ON ANY Sunday’s place is motorcycle history is assured. The same can’t quite be said for the imitators and its sequel.
The American-made classic inspired an Australian version Naturally Free that was released in 1975. I can remember catching it at the art-deco cinema at King Cross in Orwell Street that is now the headquarters of Kennedy Miller Mitchell Productions, the makers of the Mad Max series.
While I saw On Any Sunday countless times, I think that was the one and only occasion I saw Naturally Free.
Even though I was only 15 at the time and a proud Aussie, I can recall cringing and barely containing my giggles at the naff sight gags and slap-stick narration. Nevertheless, while it was a pale imitation of On Any Sunday, Naturally Free was a feel-good documentary film about Australian motorcycling in the 1970s, and that was good enough for me. The film was narrated by golden tonsils himself John Laws, who read seamlessly off a script written by then REVS editor, Kiwi Jeff Collerton.
Like the film, the script was derivative of Bruce Brown’s carefully crafted gem that he brilliantly narrated himself for On Any Sunday. A copy can never be as good as the original, but Jeff and Lawsie get full marks for trying, thanks to a bucket load of piss-taking put-downs, politically incorrect jabs, and poking fun at anything that crashed – or moved. Having watched the film recently on YouTube, what struck me was the gritty, grass-roots racing scene back in the ’70s, and how utterly bereft it was of style or charm.
The Nepean Six-Hour dirt-track and the motocross featuring road racer Warren Willing betray any pretence that these blokes were a bunch of well-heeled dare devils simply trying to make a name for themselves. No-one was spared, including a banged up Jack Ahearn limping to safety after crashing out early in the 1974 Castrol Six-Hour, the veteran GP legend just another rider to fall victim to the Dunlop Loop’s gnarly exit. While goofish and amateurish in places, the cinematography capturing Warren Willing rifling his TZ700 around Oran Park is simply stunning, even by today’s standards.
Likewise, the footage shot from the Dipper and Con-Rod Straight at the 1974 Bathurst races is spectacular, and remains the only vision of the famous Willing versus Gregg Hansford duel, with able cameos from Ron Toombs and Pat Hennen. I also really dug the footage from the 1974 AMA round at Ontario, with guys like Ago, Yvon DuHamel, Roberts, Hansford, Willing, Kel Carruthers and Murray Sayle featuring. Like all older films, however, some scenes seem to go on for ever, and the pacing has all the rhythm of reading the dictionary.
I guess that’s what makes On Any Sunday so special. No scene ever dragged on, and the viewer was left salivating for the next one just at the right time. Which brings us to On Any Sunday II (OASII). For years, Bruce Brown was asked if he would ever make a sequel to On Any Sunday. Who knows how much the original made. Maybe he knew that he could never top it. For whatever reason, Brown demurred.
Still, the audience was hungry for more, and Don Shoemaker and three other producers put a deal together to start shooting OASII in 1979. Unlike the original that was able to deliver a universal message about the beauty of motorcycling whilst being predominately shot and written in the USA, OASII came across as a patriotic paean to American stars Kenny Roberts, 1980 speedway world champion Bruce Penhall and MX legend Bob Hannah, with a pastiche of the lesser known disciplines of motorcycling from junior Supercross to that weird Japanese speedway conducted on Triumph twins with a single drop ’bar on banked, asphalt ovals.
If OASII lacked the original’s brilliant cinematography and ability to introduce and empathise with the main players Mert Lawwill and Malcolm Smith, OASII also lacked the witty script and the man who delivered it, Bruce Brown. Famed American commentator Larry Huffman was given the job, his final take sounding more like a race call than a narration.
As they say, sequels are never as good as the original, and OASII is further proof of that axiom. The film was released locally in March 1982, and I saw a preview at Hoyts in Sydney in late 1981, which was also attended by Warren Willing, Moyna Boulden and half of the NSW branch of the Motorcycle Riders’ Association. Like my first viewing of Naturally Free, I couldn’t avoid the inevitable subconscious comparisons with On Any Sunday.
And I came to this conclusion; Naturally Free and On Any Sunday II aren’t bad films, On Any Sunday is just so damn good. You only have to look at the revivals and well-attended anniversaries that take place in America that honour the original movie. Bruce Brown, Malcolm Smith and Mert Lawwill are lionised at these events, and many websites and blogs continue to discuss the lasting impacts of the Oscar-nominated epic.
By comparison, there is scant passion for Naturally Free or On Any Sunday II. However, there is one thing that I think Naturally Free did better than On Any Sunday. I think the artwork for the Naturally Free movie poster and the vinyl soundtrack LP cover based on the bloke doing a crossed-up wheelie on a Bultaco Sherpa is incredibly iconic. The silhouette of the motocrosser that features in the On Any Sunday artwork is good, but whenever I see that Naturally Free trials bloke, there is instant recognition of 1970s Australiana motorcycling and the fun it generated for thousands of wide-eyed enthusiasts.
Bikes were the latest craze and Naturally Free was there to capture it all its gritty glory. Hokey and hardly original, it was unmistakably Australian and remains the only feature-length celluloid tribute to that magical era of local racing.
We can thank On Any Sunday for that.