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Coming to America

An old man and his toy in the charming Indian, and parting thoughts on The New World


For those who resist formulaic feel-good movies, The World's Fastest Indian presents something of a dare. This is a story about men and their toys--exactly the people who may sneer at the film's misty-eyed sentimentality. Despite director Roger Donaldson's almost pathological need to charm and cloy, his account of a real-life New Zealand speed freak should be an inspiration to geezers and gearheads everywhere.

Donaldson's career has been dotted with successful movies of varying levels of respectability. He made Thirteen Days, the Cuban missile crisis drama, but he is also the man who gave the world Cocktail. In the case of his new film, what we have is a happy convergence of a director's smooth professionalism with a personal project that he cares about.

Donaldson first encountered Burt Munro, the subject of his new film, over 30 years ago when he was a young filmmaker. The title of the short documentary he produced then, Offerings to the Gods of Speed, reappears in his new film--on a shelf of hand-crafted engine parts in Munro's cinderblock shop, which doubles as his home.

The movie's title refers not to a Native American but to a motorcycle that Munro purchased in 1921 as a young man in Invercargill, New Zealand. Motorized bicycles have been commercially available just about as long as the four-wheeled motor coach. The two standard-setters for the American-style V-twin cruiser were bikes made by Harley-Davidson and by Indian, and both companies began producing bikes in the first years of the 20th century. Munro's vehicle was a good-sized bike for its day, a twin cylinder job that displaced 600 cc's, but it still only hit a maximum velocity of about 55 miles per hour. In the mid-1920s, Munro began modifying the bike and racing it, and by the 1960s, his trusty Indian was traveling at speeds close to 200 miles per hour. The fact that Munro was by then in his 60s seemed to have been noticed by everyone except him.

In The World's Fastest Indian, Anthony Hopkins seems positively relieved to be in a role that frees him from his usual obligation to be repressed, demented or homicidal. The film opens with Munro working on his bike in a New Zealand neighborhood, as he does every day, annoying the neighbors with the racings of his engine and entertaining the requisite tyke from next door. Munro is firmly ensconced in the town's landscape as a local eccentric, an eternal innocent in a field usually dominated by bellowing he-men. Playing Munro, Hopkins seems completely in tune with his character, rather like the cranky old man who says embarrassingly vulgar things at the country club restaurant simply because he doesn't give a damn what anybody thinks.

Munro's last dream is to take his beloved Indian to the world stage and try for a land speed record. The place to do this, then as now, is at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. With the support of local townspeople, Munro raises the money to travel by boat to America.

Donaldson and his cameraman, David Gribble, do an effective job showing mid-1960s California through the eyes of a stranger. Munro naively asks his hostile cab driver to take him to a hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, imagining that he'll spot movie stars. Instead, he lands at a hot-sheet hotel, where he quickly makes the acquaintance of the transvestite hotel clerk without recognizing her for what she is.

În the road to the desert, the film's images of open spaces, Burma-Shave signs and other roadside attractions are familiar, but they help us understand why the American West continues to excite foreigners.

In a script that is surely a little loose with the historical fine points, Munro encounters other colorful characters. He beds a desert rancher (Diane Ladd) and picks up a hitchhiker, an earnest serviceman on leave from Vietnam who has his own appetite for engineering. To the unease of both men, the hitchhiker describes the defoliant project he's working on--"we call it Agent Orange." (Intentionally or not, the film mentions numerous dangerous chemicals that once were more common features of life in Cold War America: asbestos and lead also come up, and there's a running bit in which Munro lectures others about the evils of smoking.)

The film's final act unfolds in the white hot expanse of the Mecca of speed, the Bonneville Salt Flats. Just as he has done all along, Munro quickly wins over the American speedsters, and the film ends with glorious shots of muscle machines screaming across the range. Maybe we can't get so excited about all that burned gasoline these days, but The World's Fastest Indian is a well-tooled throwback to a time when the exuberance of American motor culture seemed less troublesome.


I recently caught up with The New World, Terrance Malick's poetic imagining of two worlds colliding nearly 400 years ago in Jamestown, Va. Contrary to a certain amount of advance buzz-kill, I found the film to be a tenderly moving and transporting experience.

While I yield to few people in lamenting the destruction of complex and ancient networks of indigenous peoples, I was deeply impressed by Malick's ability to take a longer, almost Olympian, view of the culture clash that occurred in the Tidewater region of Virginia, beginning in 1607.

I've lately been reading Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, and the early chapters are a horrifying account of the conquest of the Americas as virtually premeditated gang rape and slaughter of innocents. While evil acts were indubitably committed, and the near-extermination of the native inhabitants of the Americas is a ghastly tragedy, Malick offers another way of seeing this clashing of the tectonic plates of history.

Instead of portraying the Jamestown moment as a crime scene, Malick gives us a portrait of two cultures that pursued alternate modes of existence. On the one hand, the Algonquian Indians were people who lived in harmony with nature, rather than in opposition to it. In contrast, the Europeans were a people who sought to manipulate and overpower nature.

After two whole generations in which Native American culture has been duly sentimentalized and consecrated, the most radical part of Malick's project is his partial rehabilitation of European values. While Indians lived effortlessly off the land, valued no possessions, and apparently were guileless in their sexuality, the Europeans built great edifices of stone and marble, kept their knowledge in books, and braved unbelievable hardships as they sailed the world's seas.

It's one of the film's peculiar insights that, in its final section, we see European culture through the eyes of Pocahontas (Q'Orianka Kilcher, a 14-year-old of white and Quechua descent). Mostly Westernized at this point through her marriage to John Rolfe (Christian Bale), Pocahontas marvels at London's stone streets, the elaborate costumes at court and, most appositely, the public gardens with the meticulous topiary in which nature is literally molded to suit the fancy of the human.

Of course, the story can only end sadly, both for Pocahontas and for her people. The earth became smaller when the Europeans began sailing the seas, and it could no longer accommodate parallel universes.

The New World isn't entirely successful. One problem is Colin Farrell's John Smith, whose moping adolescent visage occupies the space where a dynamic character should be. The film has done only modest business nationwide, but it's garnered enough of a local following that it's continued to linger in a theater or two. This is a movie that should be seen in theaters, so if you haven't seen it yet, hurry.

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