Celebrating the life of the man who directed legendary motorcycling film On Any Sunday
American documentary film maker Bruce Brown passed away on December 10 at the age of 80. He was an early pioneer of surf movies, producing a series of short documentary-style films on the sport. Then in 1966 he produced Endless Summer, following surfers Mike Hynson and Robert August around the world, in what is considered to be one of the most influential movies of the genre.
Brown said in one of the last interviews he ever gave: “It [Endless Summer] caught people the right way. It was a couple of young guys taking off around the world on blind faith with a mission to find some waves. Even if they didn’t start surfing, it told people to follow their dream.”
To motorcyclists the world over, though, Brown will be remembered as the man who created On Any Sunday, launched in 1971 and still regarded as the best motorcycle documentary of all time. Like Endless Summer, even if it didn’t inspire people to race, it certainly inspired them to ride.
Brown discovered motorcycles by chance, riding scooters in Japan in 1963, and eventually bought a Triumph. “I thought, ‘this is a lot of fun,’” he once said. “I started riding dirt roads and then some of the other surfers got interested and we all started riding and racing and the more I got into it, the more I realised how nice the people were.”
OAS featured three leading characters: dirt track champion Mert Lawwill, offroader Malcolm Smith and film star Steve Mcqueen, who co-produced the film – and funded it. Brown followed each of them through a series of events in one season that offered the viewer an insight into so many different facets of motorcycle competition. Brown brought his own unique style to the sport, introducing helmet cameras and extreme close up, slow motion footage, that we’d rarely seen before but that we take for granted now. The footage, even now, looks stunning. OAS has had a major effect on my life since I saw it when it as launched in the UK. Then, I was just a kid interested in bikes but that film kick-started my lifelong love for motorcycles and racing. And it’s amazing that so many people still reflect on how much of an effect it had on their lives too – even the younger generation who are relatively new to motorcycles.
CB contributor Mike Jackson was working for Norton in the States during the time OAS was being filmed – and when it was launched. Here’s his first-hand account of Brown and his work...
In mid-summer 1970 I’d moved to Norton Villiers Corporation in Long Beach, California, coincident with Brown and his crew shooting the last stages of OAS. My first sighting of his compact team in action was at the Sacramento Mile, during whose 50-lap final Gene Romero famously secured the coveted Number One Plate for 1970, resulting, on film, in the slow-motion footage of the new champ cracking a bottle of bubbly.
‘THE FOOTAGE IN THE FILM, EVEN NOW, LOOKS STUNNING’
A few weeks later – in what was my first Mojave desert race – the OAS gang were on hand with a helicopter. As 1000 riders made ready for the dead-engine start, the ’copter flew too low, stirring so much dust it was suddenly impossible to see which way the course went! Frantic arm-waving by club officials resulted in the start postponed till the dust had settled and the over-eager pilot had gained altitude.
Again, on screen, the excitement of a desert race start is perfectly captured. Throughout autumn 1970, at every worthwhile gathering of West Coast riders, dealers, press or industry types, the talk was buzzing about the forthcoming movie, especially as it was general knowledge that Steve Mcqueen was somehow involved, although we didn’t yet know how, or the film’s title.
Here, perhaps, was a film that might undo some of the damage generated by Stanley Kramer’s infamous 1953 production The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, along with several other confrontational bike films over the years. Brown’s inherent support stemmed from the worldwide acclaim he’d achieved in 1964 with Endless Summer, whose theme of a worldwide search for the perfect wave resonated brilliantly with university campus audiences, so successfully that it went on to gross millions of dollars, and is still regarded as the definitive surfer film. From October onwards we heard that Brown was in the cutting room, endeavouring to edit 100-plus hours of stunning bike action. With Endless Summer having scored so effectively with the university crowd and Joe Public, Brown recognised that his new baby needed a fresh target audience. The ideal recipients, he figured, were the thousands of competition-minded young Americans found in virtually every state – the USA had been in the grip of an off-road boom for three or four years, thanks to a series of MX tours involving the likes of Dave Bicker, Joel Robert, and Torsten Hallman.
