The World's Fastest Indian
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The World's Fastest Indian

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There is just something about a movie that extols the human spirit. You know those films that show how a man can rise above numerous obstacles to realize his dream. Something about them just makes you feel good in a vicarious way. ‘The World's Fastest Indian’ is one of those movies, a tale that shows that a determined man can make something grand happen. Burt Munro (Sir Anthony Hopkins) is by all accounts an eccentric and crotchety old man. Hailing from the town of Invercargill, New Zealand he is resigned to holding his heart condition at bay with various medications and tinkering with his pride and joy, an old 1920’s vintage red Indian Scout motorcycle. To those that live near Burt they wish that he would put down his tools and care for his property but Burt is fixated on bringing his cycle to a level of performance the original specifications never imagined. By 1967 he has spent most of his adult life with that bike and finally he feels that it is ready to show its stuff. He decides to take his beloved motorcycle to the famous Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah to set a world’s speed record. His hope is to push that 600 cc engine beyond what any man could. His encouragement comes from the son of the neighbor, Tom (Aaron Murphy) who is certain that Burt and the Indian are more than up to the challenge.

Burt needs a lot of assistance if he is to realize his dream. First there is the problem of actually paying for passage to the United States. His new girl friend, Fran (Annie Whittle) comes up with a way to earn enough to get there and the real journey can start. Burt does something far more common to traveling men a fraction of his age; he barters his mechanical expertise for funding. Much of the film is concerned with getting to the site of the race. While many of us think that travel across the United States is a simple matter for Burt it was an adventure in itself. In Los Angeles Burt is befriended by Tina (Chris Williams), a night clerk at a low end motel. Tina has develops a little crush on Burt but such feelings must remain just friends since Burt is true to Fran and discovers that Tina is actually transvestite. For an old coot Burt can turn on the social graces when the occasion calls for them. He manages to get Fernando (Paul Rodriguez), a used car salesman, to sell him workable vehicle for a fraction of the asking price. When his trailer breaks down Burt is aided by a Native American, Jake (Saginaw Grant). In a junkyard he finds emotional and physical solace care of a lonely widow, Ada (Diane Ladd). With each step of his travels Burt managers to cajole those around him with his complete acceptance of those who are different. Burt even receives help from a man that should be his rival, the current record holder Jim Moffet (Christopher Lawford). After his arduous journey Burt is told that sine he didn’t pre-register he cannot compete. Jim intervenes but the problems still are before the lamented Burt. Between his heart condition and his home made modifications on the Indian both are declared unfit to race. At long last Burt and the trusty Indian are given a trial run and the speed amazes the officials. Little do they know that there was a mechanical problem and Burt couldn’t get the cycle out of second gear!

While many stories like this have to come from the imagination of the writers this is one based closely on the real Burt Munro. In some way this adds another dimension to the film that an older man could actually do what the movie depicts. Burt is a man that has focused his life on an old bike; one nearly as broken down as he is. By rejuvenating the Indian Burt is able to keep a little part of his own youth within him. This allows the people he meets to see past the gruff exterior to the honest and caring man beneath. Many people have stated that a fast bike is just an extension of a man but in this case the bike becomes the man’s partner and reason to keep going on.

Sir Anthony Hopkins is without a doubt one the greatest actors ever to grace stage or screen. His commitment to role is complete; he inhabits his character bring subtle nuances to the audience. Every little moment, facial expression and vocal quirk adds dimension to how Hopkins presents Burt to the viewer. This film also demonstrates the great range Sir Anthony posses. While his famous Hannibal Lecture is controlled and calculated evil, Burt is a painting in far more muted colors. The role is almost understated by Hopkins adding so much to our enjoyment. He portrays Burt as an introverted, almost isolated man but one that can and does enjoy the company of others. For Burt his travels to the States are one of wondrous discovery filled with types of people he never imagined existed. Whether he meets a drag queen or biker Burt is open to others and they accept him as he does them.

This is the second time director Roger Donaldson has taken on the story of Burt Munro. In 1971 he helmed the documentary "Offerings to the God of Speed". Now, he gets to revisit the subject showing a little more of the emotional journey. Donaldson is no stranger to storytelling with films like Cocktail, Species, Dante’s Peak and The Bounty (also with Hopkins) behind him. When a director has such a variety of films behind him you know that this is a man that knows how to present a tale. While the film does get a little sentimental at times it can be forgiven since the talent of the director holds things together nicely. The pacing is on the money. Since the actual race is the climax of the film the audience is treated more to a travelogue than a pure ‘lets go fast’ flick. This is as much an emotional journey as it is a physical trek.

Once again Magnolia Home Entertainment brings to DVD a little gem that many collectors may have otherwise over looked. I can’t remember a time when I have received a film form Magnolia for review that I didn’t find myself captivated. There is a little bit of controversy among aspect ratio purist about the video of this film. It was shown theatrically in 2.35:1 but is presented here as anamorphic 1.78:1. I have seen examples of frames from but versions in side by side comparison and I feel that the smaller aspect works very well here. It gives the film a more intimate look and feel. Apparently, the director did shoot for both aspect ratios and considered 1.78:1 as the true version. The video itself is excellent. The color palette is exceptional. The balance and contrast provides rich colors and deep, true blacks. The rear speakers are used with discretion in the Dolby 5.1 mix. The audio comes across true, clear and vibrant. Typical of a Magnolia release the extras are something special. Donaldson’s documentary, "Offering to the God of Speed" is presented in its entirety. You get to see how well Hopkins captured Munro with footage of the real old coot. Instead of a cursory making of featurette we get a forty five minute, in depth look at the production of the film. There is also a running commentary by the director which is better than most. He goes into the obstacles in making the film, background about the bike and some interesting stories about Burt. This is one that the whole family can enjoy together time and time again.

Posted 6/12/06

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