Racing movies are tricky to do well. Conceptually, it sounds like a great way to make an action movie: Motorsport is fast, exciting and dangerous – all things that are core elements of action movies – and its participants are at the very least incredibly brave and talented, and can have heroic or villainous qualities added to them: one character could be calm but aggressive behind the wheel; their opponent not above crashing out their rivals to win. But racing movies often don’t live up to expectations: sometimes the human characters are clichéd and one-dimensional, other times the racing scenes aren’t what racing fans desire and don’t suit the nuances of motorsport. There has been a recent flourishing of racing movies, with the highly successful Rush and the recent Ford vs. Ferrari (or Le Mans 66 for international audiences) proving that racing movies can still be made well, but above these two, and every other racing film ever made –in my opinion – is Grand Prix. Released in 1966 and directed by John Frankenheimer, it could be viewed as a fictionalised account of the 1966 Formula 1 World Championship – that’s how authentic this film is. From Monaco to Monza, this almost 3-hour film tells an incredible story, interweaving the off-track lives of the drivers and their lovers with on-track racing sequences which have been almost equalled but never quite.
The film starts with an Overture, typical of the largest, most ambitious Hollywood epics of the mid-century. The films holds on a single frame; an image from the Monza race, the camera horizontal as the cars are spread across the banking, the speed of the camera blurring the entirety of the massive frame. On top of that is Maurice Jarre’s brilliant theme song, and combined the audio and the visual promise the greatest spectacle in cinema history. It’s among the best certainly.
The film proper starts at Monaco, with the opening titles laid over a montage of the minutiae of preparing these race cars: tyres pressures are checked, nuts are tightened and engines revved to ensure they’re ready. Drivers, too, are shown preparing, plugging their ears with cotton wool, tightening gloves, putting on their helmets, and then giving the thumbs-up. But the movie doesn’t show us one engine, one nut, one driver: instead, editing genius Saul Bass works his magic and utilises a split-screen effect, showing the same shot several times at once by duplicating and putting them into grids which fill the frame. It’s an extremely interesting editing choice, and serves to remind us of the scale of this sport: every car, every team, every driver is involved in this sport. But don’t be distracted by the editing, because the credits themselves are worth paying attention to; one in particular drops a proverbial boot with regards to how immersive and real this film is: “Racing Drivers”. 30 names are listed, and among them are Formula 1’s biggest names of the era: Brabham, Fangio, Gurney, Hill, Hulme, McLaren, Rindt, and so on. Their presence elevates the quality of this film immeasurably, not only as their driving skill help the racing scenes but because a few of them also appear in scenes with speaking roles, blending real life and reality.
If the start of Grand Prix’s first action scene doesn’t make your eyes go wide or your jaw drop, nothing will. From the lone sound of a strong pulse, the tension builds as the field of cars rev impatiently before exploding in sound and motion. Helicopter shots show the field barrelling through Sainte Devote and up the hill towards the casino, and as we are shown the first lap what becomes shockingly clear is that this is the real deal. For all their attention to detail, careful research and computer-generated imagery, the likes of Rush and Ford vs. Ferrari could never match the level of realism that Grand Prix achieves. During filming, the movie followed the World Championship and used the tracks between actual events as well as filming actual races, so nothing is faked: the crowds are real, the lack of safety is real, even the weather is real. Monaco is shown in glorious daylight, and the cars are equally breath-taking. Although those used in the close-up shots were Formula 3 cars modified to look like Formula 1 machines, the on-screen differences are minute and we still see the four-wheeled drifts of bias-ply tyres and snap oversteer. Although the dubbed-over audio of engine noises don’t always match up, it’s a relatively minor problem, and the on-board shots from a camera mounted to a customised Ford GT40 are fantastic, especially when following other cars.
