Kiwi motorcycle speed-demon Burt Munro's amazing life comes to the screen in Roger Donaldson's The World's Fastest Indian.
After seaking with Donaldson, it comes as no surprise to learn the Aussie-born director was once an avid motorcyclist, and the owner of an Indian Scout. "Back many years ago, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, I rode often. But then I moved to Los Angeles, and L.A. and motorbikes just didn't seem such a good mix. But now I think, oh God, I wish I had one," Donaldson says, reflecting on his years in the saddle of a WWII-era Indian Scout, followed by a post-war Norton 500 single.
Donaldson's movie is a tribute to New Zealander Burt Munro, a man obsessed with wringing the most he could out of the 600cc Indian Scout he bought new in 1920. And wring he did, landing in the history books when he took his by-then heavily modified Scout to an officially timed 183.586mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats in 1967. It's a record that stands to this day — no Indian motorcycle has ever gone faster. More impressive yet, Munro was 68 years old when he flew through the timers during his record run.
Munro began modifying his Indian Scout in 1926, and for the next 50 years he single-mindedly applied himself to shaping the bike into the world's fastest Indian. In his quest for more power, Munro made his own overhead-valve cylinder head in place of the Scout's original flathead — he even experimented with a double-overhead cam conversion. In time, Munro almost doubled his Scout's engine displacement, taking it to just shy of 1,000cc.
A consummate, self-taught machinist, Munro was obsessed with his Indian Scout. He made his own cylinder castings from salvaged cast iron pipe, made pistons from melted-down cast-offs from other engines, and literally carved out connecting rods from a Ford truck axle. The Indian was his life: Munro told a friend in a 1971 letter that, "In 1948 I decided to give up work and concentrate on getting a good run out of my old bike."
Donaldson first met Munro in 1971, when, as a fledgling documentary film maker, he and then-partner Mike Smith journeyed to Invercargill, New Zealand, after hearing about Munro's exploits at Bonneville. "Mike had his Norton, and I had my Indian, and we had heard about this old boy in Invercargill. We wrote to him, and he invited us to visit him."
Munro, Donaldson says, was excited by their interest in him and wheeled his old Scout out of his shed and fired it up. "The engine roared to life; a sound to split your eardrums," Donaldson recalls. "Lights started coming on in the neighbors' houses, and when Burt finally stopped revving the engine, the night was filled with the yells of his disapproving neighbors, suggesting that 11 p.m. was an inappropriate time to start ‘demonstrating' his un-muffled motorcycle."
That visit, and a subsequent trip with Munro to Bonneville — Munro's last — resulted in Donaldson and Smith's documentary film, "Offerings to the God of Speed." The title came from words that Munro had written on a battered shelf in his shed, which held the dozens of burnt and broken pistons and connecting rods Munro had experimented with in his Indian Scout.
Munro fascinated Donaldson. "I knew he had set land speed records, and in 1971 he was old, the bike was ancient, and that added up to somebody out of the mold," Donaldson says.
The documentary aired in New Zealand in 1973, but Donaldson couldn't get Munro out of his head. Munro died in 1978, and in 1979, with his first feature film, Sleeping Dogs, under his belt, Donaldson decided to make a feature film based on Munro. "I always thought the documentary didn't do him justice. He was so inspirational," Donaldson says.
Donaldson wrote the script for The World's Fastest Indian, and over the ensuing years he had offers to fund the film, but turned them down, unwilling to change the script to something more "marketable." "I was determined not to compromise my vision of the story," Donaldson says. So he waited, and finally a few years ago he committed himself to putting Munro's story on film.
He sent the script to Oscar-winner Anthony Hopkins (who worked with Donaldson in the filming of The Bounty opposite Mel Gibson in 1983). Hopkins loved the script: "I've had a good career playing psychopaths or uptight people; I'm fed up with those," Hopkins says. "I don't want to play any more of them. I'm a very happy guy, and Burt Munro's character and philosophy suits my temperament."
Hopkins liked the script so much he accepted a fraction of his usual fee. That certainly helped Donaldson, who footed a significant portion of the production costs for The World's Fastest Indian from his own pocket.
"I think the fact we were prepared to spend our own money ... gave other people the confidence to get involved," Donaldson says. The film reflects Donaldson's passion, and captures the essence of Munro, a man cast in his own mold, obsessed with winning, and unwilling to let go of his dream. "All my life I've wanted to do something big … something bigger and better than all the other jokers," Hopkins' character says in the film.
Donaldson's film is ultimately a character study; a compelling look at one of motorcycling's most unique and uncelebrated characters. Opening nationally February 3, the film is a must-see for motorcyclists — and maybe the best motorcycle-themed movie ever made. MC
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