIY character, especially when you know this movie is based on a very true story.

What makes this film great? The storytelling is so effortless it doesn’t appear artificial or strained – a rare occurrence for a road movie. Burt has an easy charm, but that’s not really the key point of his character. It is the very embodiment of a long-gone spirit of exploration, whose heroes tinkered and built their very own contraptions, invented their own vehicles in order to get around. This very special age of invention and travel receives an indirect tribute from the director of The World’s Fastest Indian, in his script and characterisation of the legendary Burt Munro.

Anthony Hopkins shows that he is not just an actor best suited to playing bland butlers, crazed cannibals, and other roles in Shakespeare and political dramas. Here, we see the impossible: an eccentric but good-natured, self-deprecating and naïve old man, played convincingly by Hopkins! It’s such a testament to the skill of Hopkins’s acting that I was able to – along with other members in the audience – forget his previous acting roles for the duration of the movie, and fall to the spell of this rascally, gallant, inventive old man, tinkerer, this charmer.

While many actors and thespians long to end their careers with a heavy and dramatic role, I feel that being Burt Munro will be seen as a one of the more memorable roles in the great Welsh actor’s late career.

First published at incinemas on 6 July 2006

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