The World’s Fastest Indian, 127 mins, rated PG, opening in cinemas on 6 April 2006.


(This is my review as  published in the April 2006 issue of The New South Wales Law Society Journal)

New Zealanders have an expression: “number 8 wire mentality.” Someone with that kind of attitude makes the best of what he has, and doesn’t worry about what he doesn't have. Burt Munro was that kind of man. His story is told in The World’s Fastest Indian. It’s mostly a true story.

Burt was an elderly New Zealander motorbike enthusiast who wanted to take his modified 1920 Indian Scout motorbike to America to break the world land speed record. This is a film about a man, his philosophy of life, and his single-minded pursuit of a dream, and it is told by someone who knew him well, and who cares deeply about these things.

Director Roger Donaldson’s passion for the subject goes back over 30 years. Donaldson is an Australian who in 1965 went to live in New Zealand. There he learned to make films, and in 1972 he made a documentary about Burt Munro, called Offerings to the God of Speed. The name came from some words written in chalk on a shelf in Burt’s shed in Invercargill, in the far south of New Zealand. You can see those words early on in this film.

Donaldson felt he had not done Burt justice in his early doco, and after Burt died in 1978, Donaldson tried to make the story into a feature film. It took him nearly 20 years to do it. It’s a level of persistence that Burt would have appreciated.

Working in Hollywood since 1982, Donaldson made films such as Cocktail (1988), The Getaway (1994), and Thirteen Days (2000). For this film, Donaldson cast Anthony Hopkins as Burt. I think this is Hopkins' best performance since Nixon (Oliver Stone, 1995). His idiosyncratic way of speaking and laughing, his peculiar turn of phrase, his mild deafness, and his sense of eccentric brilliance, all build on a well-crafted script to create a credible portrait of a loveable, if unlikely, hero.

Part bio-pic and part road movie, the film begins in 1967, when Burt is already 68 years old. For years he’s been tinkering with his motorbike (itself more than 40 years old) to make it the “World’s Fastest Indian”. To do this, he has to take it to Bonneville Flats in Utah, where they hold regulated time trials during “Speed Week”. This is only a short time away, and Burt is operating on a shoestring budget: he’s a retired pensioner of limited means, and to make things worse, he’s got angina.

We follow Burt as he journeys by cargo ship from Invercargill to Los Angeles and then by road to Utah. He’s an innocent abroad – a Candide – but he is such an unusual character, and his determination is so catching, that he manages to convince a succession of complete strangers to help him in his quest. He certainly needs all the help he can get: things go wrong almost every step of the way.

Once Burt gets to Bonneville, the film changes pace, and we are treated to some spectacular photography of the dazzlingly beautiful salt flats and their surroundings. We also get to experience the dizzying velocity of all manner of vintage speed machines, including Burt’s Indian. But here Burt comes up against a seemingly-insurmountable problem, and the way things pan out says something fundamental about the American response to men like Burt.

So does Burt get his land speed record? Does he own the world’s fastest Indian? You’ll have to see the film. Regardless of whether you have any interest in bikes, in speed, or even in sport, you’ll be with Burt every rev of the way.