Brown correctly identified his best way to attract viewers was via the motorcycle press and dealers – and 90% of every brand sold in USA had their HQ in Los Angeles, 50 miles from where Brown lived.
In late February an intriguing invitation dropped through Norton’s letterbox, sent jointly from Joe Parkhurst, the founder and publisher of Cycle World, and Steve Mcqueen, requesting an evening attendance a fortnight hence at Paramount Studios for a preview of Bruce Brown’s much anticipated film, officially now entitled On Any Sunday.
I checked with industry chums and every importer/distributor was on the list. Feeling ten feet tall, I telexed my boss in London, Dennis Poore, confessing: ‘I’ll be leaving work early on March 10…’ He was quickly on the phone with instructions to sound out Mcqueen for the next year’s Norton Commando wall poster.
On the day of the preview at Paramount Studio’s gates, Mcqueen had clearly arrived, judging by the throng of pretty girls pestering the commissionaire. Driving in as dusk fell along Main Street, surrounded on each side by propped-up facades, was a surreal experience.
The preview was in the Vee Pee [Vice Prez] Building, at the end of Main Street. The place was heaving with industry and press VIPS. Pinning down Mcqueen, surrounded by noisy acolytes, appeared an impossible task, but Joe Parkhurst kindly whispered into Mcqueen’s ear that an Englishman from Norton, an old friend of Eric Cheney [the star’s favourite bike supplier] ‘wanted a word’...
The Cheney mention was a clincher, for I was quickly one-to-one and describing our poster project in detail. Mcqueen frowned and said: ‘I like the Commando, but there is a snag inasmuch as I’ve currently sold my body, as it were, to some merchandising bandits. These turkeys,’ he grumbled, ‘use my torso for shirts, my arms for gloves and watches, and below the belt for pants and shoes. Jeez, they’d even use my pecker if I let ’em!’
He said he’d explore the costs with the people concerned, and call me the next day – which he did! Unfortunately, the amount was so prohibitive it would’ve put a crucial $10 on the bike’s 1972 sticker price. Mr Poore was philosophical, and thanked me for trying.
The preview ran for 20 minutes. The loosely-edited clips were sensational and warmly received. The sight and sound of Cal Rayborn in the Harley streamliner at Bonneville had everyone spellbound.
‘I GOT A TICKET FOR THE FIRST PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’
Dominic Frontiere’s magical music hadn’t yet been added, and neither had Brown’s laconically amusing voice-over, both of which enhance the film’s enjoyment. In winding up the night’s proceedings, Brown requested the industry execs to help promote OAS through their dealers, if only by circulating the literature that he would shortly provide.
The film’s first public showing, which would run for 120 minutes, was scheduled for June, but in April Brown was faced with a dilemma after OAS’S national distributor suddenly insisted he reduce the footage to 90 minutes. A heart-breaking scenario, but Brown somehow complied with this unwelcome directive, despite one particularly painful aspect involving good friend and neighbour Barry Briggs. Within the original two hours there’d been a superb speedway section. Typically, Barry had devoted a great deal of time and advice whilst on location, but by all accounts their friendship survived. One night in 2006 I was descending the stairs of my local Odeon cinema, after watching The World’s Fastest Indian.a nearby couple were discussing the film; the lady said to her husband: ‘Anthony Hopkins was so good in that part, I’m beginning to understand why you love motorbikes so much!’
It is interesting to wonder how she’d have reacted to OAS. With considerable difficulty, I got a ticket for the first public performance, which was in clean-cut Westwood, rather than in slightly sleazy Hollywood. I sat entranced for 90 minutes as the film unfolded seamlessly – you’d never have known there’d been some lastminute cuts. OAS is acknowledged as motorcycling’s best-ever footage and was justifiably nominated for a 1972 Academy Award. What a shame it was overlooked!”
20 Bruce Brown: a fine filmmaker, sadly missed
ABOVE: Brown was an early pioneer of surf films, including Water Logged RIGHT: Endless Summer broke Brown from cult status into the mainstream
FAR RIGHT: Brown during his surf movie days
Brown planning the next shot with works BSA rider David Aldana