50 Years of On Any Sunday: Cowtrailing and Assorted Pranks

Malcolm Smith told this author that Steve McQueen crashed so often during the final few days of shooting that his seating position in this photo was no accident. “He was bruised everywhere,” Malcolm said.

Malcolm Smith spills some of the hilarious behind-the-scenes moments

Words by Mitch Boehm     
Photos courtesy of the Bruce Brown and Malcolm Smith archives

The last ten minutes of On Any Sunday are, to me, the movie’s very best scenes, and here’s why. Motorcycling, for all its wonderful physical and visceral thrills, the speed, the G forces, the wind in your face, flying through the air, and that special feeling of losing traction and then gaining it back with a little wheelie exiting a corner, is fundamentally an emotional exercise. 

There have been times in my life on a motorcycle when things were Just About Perfect. Whether exploring the trails and woods on my first motorcycle just days after I got it, or winning my first motocross race on that XR75, or riding with my Mom on the back for the first time, or winning at Daytona with my Dad watching, motorcycling has provided me with some truly epic moments, ones I will treasure until the day I die. The feelings of freedom, fun and excitement cannot be measured.

“There’s something about going riding with your friends,” Bruce voices in the movie’s final scenes, “a feeling of freedom, a feeling of joy…that really can’t be put into words. It can only be shared by someone who’s done it…”

There’s Big Truth there, and a lot of that feeling is captured in those last ten minutes. It all starts with the cowtrailing scene on Bruce’s ranch above Dana Point, obviously staged but funny nonetheless. Not so with the water-crossing bit, however, which the riders knew about, but which Steve wasn’t quite ready for on the first pass. McQueen thought they were gonna all ride through slowly, but Malcolm and Mert had other ideas, blasting him good and hoping Bruce got the shot. He did. They did more takes, but Bruce ended up using the first one. “Steve had been had, and good!” Malcolm told me.

Despite the crashes, Steve McQueen was ‘a heckuva rider’ according to Malcolm Smith. He was fast in the desert or on a motocross track, and his auto racing exploits are well-known and -documented.

The sand dune footage everyone likes so much was filmed on the Cantamar sand dunes in Baja, overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with Malcolm, Mert and Steve just basically ripping around for fun. Mert, by the way, was aboard an open-class Greeves with a Harley-Davidson sticker on the tank to keep the folks in Milwaukee happy.

“There were some crazy crashes that day,” Malcolm told me. “One was Steve’s loop-out; he hit the ground pretty hard but bounced right up, faking the heart attack! Mert fell hard, too, high-siding after landing from a jump, his hip smacking the engine case and front wheel.”

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For the final day of filming, Bruce wanted more of this goofing off/fun riding stuff, and contacted the commander at nearby Camp Pendleton, explaining what he had in mind. “No way, no how,” came the reply. Bruce mentioned this to Steve, who asked Bruce for the officer’s phone number. Steve called, introduced himself, told the commander about the motorcycle movie he was involved in, and asked again to use the beach for a few hours. The commander said, “Anything you want, Mr. McQueen! Can we send some Marines to help?”

Malcolm told me the riding that afternoon was insanely fun, especially the power-sliding on the moist sand during low tide. “That sort of sand is usually pretty smooth,” he said, “with lots of consistent traction, and I loved doing big medium-speed doughnuts in it. With the throttle on it’s a power slide, and crashing on the low side isn’t too bad. But if you chop the throttle too much you get high-sided, which can hurt. Steve did it several times that afternoon.”

This is Part 7 of a 10-part series Thunder Press is publishing throughout January to celebrate On Any Sunday.

Read Part 1 HERE

Read Part 2 HERE

Read Part 3 HERE

Read Part 4 HERE

Read Part 5 HERE

Read Part 6 HERE

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