RIORI Presents Installment #188: Roger Donaldson’s “The World’s Fastest Indian” (2005)

 



The Players…

Anthony Hopkins, with Jessica Caufiell, Patrick Flueger, Saginaw Grant, Diane Ladd, Christopher Lawford, Aaron Murphy, Paul Rodriguez and Chris Williams.


The Basics…

Kiwi Burt Munro is obsessed with speed. So much so that he can’t stop tweaking his custom Indian motorcycle in order to fulfill a lifelong dream: to test his metal and mettle on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah and break a land speed record. Burt’s already broken records in Australia and New Zealand. But in the USA? Ah, the jewel in his crown.

He’s got the drive—so to speak—to “‘Ave a go at it!” But his ramshackle ride is a wreck. His health isn’t what it used to be. And Burt’s New Zealand home is half a world away, him an innocent abroad. Amongst his being broke, ailing, out of his element and a victim of his eccentricities however Burt never wavers on his quest for epic speed. His motive is not some throwaway reason why one climbs a mountain: because it’s there. Nope.

Because it’s for then.


The Rant…

I’ve always been a fan of motorcycles. Never ridden one, but am still curious. Anyone can understand the appeal of zooming down the road on a sunny day with the wind bracing your face. One may also understand those dyed-in-wool riders who don’t wear helmets. Must be kinda like flying. The wind in your hair, or—let’s face it—all that POWER beneath your groin. Hell to the yeah. One with road and the journey and seldom the destination. If you’ve ever seen Easy Rider (and I suggest you do, this the ultimate road trip movie), with Wyatt and Billy riding their souped-up choppers heading down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, accompanied by Steppenwolf’s “Born To Be Wild” wailing in the background then you get it. You must, even if you’ve never set your ass on a bike. Looks fun, fancy and free.

Me being a total rube when it comes to bikes I have trace only element understanding how the goddam things work. I’ve ridden a bicycle, but its bully of a big brother like a Dodge Tomahawk that looked like it escaped the set of Tron? As the Brits say, “quite the other thing.” What is all that gimmickry between those wheels? How much gas can that tank hold for long road trips deemed appropriate for a TV commercial? What the hell is a cubic centimeter and how do they relate to gas consumption? And how do Harleys make their pipes sound like God’s Own T Rex with hemorrhoids with an addiction to Monster drinks and free access to a Howitzer in the Grand Canyon? In sum, Hogs are LOUD. And how?

Mystery to me, which is why I’m a curious sort.

In my misspent life I’ve been privy to a few gearheads either boasting their rides’ power or otherwise dicking around in the garage. Although I’m not fond of visiting my mechanic when my ride is acting up—who does?—he and his crew are okay if you’re curious to see what’s being operated on in the garage itself. Just don’t pass the yellow line. Any questions? Just speak up. I gather that they’re not giving up any “secrets” just to prevent wasting in time in the future when can’t explain some weird noise with your car, which ,ore than not turns out to be nothing. Those guys and girls also appreciate a free Starbucks now and then for their troubles.

BTW, speaking of coffee, when I was fresh out of college and needed a quick job I took up an ad at the local cafe for a barista position. In the evenings when the weather was pleasant we had a small motorcycle club that would spin by almost every evening. I’m not talking Hell’s Angels here, just a bunch of old guys and high school kids alike out for a spin and a decent cup of joe. They’d park their bikes in the street, four or five of them, get something to drink and talk biking all evening. Not to mention boasting all their customizing they’ve recently done, to one-up each other as to who now had MORE POWER.

I’d admire their bikes and they suffered my questions well about this and that, like some dopey kid shaking all the presents on Xmas morning. Those guys explaining the mechanics of their bikes in references to a car? Hopeless. They’d rev up their motors to 11 creating deafening booms, or spun their rear wheel to shimmy back and forth creating squeals and a lot of smoke, laughing all the while. I didn’t really get it, but it sure seemed fun and I understood how they worked if you get the drift. There was a lot more going on than an engine at full peel, customized or no. I wanted to get “it”, but all I had was my run-of-the-mill four-wheeled vehicle, which I never customized. Not counting new floor mats and the occasional Little Tree.

