It may have taken Burt Munro a long time to prove he could live fast, but when he came to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah in 1962 to set the world record, he wasn’t kidding around. Traveling half the world from Invercargill, New Zealand, Burt was a stout man in his 60s with white hair and an honest smile. The World’s Fastest Indian, a film based on true events, makes a few concessions in telling Burt’s story, but for the most part, it’s a charming rendition of the carpe diem mantra.
Clocking in at slightly more than two hours, The World’s Fastest Indian is certainly not the world’s fastest movie. The action is slow, but in a premeditated way that further emphasizes the ultimate speed of the motorcycle. Burt’s story is an epic of sorts, and while the audience is thrown into the action at a point relatively close to the climax, the trip the viewer undertakes as he enters the theater is a lengthy one.
This slow pace can be partially attributed to a fairly good attention to detail on the part of the producers, but perhaps more importantly to the slow pace Burt’s trip actually took. This prolonging gives rise to slight suspense – will he make it in time? – without which the film would surely fail.
The accessibility of this slow pace is due to an amazing performance from Anthony Hopkins as the main character. He portrays Burt as both endearing and clever, while showing his quick degeneration due to old age. Sir Anthony, himself almost 70, nearly falls victim to self-reference, but his usual grace and absolute command of the thespian act become his saving grace. Hopkins is honest as Burt, honesty being the most admirable quality of both men. The film, however, certainly leaves the viewer with the thought that he just saw the beginning of Burt’s glory days, not the end.
There are, of course, simplifications the film uses, such as combining a few records for the sakes of time and resolution, but they’re easily dismissible. They don’t detract from the true achievements of a man whose record still stands four decades later (he set the land-speed record in 1967).
The trip Burt undergoes from Invercargill, New Zealand, to the salt flats in Utah is a rather unconventional one, lightly satirizing and burlesque at times, which makes the film airy enough for the pace of it to flow well. A twinkle from actor and comedian Chris Williams as a friendly motel employee adds an amusing and spicy touch.
Munro began modifying his Indian in 1926 and didn’t take it to Utah for another 41 years. The audience, like Burt, has to wait its turn to see the finale. It took an intercontinental journey for Burt to capture his goal, and the director deliberately shows how uncertain and slow such a voyage can be. In a splendid performance, Hopkins transmits that to the audience. With slow, yet determined pace and great acting, The World’s Fastest Indian achieves what it set out to do – show a credible man doing an incredible thing.