On Any Sunday | Forty Years Later, It’s Still Every Motorcyclist’s Favorite Movie

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."

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.”

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.

“The cameras probably weighed about 4 lbs., so we had to put a counterweight on the other side of the rider’s helmet. We used a big helmet, not knowing that racers were all little guys, so it was way too big for them. They had to wear about five stocking caps underneath to make it fit!”

The film covered a lot of miles from desert racing to ice racing during shooting, and was filled with challenges. In the desert, the crew never knew if they'd be able to film the action at exactly the right spot. With only a few cameras covering so many miles, they were afraid of missing the whole thing. Costing $313,000 to make, On Any Sunday ended up grossing $26 million.

The effect on the public was astonishing, and even the participants in the film felt the difference. Brown remembers one such incident: “Mert’s grandma had never seen him race. He was like the black sheep of the family, and they had no respect for him. But his grandma went to see the movie, and at the end she stood up in the middle of the theater and shouted, ‘That’s my grandson!’ That was great.”

There were more personal results for the stars, as well; lifelong friendships born on that set. While McQueen was best known as an actor, he was also known for his passion for motorsports. “He could get out there and mix it up with everybody. He was a good rider and super-competitive. If you ever beat him it would piss him off to the max.”

But it was a Mutual Admiration Society between McQueen and the racers. “Steve admired them and they admired Steve,” Brown says, “but they were all just friends. Mert got his hand severely hurt one time, and Steve drove him down from San Francisco to Los Angeles, and took him to a hand specialist he’d found out about, who did a major operation. Now, Mert’s got full use of his hand, which he wouldn’t have had if Steve hadn’t done that.”

While riding motorcycles in a helmet and goggles offered McQueen a sort of anonymity he didn't enjoy in much of his world, the exposure of the movie allowed the other racers to establish security and careers connected to the motorcycling and film industries. But for Brown, the film was a personal victory, as well as a professional one. Much as Endless Summer did with surfing, On Any Sunday brought his unique vision of racing to the public. "I'm just grateful that the movie came out good and that people liked it," Brown says. "To this day, motorcycle people come up to me and say, 'Thank you so much for making that movie.'"

Bruce Brown’s masterpiece took motocross from an obscure European sport dominated by names like Bengt Aberg, Roger DeCoster and Joel Robert into a viable spectator sport in America, almost overnight.
Prior to On Any Sunday's 1971 release, Malcolm Smith and Husqvarna were something less than household words. Afterwards, both were movie stars.
Shot on a $313,000 budget—shoestring even by 1970s standards—On Any Sunday paid off far beyond what anyone expected, grossing upwards of $26 million. Not bad for a biker flick!
Racer Cal Rayborn gets instructions from director Bruce Brown while wearing the clunky 16mm film camera, battery pack and counterweight on his head.
Triumph’s Don Castro (11y) strapped the bulky camera rig on his helmet, giving audiences a rookie Expert's eye view of the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship.
Brown (right) followed the 1970 AMA Grand National Championship, when Gene Romero (left) took the #1 plate over reigning 1969 champ Mert Lawwill.
How did Steve McQueen, Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith get to slide dirtbikes around on the beach at Camp Pendelton? Simple: McQueen made a phone call and asked if they could.
With no money in the budget for expensive high-speed cameras, Brown fitted his conventional 12-volt cameras with 24-volt batteries to get the footage he needed.
On Any Sunday never received an Oscar, but was nominated for Best Documentary Feature in 1971. Brown (left) got a plaque to prove it, bringing a smile to McQueen's face.