The account of this round-the-world motorcycle trip was extremely disappointing. I gave it two stars only because there are a few funny moments and a couple of thought-provoking sequences. But, on the whole, I found the journey itself lackluster and the documentation haphazard and artless.
First (and worst) is the "reality TV" format. In this style, the entire documentary is made up of sound bitesfew scenes lasting for more than 10 seconds, and most for only a fraction of that. This is a poor format for any kind of documentary reportingbut for a road tripwhich consists largely of views and experiences long and deep (rather than short and shallow) it must be the worst way to present the ambiance of such an adventure.
The second disappointment is with the event itself. Travel accounts are generally by and about a single traveler. This adventure, however, is more of a traditional expedition. The principals (actors Charley Boorman and Ewan McGregor) are not alone on their voyage. They are attended by at least three 4-wheel support vehicles and a huge crew. The plan was for the riders to stay ahead of the crew and rely on them only for assistance at border crossings; but it hardly works out that way, and the motorcyclists rely heavily on the crew vehicles for all kinds of support.
Boorman and McGregor are also accompanied by a third rider, the principal photographer (known only as Claudio) who presumably shares all their experiences but is almost never seen or heard from. I was never sure of his nationality but he spoke a heavily-accented English. He was brought on at the last minute and had no say in the planning of the trip, nor did he have any of the training that the two principals underwent before the ride. Indeed the relationship of these three riders must have been odd: two mates who make the trip as best friends plus a stranger who stands outside their experience and documents it. The viewer can't help but wonder: was the photographer included in their intimate evening conversation? Did they care about his thoughts or observations? Was he treated like a gentleman's gentleman rather than a fellow traveler? In the end, though Claudio has ridden the very same roads and suffered the very same hardships as Boorman and McGregor, he does not join in their victory celebration. Knowing he is there, but is being kept literally out of the picture puts a strange cast over the entire proceedings and adds to the viewer's feeling that the whole expedition is more like a stunt than a true journey.
The two actors know almost nothing about motorcycle mechanics. Indeed, they have chosen for their trip overly large and highly sophisticated motor cyclesbikes they cannot maintain or repair. As it turns out, the photographer's mount is damaged and finally abandoned for a basic Russian model that seems better suited to the task. It is interesting to note that Ted Simon, a man who traveled over the entire world (not just circumnavigating the relatively short 50th parallel) learned to strip and rebuild his bike before leaving on his four year solo journey. Indeed, Simon repeated the trip again at the age of 70, and Boorman and McGregor actually meet him in one brief scene.
The preparation for the journey is undertaken, not by the two bikers, but by an enormous staff of secretaries, facilitators, and specialists. The budget for the trip itselfexclusive of filming costs--must have been in the millionsnot counting the support of sponsors such as the bike manufacturer and others. Boorman and McGregor have literally hordes of lackeys to arrange for the travel documents and other necessities, producers who get them appointments with ambassadors and trainers of various kindsthey even rent and remodel an entire building to serve as an operating and outfitting center. Shakeltonthe 19th century Antarctic explorer--probably did more of his own preparation that these two did; and countless unrecorded travelers have made much more remarkable journeys with far less outside support
Lastly--and perhaps "worstly"--is the amazing inarticulateness of Boorman and McGregor. They speak no foreign languages, have little or no knowledge of the geography, history, the flora or fauna, or the cultures of the places through which they travel. As a result, all they can do is look happy or sad--depending on the difficulty of the road. "It's fantastic" is about all they can utter as they try to describe the scenery or the people. They sound more like a couple of uneducated pot heads than a pair of observant travelers. ("All the wildlife we've seen!" McGregor enthuses in one scene, as the film cuts to a one-second image of a crow sitting on a post.)
I gave the film two stars, however, so here is what I liked. The travelers did, in fact meet many people who helped thempeople who had no idea who they were, or how big and obscenely funded their expedition really was, and I was genuinely moved by what would seem to be the basic goodness of common people everywhere.
Another engaging sequence was their travail in eastern Russia, on the so-called "Road of Bones" where the entire expedition would have been stopped in its tracks, except for the assistance of Russian truck drivers in extremely tall and rugged vehicles who help them across rivers and patches of seemingly unsurpassable terrain. What is engaging about these sequences is that the expedition members and the truck drivers labor side by side to create passable fords, or build log bridges. It is probably the only time on the trip that the two dandies and their friends ever do any real work.
A film has been made of Ted Simon's journeysa camera crew following him on one leg of his second trip, with fabricated flashbacks to the earlier journey. I have not yet seen it, but I am sure it would make an interesting comparison.