In 2004 Ewan McGreggor and Charley Boorman, along with cameraman Claudio Von Plantar travelled on BMW motorcycles from London through Russia and North America to New York, a journey of 19,000 miles. The TV series, Long Way Round, and subsequent DVD releases are well-known within motorcycle travel circles as popularising ‘adventure’ travel as well as the model of BMW that they used for the trip. In 2019 the same team took – and filmed – another journey, this time northwards from Ushuaia through South and Central America to Los Angeles, where McGreggor lives. In the fifteen years that intervened a lot can happen. As W B Yeats asked, ‘Who could have foretold/ That the heart grows old?’ For me, what is most interesting about watching this series – officially on Apple TV but now leaking out into other places – is to see the effect of passing time.
Easiest to talk about first, is the tech advances in filming since the early 2000s. The vivid quality of the images, compared to the footage from Asia fifteen years earlier, is remarkable. And the editors have super-saturated much of the film (especially the sun-drenched intro). Three colorists are among the credits. So many scenes in this series remind me of the covers of travel guides – a deep turquoise sky and a glowing ochre earth. I remember the grainy helmet cam footage from Long Way Round with its ‘fighter-pilot’ voices. But now we have, of course, 4K quality from the on-board footage and the sense that Ewan and Charlie are speaking into our ears. The other advance is the use of drones. The drone footage, particularly from Peru, is astonishingly beautiful in this series. Drones (I presume) did not exist in 2004 – or at least were not widely used. So visually, this series is stunning.
Linked to this advance is the growth of YouTube records of so many similar travels by motorcyclists with far less financial backing and professional expertise at hand. Pretty much anyone who sets off for a ride on a motorcycle nowadays fits a 4K capable camera to the side of their helmet, and it seems every other motorcycle traveller has a drone packed away somewhere on their bike. And there is so much impressive drone-filmed work on YouTube. So the producers of LWU have a higher bar in terms of getting our attention and standing out from the democratised, amateur YouTube crowd. I think they do. The overall achievement is impressive and the story is well told with good editing. The directors know about adding tension and suspense particularly at the end of an episode, although this is a little predictable. The professional capability is unmistakable. And of course, the directors also have the celebrity card to play, and presumably its this that sold it to whoever financially backed this enterprise. This will be a must-see series for fans of Ewan and Charlie, who over the last ten years have responded to almost every social media post that the two have made with the question ‘when will you do a third trip?’ Motorcycle travel fans will also probably want to watch it, though may not make it to the end of the ten part series.
The other obvious feature of the passing of time is that all the protagonists now are bespectacled and grey haired and move through the world with slightly less ease, particularly the regularly injured and unhealthy looking Boorman. But what life-events have also added to that ageing? For the celebrity Ewan McGreggor this includes a recent much publicised divorce from the wife that he was keen to bring into their earlier Long Way Down trip through Africa. Charlie had, in the last five years or so suffered two major motorcycle injuries leaving him with a great deal of internal fixation and, I hear, one leg shorter than the other. And Cameraman Claudio left at home a wife slowly dying of Motor Neurone Disease. In an interview for an American adventure motorcycle channel he told, movingly, how when he returned home after filming this trip his wife was no longer able to speak. Knowing all this, one of the surprises of the film is that the effects of these life events are definitely out of bounds, apart from a few passing references to Boorman’s injuries. Perhaps a result of editing for an upbeat mood, we never see the avowed best friends have a conversation with each other about anything other than the practicalities of the journey or the beauty of the landscape – or sentimental comments about locals or about their own friendship. The friendship between these two is often presented as the heart of these series. Assuming that these two best mates actually do have proper conversations with each other about things that matter to them, I think other directors might have not been afraid of including some of that dialogue. Charlie Boorman is very frank publicly about his dyslexia and seeing at least two near misses on his bike in this series as a result of apparent inattention to other road users coming straight towards him(!), I wondered whether there is an element of some other problem that has played a part in his series of motorcycle injuries. During the film of his participation in a Dakar Rally, another rider describes him, in a moment of candour, as ‘a bull in a china shop’. Charlie did not finish because of injury, along with many others of course. Perhaps, seriously, someone should be suggesting to him that he stops riding before its too late. In the early episodes he looks uncomfortable on his bike and tired. There are one or two lingering shots of him closing his eyes during a conversation or looking deeply exhausted. But a commentary throughout from Ewan seems to be intended to keep things chipper.
One focus of the series is on the practicalities and challenges of riding such a journey on electric powered bikes. In the cold of southern South America it is particularly difficult to charge them. I was impressed by the decision to take up the challenge of using bikes ahead of a future probably without internal combustion engines. I saw this as a genuine commitment rather than being faddish. The riding itself seemed relatively easy, certainly compared with LWR’s Mongolian and far eastern Siberian riding so the drama was mostly staged around whether the two would get to their destination before the bikes ran out of juice. Usually they did but sometimes they did not, bringing out some ingenuity. The investment of Harley-Davidson and Rivian trucks must have gained these two brands some welcome publicity though I doubt that this series will have the huge effect on brand specific sales that the previous BMW centred journeys did.
So overall, this was a visually impressive series with the crew rising to some difficult challenges with huge resourcefulness and confidence. It will please fans. But placed alongside other travel documentaries, editorial decisions make it feel superficial with some lost opportunities to move out of a kind of Boys Own comic style.