With regard to motorcycle movies there are two very distinct periods: before On Any Sunday, and after On Any Sunday. Bruce Brown’s landmark 1971 documentary remains the silk bookmark in the cinematic almanac of motorcycles, delineating the moment an entire generation of enthusiasts came of age. For those already indoctrinated to two wheels the film substantiated our passions. For millions more it was an unapologetic invitation to indulge. The low-budget independent film rode the crest of an enormous wave of interest and helped drive the motorcycle craze to its historical zenith.
Prior to On Any Sunday the vast majority of cinematic themes involving motorcycles were of the hoodlums-on-choppers variety, the most famous of these being 1953’s The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. The success of that film led to a string of low-budget exploitation movies that perpetuated the general perception that people who rode motorcycles were trouble — or troubled. However, a significant element emerged from these two-wheeled celluloid exploits: Despite often being a tool of the antagonist, the undeniable fact was motorcycles possessed an aspect of cool.
Ten years after Brando brooded and pouted his way through the misunderstood tough guy role of “Johnny,” another movie came along that would have a substantial impact on defining cool: The Great Escape. Although the film had an A-list cast, sweeping production value and an epic story, what audiences remembered was a young Steve McQueen leaping his motorcycle over a ten-foot tall barbed-wire border fence and into movie legend. McQueen’s future screen persona was indelibly inked in those few moments of screen time.
When word emerged that McQueen — who wasn’t yet a superstar and therefore able to convince the producers to let him do his own stunts — had actually done the majority of the riding, audiences were enthralled. Even though it was Steve’s friend, stuntman Bud Ekins, who actually did the leap, McQueen did all the roosting leading up to it. In fact, that’s McQueen, dressed up as a German soldier, riding the pursuing bike in some of the other shots. In the early part of the sequence, McQueen hides behind a barn, pulls the gas cap off, and shakes the bike in order to see how much fuel he has. Only a genuine motorcyclist would have known to do that. McQueen was legit.
We have McQueen to thank for a big part of the cool now associated with motorcycles — not to mention sex appeal. The Great Escape was actually the genesis of McQueen’s “King of Cool” moniker. It’s safe to say that scene inspired virtually thousands of people to get on a motorcycle.
Over the ensuing years Hollywood dabbled in an assortment of motorcycle movies and TV series (most notably Then Came Bronson) but more often than not resorted to motorcycles as merely a prop to establish a character of rebellion or individuality — as opposed to any actual story. It was typical Hollywood. Need a tough guy? Stick him on a bike. Need a troublemaker? Put him on a motorcycle. Need some cool? Motorcycle. But they were still missing the bigger picture.
The next milestone motorcycle movie was 1969’s Easy Rider, starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper. The film capped off a tumultuous decade in our country’s history by using choppers as cinematic vehicles for the two introspective protagonists to go searching for an America that seemed to have lost itself. Although I’m not sure how many people were inspired to take off on soul-searching journeys after seeing it, the film was the first to place some genuine thought in the people who rode motorcycles. Despite the deep yearning for answers, Fonda and Hopper were definitely cool.
Enter 1971. Out of left field came a theatrically released feature-length documentary about motorcycles and the people who raced them. On Any Sunday defied all the logic of Hollywood, garnering enormous success and giving the budding motorcycle craze its essential kick-start. How apropos that McQueen, the King of Cool who had helped leap motorcycles to stardom, would be in it. (Interesting fact: The creator of On Any Sunday, Bruce Brown, told me it was McQueen’s leap in The Great Escape that got him hooked on bikes in the first place).
Audiences were in awe once again, watching the man who had become a mega star in the intervening years since The Great Escape, riding motocross and desert on a Husqvarna. No double, no special effects. It was all McQueen, all genuine motorcyclist. As Brown’s voice-over quips; “A million-dollar body out there with the possibility of being used for traction in a corner.” It was a display of two-wheel talent and machismo that forever placed McQueen at the pinnacle of cool.
One aspect of On Any Sunday that many people overlook is the fact that the film gave us several new characters of cool. Mert Lawwill, defending his Grand National Title, became the first genuine motorcycle screen hero. No script, no acting, no pretending. Here was the genuine article; a dyed in the wool motorcycle racer. And right on the heels of Mert’s story, was the legendary Malcolm Smith. In the now famous beach scene that ends the film were three of the coolest people we enthusiasts knew; McQueen, Lawwill, and Smith, play-riding on the dunes. Cool.
On Any Sunday drop-kicked the stereotype of motorcycles out the window and altered the public’s perception, which was quickly reflected by examples of a new cinematic acceptability. The primetime TV show Happy Days had its resident bad boy, Fonzi, tooling around on a Triumph. Marcus Welby’s son/doctor rode a CB350. In the years since, Hollywood has dabbled from time to time with motorcycle movies. Unfortunately they have tended to be huge misfires (think Torque and Biker Boyz). Motorcycles have received some quaint–yet barely audible–lip service in films like Top Gun and The Matrix, using motorcycles to vague effect on character development or an excuse for some visceral excitement, but nothing really of genuine substance.
All told, we have yet to see a legitimate dramatic motorcycle film. Yes, there was the beautiful and engaging Motorcycle Diaries, the biographical World’s Fastest Indian, and there have been respectable screen appearances in various films and TV shows, but there has yet to be the two-wheel equivalent of Downhill Racer, or Le Mans (wow, yet another Steve McQueen film. The guy really is the King of Cool). The key to making a real motorcycle movie will be in exploring the sport and the people who ride, in all the glory and passion, not merely as a simple device to add some topical cool to an actor’s screen persona. Perhaps that’s something that just doesn’t translate to film.
Of course, maybe we’re fortunate no one has actually tried to make a real motorcycle movie, as it leaves the sport we love somewhat untainted. We can still revel in the purity of it all, untarnished, without having to make excuses for yet another of Hollywood’s colossal missteps. However, I have to believe eventually a film, or maybe even just a scene in a film, will strike that chord again and entrance an entire generation the way McQueen did with his leap in The Great Escape, the way Lawwill and Smith did in On Any Sunday. We’ll know when it happens, because we’ll hear about it not from a devoted motorcyclist, but rather, a non-motorcyclist.