Elixir Films, Image Wizard Television Ltd. 2004
All Rights Reserved © 2006 Thomas W. Day
Hollywood sucks. George Lucas has, apparently, suffered a stroke based on the last dregs of Star Bores. Tom Cruise and Mel Gibson have overdosed on their meds and egos and only South Park manages to accurately describe their insanity. Reality television has turned most of the tube’s output into painful parody and I can’t figure out why anyone cares who the next Superstar will be when that marginally talented geek is singing geezer rock in front of a lethargic studio band for a geriatric audience.
But home entertainment is better than ever if you know where to look.
After a few years of resisting opportunity, I finally hooked up to Netflix to watch all the BBC, Bravo, PBS, History Channel, Comedy Central, National Geographic, A&E, IFC, VH1, and HBO documentaries that I’ve missed by being too cheap to pay for television and too stubborn to pay for cable commercials. I haven’t made it half way through my list of “must see” stuff and I’ve been watching at least two videos a week since the summer of 2006. One my early picks is one of the best documentaries, ever: Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s Long Way Round. Even better, it’s a motorcycle documentary.
The theme of the several episode program is two movie actors — McGregor is more movie actor than Boorman (a bit-part actor who’s sole published credit, as far as I can determine, is The Bunker, a god-awful horror film, and a blip-part in McGregor’s The Serpent’s Kiss) — decide to take a trip around the world on motorcycles. McGregor is a road biker, Boorman is a little more of an off-road guy, but neither seem to have much experience away from civilization. So, this is a major adventure and a huge commitment.
The first of the seven-episode, two-disk Bravo series (in the US, 10 episodes, three disks in the rest-of-the-world including Canada in NTSC format from Amazon.ca) is about the concept and planning of the trip. McGregor and Boorman have a minor disagreement as to what kind of bike will be needed for the trip; Boorman votes KTM DP bikes, McGregor votes BMW GS big-bikes. KTM settles the argument by bailing from the project because they feel their bikes aren’t up to the job. They were probably right, although, from a marketing standpoint, trying and failing is preferable to gutlessly running away. BMW, on the other hand, dove headfirst into the project, providing training on smaller GS bikes and logistical assistance for the trip. When the big BMWs do break under the extreme loads and abuse this trip presents, any biker worth his helmet allows more credit than blame for the failures. My own admiration for BMW’s GS bikes has been high since Gaston Rahier’s Dakar days and has gone through the roof after watching this show.
At the core, the show is about the two main characters. Most film fans know a lot about McGregor’s screen presence, from Trainspotting to Big Fish to Blackhawk Down to Moulin Rouge and, finally, dipping to career lows in the last three Star Bores (or first three, if you care about Lucas’ demented “episode” counting system). McGregor, for me, is an actor who vanishes into his parts, so I rarely know I have been watching him until the credits roll and I discover who he played. That’s not who we see in Long Way Around. We see a good guy taking on a nearly impossible task, 20,000+ miles in four months by (mostly) motorcycle, with the skills of a motorcycle enthusiast. We don’t know squat about Boorman, except that he’s McGregor’s best friend. Boorman is clearly more than just a groupie and as the trip progresses he’s often the heart and guts of the trip. They are both tough guys, though, and the trip tests everything aspect of their personalities: patience, stamina, resourcefulness, language skills, courage, and their friendship. An important, and at least equally tough, character in the film is their cameraman, Claudio von Planta, who is with them every meter of the trip and whose job was probably the hardest of all, since he lugged equipment, survival gear, tools, and camera gear on the same kind of motorcycle the main characters rode, except for a section of Russia he traversed by Russian rat bike, after he managed to tear up his BMW on a RBFR (Really Big F… Rock).
McGregor, “Claudio, there is no problem between Charley and me, Charley tell him.”
Boorman, “There’s a terrible problem with us – we hate each other.”
Speaking of speech, the video is not rated, but if it were it would probably be somewhere between PG to R for language (typical Brit working class speech) and nudity (these guys are not shy about skinny dipping for the camera or showing off the mosquito bites on their asses). Some will be sad to learn that the editors blurred out the wankers’ wankers, at least on the US DVD release. Try to find the PAL edition, if you are really curious.
The route runs McGregor, Boorman, von Planta, and the rest of their support crew through France, Belgium, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Ukraine, Russia, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Siberia, Alaska, Canada, and northern United States. They travel manicured western European freeways, mildly decayed (like Minnesota) eastern European highways, dirt roads, roads that would be an insult to goat trails, and crash on or get stuck in all kinds of terrain. For a small portion of Russia, the roads are so impassible, they take to the rails with their motorcycles in a freight car or hitch a ride with an all-terrain monster trucker. Any time it’s possible, they are traveling by two wheels, even when any rational person would have opted to cop out.
The team flies the bikes across the Bering Strait to Anchorage, Alaska. The bikes take a rest break in an Anchorage BMW shop for some serious maintenance and, after a rest in civilization, the guys are back on the highway in time for McGregor to get rear-ended by a teenage Canadian driver (to loosely abuse that skill set). After surviving many of the worst roads on earth, from eastern Europe to the eastern tip of Siberia, the world’s worst road hazard, a bubble-head driver nearly ends the trip in disaster. Thanks to the stability of the big BMW, the protection provided by their heavy duty panniers, and McGregor’s riding skill, the only damage suffered is to the kid’s car and the luggage. Only in North America are there large quantities of drivers bereft of the intelligence, skill, or common sense necessary for driving. Where are the LA cops and their batons when you really need them?
There is a book version of the trip, Long Way Round: Chasing Shadows Across the World, although I’m hard pressed to imagine what could be written that wasn’t demonstrated in the video. I think this is a must-see show for motorcyclists. For the third time this year (and the eleventh in my lifetime) I’ve been tempted into owning a video so I can watch it more than once. I bought the Canadian version and I’m on at least my fourth pass through the set.