Media Fast times at Bonneville

Anthony Hopkins finds the spirit in a man driven by speed

Ronald Donaldson, director of The World’s Fastest Indian, can still recall the 1971 Speed Week along Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats when a 72-year-old world-land-speed record holder named Burt Munro climbed onto his legendary modified 1920 Indian Scout motorcycle for his last record-attempting run. “Burt said to me, ‘They’re never going to let me come back here,’” Donaldson explains. “‘I’m going to ride this bike as fast as it’ll go and if I die, make sure you get it on film.’ I was so relieved when the motorbike blew up at 100 mph and sort of skidded to a halt, because you knew he meant it.”

Anthony Hopkins portrays New Zealand speed fanatic Burt Munro, who made history at the Bonneville Salt Flats with his rebuilt 1920 Indian Scout Motorcycle.

Donaldson and his partner, Mike Smith, had convinced Munro, an Invercargill, New Zealand, native who would die seven years later, to return to the Flats one last time in order to film a documentary about Munro’s Indian, but Donaldson never felt the resulting film, Offerings to the God of Speed, did Munro justice. So he began plotting a full-length feature film about the motorcyclist’s 1962 quest to cross the Pacific and the Rocky Mountains to achieve the first of his many record-breaking runs at Bonneville. The project took almost three decades to reach fruition and premieres this week, a guileless (like Munro), inspirational, and unexpected sports movie the likes of which hasn’t been made since ... well, Rocky.

Anthony Hopkins, who once starred in and quarreled famously with Donaldson on The Bounty, climbed into old Munro’s boots and, in the process, a role unlike any he’s taken on before. As co-star Chris Lawford (Peter’s son) puts it, “People are so surprised that when Tony Hopkins puts his face up to the window, there’s not a gun on the other side — or that he lives at the end of the movie.” His point: The film is so relentlessly uplifting, audiences might actually find themselves confused as to how to receive something that makes them feel good to be human — especially from Hannibal Lecter.

Unassuming Hopkins used Offerings to the God of Speed as research when preparing for the role. “In the documentary, Burt said, ‘You’ll live more in five minutes on a motorbike than you will in a lifetime, and having some nice pretty ladies around can help a lot,’” he says. “I thought, that’s the essence of the guy. He enjoys life, he enjoys women. He had a good life; he didn’t drink or smoke; his passion was his bike. There’s something really rich in him, that he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

That fearlessness was evident to Donaldson even before he watched fellow Kiwi Munro and his Indian topple and skid to a stop along the cement-hard surface of the salt flats. “‘These are the same tires I rode on 30 years ago,’” Munro explained. “‘They’”- “they” being the race officials — “‘look at the tires and say, What about these hairline cracks? I just take them round and throw on some boot polish; I get away with this every year.’” Donaldson shakes his head. “I saw him do that!”

Still, no matter how remarkable a man Munro was or how needed a story like his is in today’s atmosphere of formulaic and inadvertently cynical moviemaking, one has to wonder how two men whose rivalry on the set is the stuff of Hollywood myths ended up working together again. Hopkins admits, “We didn’t get on too well on The Bounty. We had our differences, as they say. I was younger then and, when you’re younger, you have bigger ideas about everything.”

“After we finished The Bounty, if you had asked, ‘Will you ever work together again?’ the answer would’ve been an unequivocal no,” Donaldson says. “However, as the movie came together and was released, I came to appreciate what an amazing actor he is and how much effort it takes to do such a demanding performance. My heart softened to him and I realized maybe I’d been a little harsh on him. And time mellows one anyway.”

The World’s Fastest Indian

Dir. & writ. Ronald Donaldson; feat. Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Cauffiel, Saginaw Grant, Diane Ladd, Chris Lawford (PG-13)

For his part, Hopkins was drawn to Munro’s indomitable spirit; after all, Munro had been told by everyone he knew from the time that he was born that he’d never go the distance. Even his family’s doctor told his parents he wouldn’t live to see his second birthday. But Munro persevered, and that’s a trait Hopkins says he can now relate to. Self-destructive through much of his early career, an alcoholic for much of it, too, he lingers in the twilight of his life as awards for lifetime achievement begin to amass on his mantel. The Golden Globes are only a week away as he mulls the breadth of his career, and the Cecil B. Demille Award will be awaiting him when he takes the stage. “I can hear those voices in my head: What are they giving me this award for?” he concedes. “I’ll get onstage and be modest and say thank you, but mostly it’s been luck and good fortune.”

The man is, if anything, self-effacing. But is he, like Munro, a slave to the God of Speed? He laughs aloud at the assertion, just as he does when asked if he shares Munro’s mechanical inclinations. “I fell off a bike years ago when I was in the army,” he says. “Nearly broke my back. No, I’m not a speed freak. I’m the slowest driver in California.”

By Cole Haddon

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