“World’s Fastest Indian”, a New Zealand produced and directed film, set around 1960, stars Anthony Hopkins as Burt Munro, an elderly motorcycle aficionado who likes to tinker around with, and race, old motor bikes. He is good-natured and eccentric, and a long time resident of Invercargill New Zealand. Burt’s eccentricity manifests in him doing things like peeing every day on a lemon tree in his garden, so it’ll grow faster, and setting fire to his very overgrown and unkempt lawn, so he won’t ever again have tend to it.
Burt has an obsession to go over to far away America, where the famed salt flats of Bonneville Utah are, to try to set a new world speed record for his type of motorbike. Thanks to mortgaging his house and donations from the residents of Invercargill, Burt, together with his motor bike, is able to make his way via a tramp steamer to Los Angeles, where he buys a cheap used car, to which he attaches the bike, and sets out on the long drive north to the Bonneville Flats of Utah. He eventually arrives there after some adventures, having something to do with his not being familiar with the ways and speech of the Americans he encounters, and they being unfamiliar with the ways and speech of an elderly New Zealander.
Because Burt’s motor bike is so old - being of 1920s vintage - he has a difficult time getting the permission of the officialdom at Bonneville to race his bike there. Compared to the other vehicles there, all modern state-of-the-art racing cars, Burt’s ancient motor bike is antediluvian, and for him to get it to above 200 mph, which would constitute a new record for Burt’s type of bike, would be extremely hazardous to his physical well-being, to put it very mildly.
I won’t reveal what happens next, in case you decide to rent “World’s Fastest Indian”, which I encourage you whole-heartedly to do.
As I watched, I recalled the David-and-Goliath story from the Old Testament, where David, eschewing the armour that was offered him, and carrying only a slingshot and stones, confronted the mighty Goliath, all 9 feet 6 inches of him, who wore armour and brandished a sword. But David exploited Goliath’s Achilles heel so to speak, in this case, Goliath’s uncovered forehead, which a stone from David’s sling struck, killing Goliath immediately.
So Burt Munro, as David, with just his old motorbike - the sling and stone - challenged the Goliath of motor racing officialdom and the condescending glances of the other racers, in order to show that his faith in himself and his old motor bike would triumph in his mission to set a world’s speed record at Bonneville Flats.
The David and Goliath story is as good an example as any of a biblical fable we can use as inspiration to overcome life’s obstacles. Our slings and stones are our ability to think, and our faith in it, as we confront a society where computers have replaced raw unaided brain power.
The world of Burt Munro was the world of the ‘fifties, and as I became vicariously immersed in that world on the screen, I thought about how it compared to the world of today, and whether the world of the ‘fifties was a better world to live in than the world of today.
Many of those I’ve encountered, who grew up in the ‘fifties, can’t seem to wait to go back there - that hallowed past which, in the words of LP Hartley, is another country where people do things differently. And people did do things differently in the ‘fifties, since they didn’t have computers, the internet, e-mail, cell-phones, video games, VCRs, DVDs, CDs, or i Pods. How, we ask ourselves, could we be happy in a world where all this technology was absent?
Well, we probably wouldn’t be happy, because we would miss them. But what if we never knew about them, as those in the ‘fifties - that other country - didn’t know about them, and probably couldn’t even imagine them. Having never had them, they didn’t miss them.
When we watch movies made in the ‘fifties, or listen to the songs of that time, they seem corny and hokey to us sophisticates of the early twenty-first century. Weren’t the denizens of that ‘fifties country bored out of their minds by all that corny and hokey stuff? Some may well have been, but most thought them the ultimate in trendiness and sophistication, because they couldn’t even have contemplated the possibilities of the post-modernist films and music and art that so beguile us today.
When we look back at the generation of Americans that came of age in the ‘fifties, we see them as lambs who would be thrust a few years on, into the meat-grinder that was Vietnam, and we perhaps feel sorry for them. But we forget that the ‘fifties young people couldn’t know this, so they were happy in their innocence.
If we are to answer the question as to whether the world of the ‘fifties was better to live in than the world of today, we might ask ourselves whether people then were happier than people today. Or if they were less anxious than those today. And when we say “people” who do we mean? White people? Brown or black people? Gay people? Women of whatever colour or persuasion? Were they happier then than they are now?
As someone who grew up in the ‘fifties, I remember the polio scares every year, and I remember the seatbeltless cars, that we today would consider death-traps. I’m so grateful that we now have the polio vaccine, thanks to Dr Jonas Salk, and that we travel in safer cars. I don’t take things like this for granted. So for these, and many other reasons, I think today, at least for me and my ilk, is the best of times, even as I don’t forget that for the untold millions in Africa and Asia who go to bed hungry each night, and are refugees on the run from tyrannical and murderous regimes, today may be the worst of times.
The recent bizarre weather makes us realize that the days of reckoning for us tunnel-visioned pollyannas, as well as everyone else, may be approaching sooner than we think, as we contemplate the greenhouse effect, the ozone holes, the melting ice-caps, the floods, the overcrowding, and the coming wars with nuclear weapons.
So we may as well just live each day to the fullest, break out the booze, have a ball, and let the future take care of itself, however horrific it turns out to be. We’re all simply waiting for the musty embrace of the Grim Reaper, that’s all.
In the meantime go see “World’s Fastest Indian”. It’ll warm the cockles of your heart.