Film Review: Grand Prix

The recent buzz surrounding Ron Howard’s new film “Rush” got me thinking about motorsport in movies and in particular, Formula One. Films with a sporting theme at their core are always a little iffy with audiences and often don’t mirror the success in box office receipts as the sports themselves do with fans however, there have been a few exceptions over the years. Boxing and baseball seem to be the safest bet in Hollywood for studio bosses and yet, considering F1’s global popularity it’s cinematic outings are somewhat rare.

Arguably the most famous racing movie to date is Steve McQueen’s “Le Mans” from 1971 and love it or loathe it, you have to concede that it is a bonafide racing spectacle. But it’s not F1. It’s an annual 24 hour endurance race. And if we discount Asif Kapadia’s excellent “Senna” that came out in 2010 on the basis that it’s a documentary rather than a dramatised biopic or adaptation, we have to go back to 1966 to find a film based on Formula One.

John Frankenheimer, who helmed “Grand Prix” began his directing career in television shows like “Playhouse 90” for CBS but after making the transition to movies he found critical and commercial acclaim in the early ’60s with a string of hits including “Birdman of Alcatraz”, “The Manchurian Candidate”, “Seven Days in May” and “The Train” – four cracking films that share nine Oscar nominations between them. “Grand Prix” was his most ambitious project to date and oddly enough, it would also be his first shot in colour. Which of course helped capture the splendour and spectacle that was (and still is, for some) Formula One.

The film boasts an international all-star cast headed by James Garner and Eva Marie Saint as well as virtually all the racing drivers you care to mention from the era. And what an era it was! With beautiful cars unspoiled by sponsorship logos and downforce addendum, circuits that were little more than country lanes in places with no corner markers or kerbing to aid the drivers, it was a great deal more exciting than the regulation-strangled sport of today is. But then it was also far more deadly and according to IMDB, five of the real-life drivers who participated in the film died in racing accidents in the next two years and another five in the following ten years. It’s no wonder things had to change.

The film puts us right down there on the starting grid from the get-go with a highly charged opening sequence designed by the legendary Saul Bass – the man who gave us perhaps some of the most iconic opening titles in the history of cinema (“The Man with the Golden Arm” and “North by Northwest” to name but two). We can almost smell the gasoline and the hot engines of the racing cars as the 70mm Super Panavision film captures close-up images of spark plugs being tightened by mechanics, rev counter needles flicking towards redlines, tyres, exhaust pipes, the expectant crowd waiting for the Monaco Grand Prix to start. All these images overlaid with the soundtrack of a race about to thrill us. It’s gobsmacking.

The same goes for all the racing sequences throughout the film as we behold several of the world’s greatest circuits in their earlier days, Spa and Monza (complete with the infamous banking section) being of particular interest for the way they have now changed. For F1 fans, especially those that find interest in its history, this movie is a must-see!

The plot away from the racing leans a little towards soap-opera melodrama but it injects a dose of glamour and gives the actors something else to do other than race. (Apparently James Garner was so competent behind the wheel that real F1 drivers Graham Hill and Jack Brabham told him he could have been a successful driver had he not gone into acting). The film follows the fates of four drivers through a fictionalised version of the 1966 season, their ups and downs and the women who love them and try to deal with this most dangerous of lifestyles. On the whole, the acting is faultless.

The main character of “Grand Prix” though is the racing itself and Frankenheimer, who had always been a bit experimental with camera angles, was adamant to never cheat his audience with back projections or speeded up film. With cameras mounted onto the racing cars, (sometimes even swivelling from an ahead shot of the track round to the driver!) and on a following or trailing Ford GT40 camera car driven by Phil Hill (the only American-born driver to win a F1 Drivers’ Championship) he really nails the action. Add this to real footage of the 1966 season and there’s very little else like it other than watching a current race. And if you’ve ever seen his 1998 thriller “Ronin”, you’ll remember the car chase and you’ll know how good Mr Frankenheimer is at capturing excitement via speeding cars. The film won 3 Oscars at the ’67 Academy Awards – Best Sound, Best Film Editing and Best Effects/ Sound Effects and it’s not hard to see why.

Ron Howard’s new film is rightly garnering the attention at the moment and it may even go some way to improving Formula One’s image in the United States however, it was undoubtably Frankenheimer’s “Grand Prix” that laid the cornerstone 47 years ago. If you’ve never seen it and you love racing, I urge you to do so. It’s a rush!