Moviemaker Bruce Brown produced the classic motorcycling movie "On Any Sunday" in 1971. The movie was a success and helped spur the explosive growth of motorcycling during the 1970s. Brown’s movie conveyed the fun and enjoyment that motorcycling added to people’s lives. It also documented the 1970 season of AMA Grand National racing by following defending champion Mert Lawwill. Many people from all walks of life took up motorcycling after seeing "On Any Sunday." The movie was critical success as well, being nominated for an Academy Award for Documentary Feature film.
Brown was born in San Francisco on December 1, 1937. He grew up in Southern California, attending school in Long Beach before moving to Dana Point. Brown first earned acclaim for his groundbreaking surfing movie, "Endless Summer," which was released in 1966.
Brown never had formal training in filmmaking, and he says that probably worked to his advantage.
"We probably did a lot of things that were pretty unconventional. I doubt I would have taken the same approach had I gone to film school," Brown said.
In the late 1960s, motorcycling was sweeping across the country and Southern California was the Mecca of the sport. While visiting Japan, Brown and his wife rented a Honda scooter and he enjoyed the freedom of riding. When he returned home to California, he bought a used Triumph Cub.
Many of the surfers whom Brown hung out with were getting into riding as well. Several of them took up desert racing. Brown got more involved in the sport and began attending races around around Southern California.
"I remember going to Ascot Park and watching the dirt track races," Brown said. "I met a few of the racers and was struck by how approachable and how nice most of these guys were. It wasn’t at all like the image a lot of people had about motorcycle riders in those days. I just thought it would be neat to do a movie about motorcycle racing and the people involved."
Even though Brown already had a successful movie to his credit, he found that financing a film on motorcycling wasn’t going to be easy.
"I talked to a few folks and knew that Steve McQueen was a rider," Brown said. "Even though I’d never met him, I set up a meeting to talk about doing 'On Any Sunday.' We talked about the concept of the film, which he really liked. Then he asked what I wanted him to do in the film. I told him I wanted him to finance it. He laughed and told me he acted in films, he didn’t finance them. I then jokingly told him, 'Alright, then, you can’t be in the movie.'
"The next day after the meeting, I got a call and it was McQueen. He told me to go ahead and get the ball rolling with movie — he’d back it."
Filming the movie often proved to be a challenging experience for Brown.
"At times I’d have a particular shot in mind. For example, I wanted to shoot a muddy motocross race and show the riders with mud all over them. First you have to be at a motocross race when it rains, then you have to find a good location to shoot. We tried and tried to get a shot with a rider caked with mud. We finally did get the shot, but for a while it seemed like we never would."
Some of the most dramatic shots of the movie were the extreme closeup slow-motion segments of the Grand National races. From his surfing movie days, Brown was used to working with super telephoto lenses. The budget didn’t allow the expense of high-speed cameras, so Brown improvised by using 24-volt batteries in the 12-volt film cameras. The result was a makeshift high-speed camera. Brown also used a helmet camera on some of the riders, one of the first times something like that had been attempted. This was before the days of miniature cameras and the set-up was often quite bulky on the rider’s helmet.
At one point, Brown found a perfect location for a sunset beach riding shot — Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.
"I figured there would be no way to get approval to film on the Marine base," Brown recalls. "Steve McQueen said he’d see what he could find out. The next day he called and told to contact some General and the next thing you know we are shooting the beach sequences. It was pretty amazing the doors he was able to open."
Brown tried to show the unique talents needed for the different forms of racing. For instance, the motocross riders were typically free-spirited types, while desert racers were often loners. In Grand National racing, Brown showed the differing personalities, such as the business-like approach to racing displayed by Mert Lawwill versus the carefree approach that wild young rookie David Aldana became known for.
"On Any Sunday" generally received good reviews, but Brown remembers going on the talk-show circuit and many times facing an environmentalist’s representative. "It seems like many of the talk shows were looking to create some sort of controversy over the movie."
"On Any Sunday" seemed to strike a chord with youngsters. Kids would hide in movie theater bathrooms between showings so they could watch the film two or three times in one day. Thousands of kids across the country started saving money from their paper routes and summer jobs to buy a minibike after being inspired by the movie.
"I think many people changed their minds about motorcyclists after watching the movie," Brown said. "One particularly funny story was told by Mert Lawwill. Being a motorcycle racer he was sort of considered the Black Sheep of the family. The old patriarch of the family, Lawwill’s grandmother-in-law, went to see the movie and in the middle of one of the scenes featuring Lawwill she stood up and shouted, 'That’s my grandson!' Suddenly he was the big hero of the family."
Many racers credited the movie with really helping their careers. Malcolm Smith, who was also a major focus of the film, credits "On Any Sunday" with giving him the worldwide recognition that enabled him to become a leading entrepreneur in the off-road motorcycling business.
When inducted in 1999, Brown and his wife Pat lived on a ranch near Dana Point. They both enjoy participating in rally car racing, with Pat being the navigator. Bruce still enjoys riding dirt bikes and said the new electric-start models are a godsend. His son has since completed a sequel to "On Any Sunday" with interviews of many of the riders featured in the original film.