Movie review: On Any Sunday

posted: July 8, 2023

tl;dr: A joyous time capsule of the American motorcycle racing and competition scene from the late 1960s...

Somehow I went until 2023 before seeing On Any Sunday for the first time. To be fair I was a young boy when it came out in 1971, and my parents were not eager to entice my brother and me into the motorcycle scene. Viewing it now, fifty-two years after it was released, was like opening a time capsule that envelops the viewer in the late 1960s motorcycle racing and competition scene. It was a simpler time, a happier time, and if the film is to be believed, millions of Americans were enjoying themselves in a wide variety of ways by riding motorcycles on the weekends. If you love motorcycling, you will almost certainly love On Any Sunday.

One of the most impressive aspects of On Any Sunday is the sheer variety of different motorcycle races and competitions it captures. From the high-banked curves at Daytona International Speedway to half-mile dirt tracks to motocross to long-distance off-road racing to desert racing to drag racing to a hill-climbing competition in Utah to a six-day timed trial in Spain to the salt flats at Bonneville, if there’s a type of motorcycle competition not captured On Any Sunday I’m not aware of it. Even though he presents these many different types of competitions, director Bruce Brown manages to weave in some interesting human stories by focusing on three individuals. It helps that one of the individuals is Malcolm Smith, who was successful at competing in a wide variety of different types of competitions. The other two are Mert Lawwill, an AMA champion back when that title required excellence at a variety of different types of tracks and racing, and Hollywood movie star Steve McQueen, who competed under the name Harvey Mushman so as to keep his love of motorcycle racing less obvious to the public and movie studio executives.

A simple movie poster with the title at the top and some info about the movie at the bottom, printed over a stylized image of three motorcyclists riding up a vivid yellow hill into a large orange sun, with a vivid pink sky in the background

The live action footage the movie captures is impressive by the standards of the time and even today. Today we have drone cameras, but back in Brown’s day he must have hired helicopters to get the overhead footage. The start of a 1,000 entrant desert race is especially notable. There are plenty of spills and crashes, some of them played for comic effect, and the movie does not shy away from the dangers of motorcycle competitions. Yet somehow the racers almost always bounce back and recover, and get back on their bikes well before it is medically advisable.

I won’t give away the ending of the movie except to say that if you can watch it and not want to immediately hop on a motorcycle and go have some fun with friends, you aren’t emotionally wired the way that I am. On Any Sunday is in many ways a love story to motorcycling and the many people who enjoy the sport.