Tag Archives: auto racing

The Best Motor Racing Movie Detailing the Sport’s Most Grueling Event: LE MANS

LE MANS


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(4.5/5)

Pros: A marvel of technique that places the viewer in the middle of the racing experience


Cons: Many viewers just won’t appreciate the way this film operates

Almost reminiscent of the 1970 documentary Woodstock in terms of the way it covers a real-life event, the 1971 film Le Mans is perhaps the finest auto racing film ever made. Chronicling the running of one of the world’s most well-known and dangerous racing events, the 24 hours of Le Mans – run each year on an eight-mile configuration that combines public roads with purpose-built racing corners, the film mainly follows driver Michael Delaney throughout the course of the race weekend. Honestly, the “story” here is almost non-existent and wholly irrelevant: director Lee H. Katzin focuses almost entirely on the racing action itself. The lack of a conventional story and minimum of dialogue means that Le Mans very clearly isn’t to all tastes, but in my estimation, the true flavor and essence of auto racing has never been better captured by a fictional theatrical feature.

phoca_thumb_l_24hdumans1971-0059Run since 1923,  the 24 Hours of Le Mans stands, with the Monaco Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500, as one of auto racing’s true marquis events

The film begins with a scene that finds a lone Porsche street car whizzing through the French countryside, passing through rows of trees, town squares, and stretches of farmland before stopping on a remote section of road. Steve McQueen (playing Delaney with a confident but low-key swagger) emerges from the vehicle and stares intently at a newly-installed section of metal Armco barrier running alongside of street. To those unfamiliar with the world of auto racing, this may seem an inconsequential, pointless sequence, but to anyone who knows a thing or two about racing – and specifically, Le Mans – it has devastating implications. Any time a major accident occurs, the likelihood that this Armco barrier will be destroyed is relatively high, thus a brand new section of barrier indicates a spot where a possibly horrific accident occurred previously. This turns out to be the case, since a flashback sequence shows Delaney’s involvement in a crash that killed a fellow competitor the year before.

urlSteve McQueen, who actually competed in several sports car races  and did much of his own driving in the film, stars as Delaney


Shortly afterward, we rejoin Delaney in the midst of the hustle and bustle of race weekend, with the sounds of a distant PA announcer providing the on-site crowd (and in turn, the viewer of the film) with a sort of crash course in how the famous Le Mans 24 hour race operates. An intense sequence leading up to the race start is next, punctuated by a rapidly accelerating heartbeat, a piercing moment of silence, then an absolute explosion of roaring engines and screeching tires. The race itself, filmed from a variety of camera angles situated around the track as well as on, in, behind, beside, and around the actual racing machines, makes up the main body of the film, with some downtime popping up when Delaney relinquishes control of his car to a secondary driver.

The Porsche 917K #031/026 of J. W. Automotive Engineering driven by Richard Attwood (GB) and Herbert Müller (CH) receives a full service

The Porsche 917K, one of which McQueen’s character pilots in the film

The first genuine dialogue in the film occurs around the 38-minute mark, a fact which should provide some indication of how this film is constructed. Removing the action cues, Harry Kleiner’s script would easily fit on one typed-out page and seems to delight in giving the viewer only brief glimpses of a typical Hollywood-type story. Perhaps the amazing thing then is that a viewer is able to pick up on the major dramatic elements of the piece, many of which relate to Delaney’s interaction with the widow of the driver killed in the previous year’s crash. These two exchange a very limited amount of words between one another, but the knowing glances they pass back and forth speak volumes. Aside from this rudimentary subplot, all attention is paid on getting through the endurance (and some might say torture) test that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and things do get rather exciting as the race nears its conclusion.

