BRUCE BROWN

Cel­e­brat­ing the life of the man who di­rected leg­endary mo­tor­cy­cling film On Any Sun­day

Classic Bike (UK) - - Contents - WORDS: GARY PINCHIN & MIKE JACK­SON. PHO­TOG­RA­PHY COUR­TESY BRUCE BROWN FILMS AND BAUER ARCHIVE

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

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