The World’s fiercest New Zealanders
December 12, 2005
Putting aside the potentially perplexing title, there can be no mistaking what “The World’s Fastest Indian” is about. Directed by Roger Donaldson, the film is a linear, tightly focused account of real-life New Zealander Burt Munro and his 1960s quest to set a land-speed record on a souped-up 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle. Anthony Hopkins, starring as the irrepressible septuagenarian Munro, is virtually never off-screen. Donaldson permits no distractions in tracking Munro’s journey, from customizing the Indian in a ratty shed in suburban New Zealand to speeding across the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.To Donaldson, however, “The World’s Fastest Indian” is nearly as much his own story as it is Munro’s. The bulk of the movie is devoted not to Munro’s building and testing of his precious vehicle, nor to his quixotic adventures in the American desert, where Munro and his aged heap of spit-and-duct tape became the darling of Utah’s Speed Week. Instead, the majority of the film dwells on the getting from Invercargill, in southern New Zealand, to Utah, with stops, all of them memorable, in Hollywood and various small, Western towns. It’s a road that Donaldson, an Australian native who moved to New Zealand as a 20-year-old, has traveled.
“I didn’t want to make a dramatic documentary. I wanted a film about what I wanted to say,” said Donaldson from Los Angeles, which he has called home for nearly 20 years. “I wanted to reflect my own experience in coming to America. And about someone growing old, the curveballs life throws at you, and the attitude you take toward them. I finally came to the conclusion that the movie should be about a quest, something that seemed impossible but you keep trying at.”Donaldson’s original effort, as a younger man, was to make a straightforward documentary of Munro. In 1971, Donaldson wrote to Munro. He and his filmmaking partner, Mike Smith, were motorcycle enthusiasts who were familiar with Munro’s exploits over the previous four years in Utah. Munro invited the aspiring filmmakers to Invercargill, where he had set up shop.”What we discovered was this guy in his 70s, living in a cabin on a suburban street, catching rainwater from his roof,” said Donaldson. Sensing a story worth telling, Donaldson and Smith paid to bring Munro back to the Bonneville Salt Flats, for what would be the motorcyclist’s sixth visit. But after shooting footage of Munro in Utah, Donaldson and Smith went their separate ways. Instead of making a film for theatrical distribution, Donaldson made a 1973 documentary for television, “Offerings to the God of Speed,” about Munro.The TV project, however, didn’t satisfy Donaldson’s thirst to tell the story. Not long after “Offerings to the God of Speed” aired, he moved from documentaries to feature films, with 1977’s “Sleeping Dogs.” (The film was notable for marking the screen debut of Sam Neill, and for being the first New Zealand film to open in the U.S.) In 1979, a year after Munro died, Donaldson started writing a script for a feature film.”Over the years, I kept on writing different versions of the script,” he said. “But it never felt right. After ‘The Recruit’ [Donaldson’s 2003 CIA film starring Al Pacino and Colin Farrell] I decided I’d better stop talking about it and start making it.”Donaldson was scheduled to follow “The Recruit” with “Papa,” about a young journalist who searches for his father in revolutionary Cuba, and instead finds Ernest “Papa” Hemingway. Anthony Hopkins was slated to play Hemingway. When the project fell apart, Donaldson tried to keep some collaboration with the actor alive. Convincing Hopkins to switch gears and play Munro proved surprisingly effortless.”I sent him this script. He called back literally the same day, and said he wanted to do it,” said Donaldson.
What Donaldson found inadequate about his earliest versions of “The World’s Fastest Indian” had to do with condensing the story. “I think what I had been wrestling with was: How do you compress a story that takes several years into one focused story?” he asked. But it is timing, in a different sense, that has influenced the kind of movie “The World’s Fastest Indian” eventually ended up being. In between 1979, when he wrote his first version, and the film’s release this year, Donaldson moved to the States, and became a prominent Hollywood director. His career highlights include another CIA thriller, 1987’s “No Way Out”; 2000’s “Thirteen Days,” a tense recreation of the Cuban missile crisis; and 1984’s “The Bounty,” which starred Hopkins as Capt. William Bligh, victim of history’s most famous mutiny. From the vantage point of three decades, Donaldson began to see Munro’s story aligning with his own.
What is most remarkable in “The World’s Fastest Indian” is not that an underequipped 72-year-old on a shabby, 47-year-old motorcycle, reaches astonishing speeds. It is that, on making his way from New Zealand to Utah, Munro finds a cast of characters one could call “angels in America.” From Tina, the transvestite motel keeper in a Hollywood fleabag (played by Chris Williams), to the uncommonly friendly desert widow (Diane Ladd) who keeps Burt company for a night, to the various cops, mechanics, race officials and lady friends who are taken by Burt’s Austral charm and can-do attitude, America is portrayed as the most inviting place in the world, a country that welcomes its newcomers with open arms.”From a distance,” said Donaldson, who first came to the U.S. in 1969, “America was a very different place than I expected. The America in the news and media is a very different place than what it really is. I was expecting it to be a much more hostile place, and I found so many friendly, helpful people.”Donaldson relates his own tale in Los Angeles. Searching for “the myth of Hollywood” in a Hollywood Boulevard coffeehouse, he adopted the American custom of tipping, and left a greenback for the waiter. Minutes later, the waiter was chasing Donaldson down the street, waving the $100 bill Donaldson had accidentally left. The episode finds its way, almost unaltered, into the movie.”The World’s Fastest Indian” is also a contemplation of breaking barriers, of speed, age and more. Speed becomes a metaphor for Burt’s reckless way of charging through obstacles with a smile and a wisecrack.”There’s a mythology of going fast I was keen to embrace,” said Donaldson. “The idea of going fast, and why – that metaphor for life. It’s pointless, but it gives a life direction or meaning. Like mountaineering or playing the perfect round of golf. They don’t mean anything, but the process of achieving them does.”
The film, then, is a bit of a fairy tale. Burt Munro crosses the ocean, with his Indian, and makes it to Utah, where he is, finally, allowed to race. Roger Donaldson comes to America, and makes it as a filmmaker. There are hurdles to clear but, with the assistance of goodhearted strangers, they are leaped, or plowed through, one by one.”It’s life as you would hope it goes,” said Donaldson. “It’s fairy tale, but also with a touch of reality. I tried to allude to the crap in the world, the Vietnam War, the flu epidemic. People do have heart attacks and disaster strikes.”The fairy tale quality is, he made it. The truth is, Burt did have a very endearing quality to him. He won people over who you might not have expected to help him. People bent the rules for him.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org