Racing in the rain at Le Mans; the race also runs through a full night of darkness


Truth be told, it’s quite shocking to watch a feature film in which the conventional story elements are downplayed to the degree they are here, but the nature of Le Mans makes it much more an experience to behold rather than an entertainment picture to sit through. The masterful film technique on display here only accentuates that notion – sound design, editing, and cinematography featured are absolutely stunning. It’s immediately clear from the film’s opening moments that an absolutely colossal amount of footage was shot during the production phase (much of the filming took place during the actual 1970 race, with additional footage shot to accentuate the film’s narrative). From the mechanics in the pitlane to the massive infield area at the track, to the actual on-track action itself, there’s coverage of anything and everything related to the Le Mans race, and even sifting through this massive amount of film to assemble a coherent work had to be a monumental undertaking. The cinematography by René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser is not only gorgeous to look at but incredibly innovative. Trackside vantage points provide eye-popping glimpses of the race, but the in-car perspectives are truly hairy, sometimes uncomfortably so – sequences filmed from the cockpit and in the rain prove just how far racing drivers push towards the edge of catastrophe. These amazing images are combined with fabulous sound design that accents the gut-rattling roar of the racing engines as well as the alarming silence that drivers face while away from the cars. All these elements are edited together precisely (to a wonderful, jazzy score by Michel Legrand) to create one of the screen’s most jaw-dropping and authentic portrayals of auto racing.

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One of several wild crashes in the film.

As I mentioned previously, Le Mans simply won’t appeal to everyone, but to car and/or racing enthusiasts, it’s simply a must-see. The 1970s were arguably one of the most thrilling periods in motor racing: the cars were wickedly fast, achieving speeds on the Le Mans circuit of some 230 MPH in spots – yet driver safety technology had lagged to the point where these vehicles were often described as “bombs on wheels.” The tracks themselves were often insanely hazardous as well, as evidenced in the film by the lack of a pit wall (literally, the mechanics servicing these vehicles were directly beside the racing line) and presence of a track-side runoff area that would virtually launch a car into the nearby forest. Though the fatal accident detailed in the film’s opening moments isn’t clearly seen, a pair of other nasty crashes feature prominently in the picture. One sequence, which finds a driver reliving the accident he just suffered in slow-motion while sitting in his mangled cockpit, pretty much nails what goes on in the mind of a racer following such a shunt, and I think the overall film captures the mindset of a racing driver very precisely and accurately.

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No pit wall at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1971 – fans of motor racing will be keen to note the many, many safety innovations that have been introduced since the making of this film

Over the years, audiences have gotten used to the “come from behind” story that features in sports movies of all types, but I was pleasantly surprised that Le Mans unveils a more realistic ending of the Rocky (I) variety. Combine its denouement with the documentary-like presentation of its story and Le Mans stands as the polar opposite of pictures like 1966’s thrilling but formulaic Grand Prix – to say nothing of the more recent, utterly loud and obnoxious Days of Thunder. It’s not at all surprising that audiences used to Hollywood endings and more or less predictable scripts wouldn’t quite know how to take this largely free-form and dialogue-free picture – it bombed at the box office back in 1971 – but I’m glad that over the years, the audience that could appreciate the picture has discovered Le Mans. For my money, this is the flat-out best motor racing film ever made and those interested in racing – or artistically-satisfying cinema – would probably enjoy it.



Widescreen format DVD includes the theatrical trailer as well as a take-it-or-leave-it featurette: “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans.” One wishes there were more…


3/10 : A few incredibly violent auto racing accidents, showing the bloody aftermath.


1/10 : A single instance of the word “ass.”



1/10 : Apparent sexual innuendo on one occasion and plenty of onscreen tension.


4/10 : Not at all a movie the general public would appreciate, but it would hold significant appeal to the arthouse crowd and racing enthusiasts.


“Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

A Nicely-Composed Portrait of NASCAR Royalty: I AM DALE EARNHARDT

I AM DALE EARNHARDT

(4/5)

Pros: Well-selected archival materials; provides exactly what one would want in a documentary about “the Intimidator”
Cons: Nothing major – though this clearly was produced for and by NASCAR

Roughly 75 minutes in length, the 2015 Spike TV documentary I Am Dale Earnhardt chronicles the life and career of the iconic stock car driver. Born in small town North Carolina, Earnhardt grew up watching his father tear up the local short tracks, learning a level of aggressiveness that would make him one of the most polarizing talents in the world of auto racing. While there was no doubting Earnhardt’s driving ability, his tendency to do anything to win – including spinning out any car in his way – would land him in plenty of hot water throughout his career and bestow on him the nickname of “the Intimidator.” Winning his first points championship in 1980 – just a year after capturing the Rookie of the Year title, Earnhardt went on to six more championships and 76 race wins before being killed in a last-lap accident during NASCAR’s premier event, the Daytona 500 in 2001. Nearly fifteen years after his death, Earnhardt’s legacy still looms large over the sport of stock car racing, and it’s unlikely that that situation will change anytime soon.