Consider this however: If you’ve ever been granted permission to watch the grease monkeys lobotomize your crazy car, be it under the hood or from under the lift, there is a LOT of complicated sh*t inside your ride to make it go. And I ain’t talking like a Ferrari. I drive a ditzy little 2009 VW Rabbit (with a manual tranny; the girls love me), which is a pretty simple ride overall. There’s no GPS, no Bluetooth, no cruise control (it can’t; manual remember) and the A/C hasn’t worked since a month after I bought the thing. Sure, like your car it sometimes it gets whiny and makes requests via the Periodic Table of Elements dashboard lights. I need gas. Buckle your belt. High beams are on. It’s cold out. You missed your turn. I don’t like this music. Why do footprints appear on the windshield when you turn on the defogger? And then there’s that dread feeling you experience when the always scarlet CHECK ENGINE light blinks into life. Oh no. What now? I already topped off the blinker fluid. You know what it’s like.

The first time I opened the hood on my jalopy I was perplexed. The CHECK ENGINE lit up and sure enough I did and the engine was in there. It did not look like and engine but instead a mini fridge with four large cords protruding from it, out and away. The only other things I thought I recognized (actually the only other two things) were the reservoirs for the blinker fluid and water for the radiator. These three things made my car go. It ran. The last ride I had I bought off my sister, a late 90s Volvo that spent more time in her garage than on the highway and ran on mothballs and prayer. Must’ve been the runt of some litter back in Gothenburg. Long story short, you fast learn you know nothing about how temperamental cars can be until you have your own coffee mug at the garage.

There are a lot of things your needy car wants besides fuel and water. There’s a real tricky system under the hood, and all of it working in such to enable you to travel swiftly and safely. I spent time in that garage looking up. No easy task.

A motorcycle? I only see three working parts on a machine naked to the world: two wheels and the handlebars. But there’s a lot, LOT of guts between those wheels. Hell, even the brake discs are exposed. You SIT on the gas tank? You brake and go with your HANDS? Why have you been using CAPITALS so much? Because if you think about it, what makes motorcycles go so fast depend on a microcosm of what makes my bulbous Rabbit putter hither and yon. Compact. Ultra-efficient. Fast as roadrunner with Apple Pay. Stripped of body construction and smashed flies on the visor FAST. At first glance a bike’s compact nature betrays its power I feel. Sure, some bikes like Harleys and those luxury liner, over-the-road models are big, but the principle remains the same: maximum speed for maximum efficiency using the minimum of solid parts. Shrewd design, a knowledge of wind shear, balance and basic physics are all essential, not matter the size. And those crazy custom jobs that look like they were designed on Proxima Centauri? You gotta be one sharp designing cookie to ride the lightning.

Erm, well, Burt Munro with his cobbled together, cannibalized custom Indian racer? Not so much, even if he HIMSELF came from Proxima Centauri so out there he was. Or maybe it was just New Zealand in his veins. As well as Castrol.


The Story…

Down Under, if you have a need for speed don’t come calling on eccentric motorcycle nut Herbert James “Burt” Munro (Hopkins). Old man’s been tinkering with his over-customized 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle as if he were Dr Frankenstein. That “bike” is his wife and his life. Sure, Burt’s harmless, but so obsessed with his bike is he that his genial nature belies a man with a dire mission.

That mission? Break the land speed record with his ride at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. The United States. The big time. Yeah, Burt’s broken speed records on his homeland and neighboring Oz, but he’s only a local legend. Perhaps only a cottage industry. But to go to America and showoff what his beloved Indian can do? Driven by a duffer like him? Beat that!

There are only two things keeping Burt from his quest. One, his age. Ol’ Burt is pushing 70, and its understood he broke some records with his mutant Indian back in the day when he was as spring as one of his pet chickens, but now he has a heart condition and arthritis. Is Burt still nimble enough to coax his bike to action overseas?

