After a lifetime of perfecting his classic Indian motorcycle, Burt Munro (Anthony Hopkins) set off from the bottom of the world to test his bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. With all odds against him, he set a new speed record and captured the spirit of his times.

1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 13 Nov 2020 - 10:25 AM

Aging is supposed to work against you if you happen to be an actor. Ask any actor or actress; whether they are aging graceful (or disgracefully a la the surgeon's knife), as the wrinkles increase, the roles begin to decrease. Glossy celebrity mags constantly proclaim that the film screen belongs to the young and the beautiful, not the old and the grey-haired, no matter how much acting talent you're endowed with. It might be unfair but it is a fact of life for many who have chosen the acting profession.

Fast approaching his 70th year, Welsh-born actor Anthony Hopkins is proving to be a rare exception to the rule, doing some of his best work later in his career. In his latest movie, The World's Fastest Indian, he also gives one of the performances of his career, leaving his most infamous screen character Hannibal Lechter well at home.

Hopkins plays real-life motorcycle enthusiast Burt Munro (1899-1978), who hailed from the land of 'The Long White Cloud', Invercargill, New Zealand. The film was written and directed by Australian director Roger Donaldson, best known for Hollywood films Cocktail (1988), The Bounty (1984) and the historical/political thriller, Thirteen Days (2000). Donaldson made a short documentary about Munro when he was living and working in New Zealand in the late 1960s. He spent the best part of thirty years waiting for the right time to turn Burt's amazing story into a feature.

It is 1967 and 67 year-old Burt Munro (Hopkins) decides to make his lifelong dream come true: to race his beloved 1920s Twin Scout Indian motorcycle across the famed Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. Burt is determined to break a land speed record and with the support of his local community he travels to America to do just that, the first time he has ever left his home town let alone his home country. The journey by sea, then land, is an eye-opener for Burt who meets many strange characters along the way, including transvestite Tina (Chris Williams), who all but adopts the old 'codger'. But Burt's not the elderly curmudgeon he might appear, using charm, wiles and a broad-minded approach to make his way across this foreign land. But the closer he gets to the big day, the further away it seems.

I was so surprised by this film, and fell in love with it, from the opening scenes of Burt doggedly working away in his tin shed in lush New Zealand, to the time trials in the stark alien landscape of the Utah salt desert. This is clearly Donaldson's best film to date, a million miles from the generic fare he's spent a career making from Hollywood. It just goes to show that, a) one should never underestimate a director no matter how stock standard their films have become and, b) what a good filmmaker is capable of when the commercial imperative is not hanging over their heads (ie when they make something they believe in).

The World's Fastest Indian may not sound very 'sexy' on paper ('old guy takes an old bike to America and races it before he dies') but it is one of the most engrossing, legitimate feel good movies I've seen and succumbed to in a while. (I haven't felt this fine about a feel good film since the ending of Kate & Leopold (2001)). It is a beautifully crafted, superb character-driven movie where real time is taken setting up and the telling of the story. It is easy staying with the many left turns in the tale, as Burt meets stranger after stranger, co-opted into his personal narrative. And Hopkins delivers an incredibly authentic, patient performance as eccentric old Burt, a quietly courageous, passionate man trying to make his life count.

The World's Fastest Indian made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me appreciate what I love about the art of film all over again.


Watch 'World's Fastest Human'

Sunday 22 November, 6:10pm on SBS World Movies
Monday 23 November, 11:15am on SBS World Movies
Tuesday 24 November, 5:15am on SBS World Movies

Now streaming at SBS On Demand

New Zealand, 2005
Genre: Drama, Biography
Language: English
Director: Roger Donaldson
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Iain Rea, Craig Hall
What's it about?
After a lifetime of perfecting his classic Indian motorcycle, Burt Munro (Hopkins) set off from the bottom of the world to test his bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. With all odds against him, he set a new speed record and captured the spirit of his times. Based on a true story.

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