The Monaco race is also where the character-driven plot comes in, as we are introduced to the four drivers who are main characters. The one most central to the plot is American Pete Aron, capable of winning races but struggling to cope with pressure from past mistakes. He is played by James Garner, who also proved himself more than capable of driving a race car as well as acting. Englishman Scott Stoddard, played by Brian Bedford, is another successful driver struggling with pressure, however in this case he is crippled by his internalised fear of never living up to his more successful, and late, brother. Bedford was the only actor who wasn’t capable of driving in the scenes, so a double was used. The two of them drive for B.R.M; the other two main drivers for Ferrari. Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti, portrayed by Yves Montand, is a 2-time World Champion but a troubled one, weary of the death and carnage he has seen as well as his age, and openly questions what Formula 1 is about. With his name and his ponderings on the absurdity of motorsport, there is an odd, passing similarity to the French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. Our final primary driver is Nino Barlini, a young Sicilian-Italian who’s a world champion on motorbikes and excited by the prospects of racing, and winning, in faster vehicles. During the Monaco race they are given voiceovers to explain their outlooks on Formula 1, which breaks the fourth wall a bit but serve as excellent introductions to our main drivers.
At the end of the Monaco race Stoddard is badly injured, which prompts his wife Pat, played by Jessica Walters, to finally split from him, after putting up with his dangerous occupation and hang ups about his brother for too long. She quickly gets close to Pete and a love triangle forms, one of two in the film. The other is between Jean-Pierre, his distant wife Monique Delvaux-Sarti, and an American journalist played by Eva Marie Saint. Her character, Louise Frederickson, is an outsider to the sport and openly questions its dangerous nature. The human characters, sadly, are the worst aspect of the film, predictable and clichéd, with small moments serving as red flags for later scenes and plot twists. In the 3-hour film there are plenty of interactions between these characters which drag the films usually brisk pace down, however there are enough minor details to provide some interest.
The next race is at Clermont-Ferrand, and is notable for two reasons. Plot-wise, this is the first race Frederickson attends as a spectator and she almost immediately falls in love with the sport, bringing her close to Jean-Pierre and developing their romance. Supporting this character growth is the way the race is treated. Jarre composes a soft, dreamy variation of the theme music and Bass splits the action with softened montages which flow over one another. Here, a key reason for the split-screen editing becomes clear. As much as we (I presume you’re also racing fans) love watching races, we have to admit they can be a bit boring and monotonous at times. Bass’ editing condenses the monotony into brief but visually interesting sequences, a perfect solution to keeping the action intense.
The following race is preceded by a drivers meeting, attended not only by the actors but by the real-life drivers too, who are also given speaking roles. Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren and another deliver lines which are so true-to-life the movie feels like a fly-on-the-wall documentary as the driver collectively discuss calling the race off, before deciding that it is too late to cancel. The race in question is the Belgian Grand Prix, with the old Spa circuit, and it’s arguably the most dangerous scene in the movie – especially when the rain comes. Car-mounted cameras are blurred by spray and helicopters show rooster tails behind the cars as they speed along, before cutting to shots of cars which have crashed off the course. It truly was a dangerous scene to film; Sir Jackie Stewart broke his shoulder while filming. As with every racing sequence, in the aftermath we see the drivers celebrate their victories and cope with the stresses in their own ways, and their relationships with their various lovers shift and develop. The characters are clichéd; however the poor writing isn’t a result of laziness, so they’re at least a little bit interesting.
As the film progresses, the stakes are raised as the four drivers vie for the championship and their love triangles play out. At Zandevoort, Bass’ editing comes to the fore again but this time in a more intricate sequence as time is spent with each of the main drivers. All of them are shown accelerating, braking, turning, and shifting gears as they compete against one another, and watching this scene I drew important conclusion about racing movies: they can’t successfully be edited like most action scenes, like gunfights. Racing is similarly combative but needs a different approach to how action is portrayed; otherwise it becomes too messy and hard to follow. All action scenes run this risk, but the contrast between the speed of the cars and the scale of the environment (the track), and the fine human actions which control the cars, necessitates care and precision. This is where Grand Prix excels, thanks partly to the editing and choice of shots between director John Frankenheimer, cinematographer Lionel Lindon and racing advisers Phil Hill and Bob Bondurant which make you feel as though you’re really in the cars, and know what the drivers are doing.