Which leads to two, Burt has known no other world than his hometown of Invercargill, NZ. America is a lot bigger than the Kiwi Realm, and Burt really has no idea what’s in store for him in the Land of the Free and the Home of the Salt Flats. It’s literally a world away, and Burt has some trepidation (naturally) about what to expect naked as a jaybird. Sure gonna be out of his element.

Hey. It’s all no matter, mate. There are rules to be broken, as well as records!

“If the butterflies in my stomach were cows, I’d be able to start a dairy farm!”

Have crazy cycle, will travel with crazy rider.


The Breakdown…

On occasion I frequent AllMovie to get an idea of what I’m getting into regarding the week’s hatchet job. Most of the reviews are kinda vanilla: useful but criticizing a movie without bashing it in hopes you’ll take it upon yourself to come to your own conclusions. Due to advertising, those guys can’t get too rowdy. My curiosity? I call it research and I don’t trust critics. Call it a proto-acid test: I’m gonna watch this? Cross fingers, toes and brows. Let’s see what there is to see from my POV.

I read the rather lackluster review of Indian and upon watching the actual movie I believe the reviewer missed something. Something crucial to the plot. Indian wasn’t Forrest Gump with a motorbike as the fellow alluded. No. It was a meditation on mortality; how fleeting life is. The movie was never about proving speed. It was about challenging time.

Consider Burt’s throwaway tale to how his big brother REDACTED. Up until that point, Burt would wax poetic about how he came to living in a garage and always tooling with his Indian. Next door neighbor kid Tom kind of regards Burt a folk hero, what with his stories about once upon a time and his itchy nature to never give up on his “old girl.” And, yes, Burt’s knowledge of metallurgy and engines can be mesmerizing, but there are many blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments threaded through the film that if you pay attention, this isn’t a movie about fulfilling a dream. It’s more about keeping a promise. To one’s self. To thine own self be true. It’s not just for Sunday School y’know.

Indian is about mortality, or rather staring it down before the inevitable. It’s not made clear that this what the true motivation behind the real Burt’s dream of breaking the record, but his age and illness suggest that time is short. Precious. Live every day like yada yada yada. It’s a familiar story, but as it with playing the blues it’s not the notes but knowing how they should be played. It takes a severe talent to get this kind of skill and Hopkins does it in spades. His Burt is easily the friendliest role he’s ever played. He always has a smile, a quick one-liner and an almost childlike gaze on the world, although he knows time is running out. Every passing scene is passing, and Burt tries to make the most of, ingesting the new world he’s been plopped into. The whole thing is positivity on overdrive—so to speak—but appropriate and never mawkish. Some other actor of lesser caliber couldn’t have pull off the likes of Burt like Hopkins did. It’s most light-hearted I’ve even seen him, if not downright jolly. If you think about that, it’s scarier than Hannibal Lecter.

Oh, pipe down. You knew I had to drop that name here sooner or later.

So yeah, Burt’s obsessed with time, not necessarily speed. It’s not mentioned much in the film how Burt got the itch, but it’s implied. His recollections of moments past with Tom, especially the story of Burt’s older brother’s fate, hints at what Burt’s all about and the Indian his escape. There are quite a few quick shots of Burt looking at his watch. He also gets really irritated with smoking. At first this movie with all its fluffy positivity makes for weak tension. Oh, tragedy begets regret begets redemption. Yawn. I disagree here. All that sweetness and optimism belies the tension that eventually arises when we’re arrested by Burt’s historic ride and all the trickiness that undercurrents doubt and failure.

I can’t deny the healthy doses of silly/fish-out-of-water/innocence that pervaded Indian, and if any other seasoned actor like Hopkins would assume Burt’s fictional mantle the movie would’ve definitely fallen apart. Big shocker, but I suspected major creative liberties taken with the plot. Weak or not, the story was still engaging thanks to Hopkins. Ever since the man aimed to be a thespian he’s carried a lot of “unfilmable” movies through the course. Until his Oscar win, Hopkins more often than not played second fiddle. This is not an an insult; Keef makes Mick look good. Consider the man’s CV in relation to his Burt in Indian. Although John Hurt was the cause celebre in The Elephant Man, Hopkins’ kindly Dr Treaves proved that Merrick was not a freak, just a victim of a rare disease. The endearingly uptight butler Stevens who’s whole duty is not to serve Mr Lewis but never let his reveal his crush on Miss Kenton; that would not be proper. And of course his turn as psychopath Dr Hannibal Lecter, toying with FBI trainee Starling to earn his freedom. BTW, as all cinephiles know, Hopkins was basically played a supporting character but earned Best Actor 1991 for less that 20 minutes on screen. Hopkins is good—great—at being wallpaper pasted up by Picasso.

