It’s as true today as it was four decades ago: On any Sunday, there’s some kind of motorcycle competition going on somewhere in the world. But the movie inspired by this idea did more than document the phenomenon; it changed the way the public at large thought about the sport.
Bruce Brown is the Oscar-nominated director of On Any Sunday. The 1971 documentary completely transformed the image of motorcycling, inspiring a whole new generation to get onto two wheels. That, however, was never Brown’s intention. The filmmaker, known for his equally iconic surfing movie, Endless Summer, had come to motorcycling late in life. “It was more about legitimizing motorcycling, because the reputation at the time was all Hells Angels and biker gangs,” he explains. “I’d met the people and admired them, and thought it would be great to make a movie about them. I’d made surfing films, but I’d never made a film about anything else, so I thought it would be fun to try something different. And with my new interest in motorcycles, I thought maybe that would be a good thing.”
Bruce Brown’s masterpiece took motocross from an obscure European sport dominated by names
It turned out he was right. The road to filmmaking history wasn’t quite that simple, though. First, Brown had to secure the talents of the film’s stars, amongst them racing legends Malcolm Smith, JN Roberts and Mert Lawwill. “Malcolm was kind of reluctant, and Mert had no idea who I was, but he was ultra-cooperative,” Brown recalls. “Malcolm had a motorcycle shop and didn’t want to take too much time off. We had to guarantee to pay him as much money as he would have made if he’d stayed at work, but that didn’t amount to a whole lot.”
With the professional racers secured, Brown had a plan to get his movie made: Get the original King of Cool, Steve McQueen, behind it. The number-one box-office star at the time, McQueen was big-time. But he was also known as a hard-core motorcycle rider and racecar driver, not to mention a personal inspiration for Brown. “I watched The Great Escape where he jumped the fence—actually, it was Bud Ekins who did it—and went out and bought a little Honda 50cc step-through.”
Prior to On Any Sunday ’s 1971 release, Malcolm Smith and Husqvarna were something less t
But it wasn’t just McQueen’s persona that Brown was interested in. He also had hopes that the actor would provide some financial backing, and thus appear in the film to guarantee its success. “If I’d gone to him and said I was making a movie, and did he want to be in it, he probably would have just laughed at me,” Brown says. “I called Steve’s company, which was Solar Productions, and he knew who I was from the surf movies, so I told him I wanted to make a movie about motorcycle competition. He thought that was great and asked what I wanted him to do. I told him I wanted him to pay for it! He laughed and said, ‘Hey, man, I don’t bankroll movies!’ So I said, ‘Well, you can’t be in my movie then!’ He laughed again and said he’d call me tomorrow.”
McQueen did call, and the future of On Any Sunday was secured. According to Brown, the actor put his money and his trust in their hands. “He really stayed out of it and let us do our thing. He was making Le Mans at the time, and he’d write me letters telling me how lucky we were to be doing this independently, without a studio being involved.”
Brown and his crew filmed for more than a year, shooting 150-plus hours of film, and pioneering the use of on-board cameras to capture footage of the racing from the riders’ point of view. Brown recalls, “The cameras at the time were pretty big, and at first the guys didn’t want to do it. But then we started throwing money at them and they lined up! The problem was that I had to tell them not to get too far ahead of the field or we wouldn’t see anything on the film. But being racers, they would immediately try to pass everyone they could, so we had lots of shots with nothing but the track ahead of them.