‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ or — ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ meets ‘The Right Stuff’?

I still remember when ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’ (2005) came out and thinking “What on earth is that about?” before it seemed to vanish off the face of the globe as quickly as it appeared leaving me knowing nothing about it other than it was about Anthony Hopkins and motorcycle and that was it.

Last night, however, I learned something else about it and that’s that it was directed by Roger Donaldson and Roger Donaldson’s a very good director indeed. I decided to watch it.

It tells the true story of Burt Munro, a New Zealander who, in the late 1950’s, is determined to race his 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle in the land speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah. Burt has mechanical expertise and determination. What he doesn’t have, however, is a safe vehicle, financial backing or the necessary equipment to even get his bike to Bonneville let alone break any records once he’s there. Burt also has crippling angina.

And so we follow Burt and his motorcycle as he travels to America to go as fast as he possibly can, and nobody really knows how fast that will be.

So it’s a bio-pic centered around speed and living life on the edge no matter your age. We see glistening, sleek machines against the pink skies and the white ground of the Salt Flats and get to know the people drawn to climb inside them. It’s a bit like a more laid-back version of ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983). Yet Donaldson’s approach to the material also has strong echoes of Leo McCarey’s excellent ‘Make Way for Tomorrow’ (1937) where older people are treated with a touching humanity by everyone and all who encounter them. So sure Burt is a tad irritating, obsessive and filled with home-spun homilies about life (his view on death made me laugh out loud) but is so open to other people and life in general that everybody’s cynicism crumbles in his presence. It all flies perilously close to chocolate box sentimentality but Donaldson and Hopkins prevent it from lapsing into ‘Forest Gump’ sickliness by grounding it all as much as possible and keeping an intelligent eye on everything. The result is really rather endearing.

The last third of the picture revolves around Burt’s speed record attempt and if you’re a fan of shining, horizontal bullets of machines against stunningly photographed landscapes you’ll be drooling over this. I won’t ruin the ending but when Burt boosts off Donaldson and his team capture the intense rush and thrill of it all perfectly.

I was very pleasantly surprised by ‘The World’s Fastest Indian’, even if it is expertly constructed weaponised sentimentality. It was touching without being cloying, tender without being sickly and, as the film goes on, engaging, captivating, exciting and very beautiful.

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Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.

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Colin Edwards

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.