So what better way to appreciate Hopkins’ Burt in how he deals with being out of his nest in search of his quarry? Right. Go along for the ride, so to speak. It’s impossible to not like Hopkins here, all hale and hearty and chuckling and more than a little bit off. That’s his charm, which is quite the statement considering most of Anthony’s charm stem from his best known roles portraying quite reserved characters (EG: the aforementioned Treaves, Stevens and even Lecter). He’s a unrepentant optimist, never giving a damn about social graces. Almost as if his Burt was living against what Ben Franklin said about mortality (but still very much aware of it): “Some people die at 25 and aren’t buried until 75.” Ol’ Ben lived to be 88 and loved a good dirty joke. I suppose you can’t help but be curious about some duffer chasing a childhood dream even if they’re collecting Social Security. I think the best example of Hopkins’ Burt’s unflappable good humor is best summed up in one line. When his new American friend, a trans named Tina comes out to Burt, his simple response is that Tina’s a sweetheart anyway.

Again and of course director Donaldson took some creative liberties with Indian. Erm, some? Precious little was true in the tale, save the showdown at Bonneville. If you think about it, Burt’s true test of his nerves would’ve been easily encapsulated in a one-hour History Channel doc back with the channel aired History. Sometimes you gotta add a lot of breadcrumbs to that meatloaf otherwise no dinner. How Donaldson and Hopkins jury-rigged the story to make it more…there is akin to (and I’ve used this example before, so muzzle it) one of the best Mandela Effect movies quotes ever: “If the legend is better than the facts, print the legend!” Facts can be boring, and if one wishes to spruce up the story you need some ketchup. And kicked up dust. A spoonful of denial makes the soft script go down.

Indian is by far one of the oddest road trip movies I’ve ever seen, and it is indeed a road trip movie. Once Burt’s in the States what else would you call it? The record breaking takes up a lot of room in the back seat in the third act, but the eclectic encounters with the colorful folks he meets—which are all to kind to help Burt on his harebrained quest—makes the trip worth getting off the beaten path one in a while. And really, what’s wrong with a simple, feel good movie?

Indian isn’t complicated (far more than the mortality undercurrent) in which a story like this—legendary or factual—hasn’t been done before, and will be done again. Still, it was charming, had a little weird Coen Brothers bent, a motley cast, a kooky Hopkins and motorcycles. Like I said, sometimes you just gotta go with it and leave some cynicism at the door.

Now who wants fresh squeezed lemonade? No you don’t.


The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? Rent it. It’s fluffy to be sure, but so’s your pillow and you still lay back on it. Quit being a drudge and enjoy some Happy Hopkins.


The Musings…

  • “Time goes by so fast.”
  • I need a tomato-shaped squeezy bottle.
  • “It’s only flat on the bottom!”
  • There is a very fine line between eccentric and crazy.
  • “What?” Tom reveals the Maguffin.
  • I liked that clever reveal.
  • “I’m planning on going, not stopping!”
  • Burt can talk his way out of anything.
  • “If you don’t go when you want to go, when you do go, you’ll find you’re gone.”
  • Fun fact: Burt never pissed his lemon tree. Probably never even had one. Director Donaldson threw that bit in as a tribute to his Dad, who in fact did practice that kind of horticulture. I’d never have a glass of iced tea at the old Donaldson home, no sirree.’
  • “I did it!” Chuckles, naturally.

The Next Time…

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” claimed the First Man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong…by way of the Mickey Mouse Club.