The World's Fastest Indian
"The World's Fastest Indian" tells a sweet story that unhappily leaves no cliché unspoken or unshown. Roger Donaldson directed the film from a script he wrote back in 1971, apparently before he learned that people are interesting only to the extent that they violate the conventional. Set in the year 1967, it's the true story of New Zealander Burt Munro, a sixty-something tinkerer with motorcycles, who owns a wonderful 1920 Indian model, with which he intends to travel to the Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week and set a new land speed record.
We see the way Burt annoys his neighbors by leaving his yard unmown, by testing his unmuffled motorcycle at dawn, by borrowing a carving knife to shave his tires. We see him apply for a bank loan to pay his way to the United States, without collateral or even a basic knowledge of finance. But we also see that he has a certain sex appeal to women, and he is happy to take advantage of that.
The film follows his progress across the wide Pacific, then traces his encounters here, first unsuspectingly into a Los Angeles hot-bed motel that features a lovely transvestite night clerk (Chris Williams), and then towing the Indian behind a used car he buys in L.A., and then slowly across the western desert to Utah. And of course the film manages to have him arrive long after registration has closed for entrants in Speed Week, but thanks to lots and lots of help from folks who find him instantly lovable, he's allowed to enter. Should I give away the result of his speed run? Perhaps you have already guessed, as Roger Ebert points out in his review of the film, that it is not about the world's second-fastest Indian.
The film is lucky to have Anthony Hopkins as Burt, because Mr. Hopkins knows how to turn the conventional into the refreshing, how to play unselfconsciously against his fellow actors, and how to take the curse off of even the worst-written lines. Not so for the other actors, who must cope with an unending barrage of lines that would make even a first-year scriptwriting student cringe. Mr. Donaldson, who has some very good films to his directing credit, including "Smash Palace," "No Way Out," "Thirteen Days" and "The Recruit," should have asked a real writer for help with this one.
And yet "The World's Fastest Indian" has a very sweet charm to it. Burt is single-minded, obsessed, but never obnoxious. He is courteous and thoughtful, and embodies all the virtues we associate with an anachronistic society like that of white New Zealand, where there isn't a Maori in sight. And thanks to Anthony Hopkins's performance he keeps that lovability all the way through the film. Somehow, for every mortifying line of dialogue there's at least a moment in which Burt's passion keeps us involved. It could have been a lot worse.