Where Cool Was Born

Steve McQueen’s FIM license for the 1964 ISDT

The King


In motorcycling, 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 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.

PHOTO: courtesy Bruce Brown Films
PHOTO: A.I.P. publicity

Prior to On Any Sunday the vast majority of cinematic themes involving motorcycles were of the hoodlums-on-chopper 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. That said, the significant element that emerged from these two-wheeled celluloid exploits, despite often being a tool of the antagonist (an outlaw or a brute), was one undeniable fact; motorcycles possessed an aspect of cool.

Ten years after Brando brooded and pouted his way through the misunderstood tough guy role of “Johnny,” another film came along that would have a substantial impact on countless, unsuspecting movie-goers. The film was “The Great Escape.” Although the movie had a stellar cast, sweeping production design, and an epic story, the star was unquestionably Steve McQueen and the amazing motorcycle leap he made over a ten-foot barbed-wire border crossing.  

PHOTO: United Artists publicity
PHOTO: United Artists publicity

McQueen wasn’t yet a superstar so he was able to convince the producers to let him do his own stunt riding (although it was his friend, stuntman Bud Ekins, who actually did the leap). McQueen did, however, do all the riding leading up to the famous jump. In fact, that’s McQueen, dressed up as a German soldier, also riding the pursuing bikes in some of the other scenes. That leap became the single most influential moment of its time, inspiring thousands upon thousands of people to get on a motorcycle.

McQueen’s future screen persona was established in those few moments of riding. There’s a shot in the early part of the chase where McQueen pulls behind a barn to hide. He pulls the gas cap off and shakes the bike in order to see how much fuel he has. Only a genuine motorcyclist would have thought to do that. We have McQueen to thank for a big part of the cool now associated with motorcycles. McQueen managed to salvage a waning interest in bikes and lend some patriotic respectability–not to mention a dynamic new sex appeal–to motorcycles and the people who rode them. That was actually the genesis of the evolution of his “King of Cool” moniker that gets batted around so effortlessly today.

Over the ensuing years Hollywood dabbled in an assortment of motorcycle movies and TV series (most notably “Then Came Bronson”) but often merely resorted to a motorcycle-as-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. Thrill an audience; put in a bike chase. 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 time 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 pathos around people who rode motorcycles. Despite all the worthwhile yearning for deep answers, Fonda and Hopper were undeniably cool.

PHOTO: Columbia Pictures publicity

Enter 1971. Out of left field came a theatrically released feature-length documentary all about motorcycles and the people who raced them. “On Any Sunday” defied all the logic of Hollywood, garnering enormous success and giving the looming motorcycle craze its essential kick-start. And how apropos that McQueen, the original King of Cool, the man who had leaped himself into stardom–and inspired who knows how many enthusiasts–would be in it. (Interesting fact, On Any Sunday’s creator, Bruce Brown, told me it was, in fact, the leap in The Great Escape that got him hooked on bikes and would eventually lead to making the film and meeting McQueen). Audiences were in awe, watching the man who had become a mega star in the intervening years since The Great Escape, riding a Husqvarna at local MX tracks and at the famous Elsinore Grand Prix. No double, no special effects. It was all McQueen, all genuine motorcyclist. As Brown’s voice-over says; “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 we had three of the coolest people we motorcycle enthusiasts knew; McQueen, Lawwill, and Smith, play riding on the dunes.

McQueen (L), Mert Lawwill (center), Malcolm Smith (R) filming the
famous beach sequence in “On Any Sunday” PHOTO: Bruce Brown Films

On Any Sunday drop kicked the stereotype of the motorcyclist out the window. Whether the public’s perception was already in transition or the film created it, there was a definite change in how bikes were viewed and presented on-screen thereafter. The saccharin popcorn TV show “Happy Days” had their resident bad boy, Fonzi, tooling around on a Triumph. Also, Marcus Welby’s son/doctor rode a CB350. In doing so, network TV tacitly declared that maybe motorcycles weren’t so bad. 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 Boys”). 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 substance.        

McQueen dressed as a German. Through the magic of filmmaking, McQueen was able to chase himself on-screen. PHOTO: United Artists

All told, we have yet to see a genuine dramatic motorcycle film. Yes, there was the beautiful and engaging, “Motorcycle Diaries,” the biographical “World’s Fastest Indian,” and there have been screen presences in various films and TV shows, but there has yet to be the intellectual two-wheel equivalent of “Downhill Racer,” or “Le Mans” (wow, yet another Steve McQueen film. The guy really was the King of Cool). The key to making a real motorcycle movie will be in exploring the sport, the people who ride or race, in all its 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 comes because we’ll hear about it not from a motorcyclist, but rather, a non-motorcyclist.