As I watched "The World's Fastest Indian", I kept thinking "This film isn't very good." None of the characters are developed, they merely drop in and out of Burt Munro's (Anthony Hopkins) life. There really isn't any conflict except when situations get out of Burt's control or due to his own lack of or bad planning. Yet these situations never seem to cause him a lot of trouble, he always seems to find a way though the mess. Despite all of the narrative problems. I didn't turn the film off. I kept watching.
"The World's Fastest Indian", the true story of Burt Munro's efforts to race a homemade 1920 Indian motorcycle at the Bonneville Salt Flats outside of Salt lake City, Utah, in 1967, is apparently New Zealand's trop grossing film. It has made more money than the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The reason? Burt Munro was a real life character, a real New Zealander who became a hero in his country.
Burt has a lot of things going against him. His age; in his early 70s, he decides he wants to take his homemade motorcycle to Bonneville, to see how fast it can go. In his hometown, he is able to get the vehicle to go about 60 MPH, but he knows it can go faster. The vehicle; hand-built, Munro took the body of a 1920 motorcycle, which was almost fifty years old, and re-built or modified every bit of it. Money; A pensioner, Burt pours all of his money into the vehicle, leaving little money for the journey to America. Everyone in the small town recognizes Burt's determination and helps him out, throwing a fundraiser. He does recognize that he will need most of the money in America and gets a job as cook on the ship, to pay for his steerage to the U.S. Despite all of the potential setbacks, he is determined to make this happen. And this is what begins to win us over.
It is this determination which creates the narrative problem and also makes the film more interesting and engrossing. In short, it made me want to turn the film off, but I couldn't stop watching.
Because he cares about little else, all other distractions in his life are fleeting and don't provide the opportunity for a lot of drama. His most enduring relationship is with Jake (Saginaw Grant), a young boy who lives next door and spends every available moment with Burt, helping him out, hanging on his every word, watching everything he does in the little shack where he lives and works on his motorcycle.
Before he leaves, he asks the woman in the benefits office, who gives him his pension money every month, out on a date. She becomes a part of his life and they seem to have a great time together, finding romance late in their lives, not really giving 'marriage' or other long-term relationships much thought. But as she becomes more familiar to and with Burt, she becomes engrossed in his quest, giving him moral support. This is exactly what happens to the viewer. As we see more and more of Burt's dogged determination, we begin to root for him, to give him our support.
When Burt arrives at the Port of Long Beach, his quest takes on a different feel. Now that he is in a new country, a place he isn't very familiar with, there is more of a sense of isolation and potential failure. But he proves to be even more self-sufficient. Landing at a motel in the heart of Hollywood, he quickly becomes friends with Tina Washington (Chris Williams), the transvestite desk clerk. Tina helps him to become more acclimated to the strangeness of his new surroundings. But throughout the journey, he meets people who are naturally intrigued by his story and lend a helping hand.
Upon his arrival at Bonneville, he quickly becomes a friend to everyone and various people help him overcome hurdles. He learns registration for the event is closed and that his vehicle is too old and considered unsafe. They won't allow him to test his motorcycle on the Salt Flats. But Burt is unable to comprehend this, unable to accept failure. He has spent years working on his bike, traveled thousands of miles. He can't not race the Indian. Finally, with the help of some of the returning participants, he is given the opportunity to test how fast his Indian will go.
Anthony Hopkins does a good job of making us believe in Munro's eccentricities. We aren't given a lot of time with Burt for him to develop a character or for us to learn a lot of his back-story. That isn't the point. This man is obsessed with his bike and with trying to set a land speed record. We are merely along for the ride, to witness his journey. Along the way, we believe in Munro's obsession because Hopkins makes the highs and lows believable. Nothing will stop this man from fulfilling his lifelong dream. It isn't Hopkin's best performance, it doesn't have the detail or nuance of his great work, but the performance serves the story well.
Initially, I wasn't very interested in Munro's quest, but as I continued to watch I became obsessed with his journey, rooting for him, as though I was standing with the crowd at Bonneville Salt Flats, in 1967, as Burt Munro's Indian Motorcycle reached a speed of…