The final race, at Monza, is the climax of the film and is done perfectly. With a few scenes between our characters pre-race reinforcing the high stakes, the screen explodes into motion for the final time. The greatest part of the Monza sequence is the use of the banking, which although inaccurate to the 1966 World Championship provides what I believe is the greatest shot in the entire film. As the camera car roars onto the banking, the camera stays perfectly level as the road gets more and more curved, seemingly vertical. Cameras mounted to the side of some the formula cars provide incredible pack-racing shots and demonstrate the roughness of the surface, as the suspension tries to absorb the bumps and the cars move around anyway. More voiceovers highlight the harsh qualities of the track and importance of slipstreaming, and trackside shots show huge crowds, all real, watching the race from every possible vantage point.
Then, a crash. A car flies off the banking and bursts into flames next to one of the bridges, where the track crosses over itself, and a key character lies dying. A mounted camera speeds past the wreck sight as a man standing on the track waves a yellow flag, a group of men sprint across the road with a stretcher, and smoke rolls across the circuit. The ugly, violent side of Formula 1 is laid bare. One small accident, a random unlucky fluke, and someone dies, the lives of those who know him are rocked. None of these things, however, stops the race, and the finish is spectacular, but the movie does not forget the toll. As a new world champion is crowned, and reconciles with a rival and friend, behind their triumphant podium celebration a pall of black smoke looms, a shadow on the race, and the sport as a whole.
Grand Prix isn’t perfect, largely due to the poor writing of its main characters, which creates a movie interesting for some periods, but dull at other times. While they’re serviceable and don’t really detract from the best scenes, these plot points certainly don’t enhance the film overall. But the race scenes are perfect, and truly spectacular. Filmed in 70mm Super Panavision using absolutely massive lenses, the racing sequences have an incredible, bigger-than-life look. The racing audio, although not always perfectly synchronised, is authentic, raw and loud. And, being made in the 1960s, the visual styling is great, especially the clothes and hair.
So, given these faults, why do I consider this to be the greatest racing movie ever? The biggest contenders for this title are Rush, Le Mans and Ford vs. Ferrari (I count Senna, as a documentary, separately). Rush’s biggest advantage against Grand Prix is its vastly superior human drama aspect; the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda is portrayed extremely well in the film, both in terms of writing and acting, as are their individual personalities. It’s a great film overall, but its action sequences simply aren’t as authentic and realistic as Grand Prix; being made decades after the fact it had no hope of doing so. The racing scenes had to be filmed very specifically in order to hide the modern world it was filmed in, and although CGI does a great job of masking that major problem, its racing scenes aren’t as holistic and broad in scope. It makes for very intense racing, but it lacks the scale of Grand Prix with its expansive helicopter shots. Ford vs. Ferrari is similar, but plays loosely with history, which could leave a bad taste in the mouths of viewers, and accusations of disrespecting the stories of the real-life people the movie is based on – as an example, Ken Miles was furious with losing Le Mans due to the decisions of officials, far from the calmly sad reaction he has in the movie.
Le Mans is much closer to Grand Prix in terms of its fly-on-the-wall feel and production. Steve McQueen brings a level of cool and Hollywood star power that isn’t found elsewhere, and the racing scenes are fantastic, but there is a major technical flaw: the pacing. After its overture Grand Prix takes about 3 minutes for the first action scene; Le Mans begins with a languid sequence of McQueen arriving at Le Mans, and then picks up slowly as the drop of the French flag draws near, but it takes almost 15 minutes to get there. This problem of slow pace rears its head throughout the film so that the movie feels like it goes for longer than its 108 minutes. This isn’t totally bad; the more relaxed atmosphere of the film, bolstered by shots of off-track attractions such as the carnival, and spectators sleeping in the morning, creates a broader, more live-in world, but that’s not the film’s focus; at least it shouldn’t be. The racing is what is important in Le Mans but those scenes are too few and short, leaving the film beset by problems with its pacing as well as clichéd human drama subplots, similar to Grand Prix. It’s a sad criticism to make, because it’s a highly revered film and personally I want to love it more than I do, but ultimately Grand Prix is the better racing film, and the best ever made.
A big thank you goes to FYRC. fan, Tristan Lewis for his contribution of this article. If you would like to contribute to FYRC. feel free to reach out to us!