Dale and the #3
Dale and his famous #3 car.

Though he’s most identified as being the driver of the black number 3 car, Earnhardt started out as a journeyman driver who went racing primarily to provide for his family. The documentary certainly emphasizes the sacrifices that Earnhardt made in pursuit of his dream, and devotes a lot of time to discussing the hardships that he faced in his life. Knowing this information makes the material relating to his relationship with son Dale Jr., who started his own racing career in the late ‘90s and continues to race today, all the more heartwarming. Another major point of focus in the documentary is on Earnhardt’s talents as a entrepreneur: though perhaps an unlikely public figure, Earnhardt’s business savvy made him one of the most recognizable figures in the world of sport, largely through his own marketing of his “man in black” image.

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Say what you want about his driving style, Dale Earnhardt had swagger.

Directed by Jeff Cvitkovic and highlighted by a combination of well-chosen archival footage and photographs, I Am Dale Earnhardt is presented in roughly chronological order and covers the most famous and well-known events from the driver’s storied career. Though I’ve distanced myself from stock car racing over the past fifteen years, I always like seeing footage of how things used to be back in the “good ol’ days” of motorsport. Covering such legendary events as the infamous “pass in the grass,” the 1982 Pocono flip, Earnhardt’s triumph at the ‘98 Daytona 500 after twenty years of trying, and even some of his heated confrontations with other drivers, the documentary was very enjoyable for me personally since I remember when many of these things took place. The dramatic scenes relating to Earnhardt’s fatal accident are quite moving and illustrate just how much he was not only loved by his fans, but respected by the NASCAR community as a whole.

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Slinking out of a destroyed race car after flipping at Pocono.

As might be expected, the documentary also includes substantial commentary from fellow drivers Darrell and Michael Waltrip, Jeff Gordon, and Rusty Wallace, sports reporters Marty Smith and Jack Arute, pop culture figures like actor Michael Rooker (who played a character patterned after Earnhardt in 1990’s Days of Thunder), former MTV VJ Riki Rachtman, and filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, and even Dale Earnhardt, Jr., who today is by far the most popular driver in NASCAR. These interviews compliment the film footage nicely, and I appreciated the fact that the program went a long way toward explaining Dale Earnhardt the man, as he was away from the racetrack. Vintage interviews and conversations with the man himself provide an insight into Earnhardt’s mind, and a viewer really gets a sense of how his most rewarding moments in life took place when he was working on his farm or enjoying the outdoors with friends.

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Despite his fearsome on-track reputation, Earnhardt enjoyed close relationships with many of his competitors.

Ultimately, the fact that Earnhardt was a “country boy” very much like the majority of the NASCAR fan base at the time earned him an incredibly loyal following, and I think one of the more interesting aspects of I Am Dale Earnhardt is the contrast between Earnhardt and other drivers of his era and the ones which populate NASCAR today. Over the past fifteen years, a sport that once was regarded as primarily a “redneck sport” has become much more polished and commercialized – one only has to listen to a contemporary driver interview and notice all the corporate sponsor name-dropping to see how the sport has evolved. Compared to a legitimately hard-nosed driver like Earnhardt who paid his dues and worked hard to get where he was, many of today’s drivers (even the so-called “bad boys” of the sport) seem like crybabies and whiners who have been handed the keys to the kingdom. Furthermore, in today’s high-profile, ultra-competitive motorsport, the team a driver is signed up with seems to matter more than actual driving talent, making it intriguing to ponder whether a rough-around-the-edges personality like Earnhardt would even get a shot at big-league stock car racing – or have a chance to truly shine – if he was trying to break into NASCAR circa 2015.

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NASCAR has change significantly since Dale Earnhardt’s death, and I’m not at all convinced that it’s gotten better…

During the film, sports reporter Marty Smith relates a story in the film about how people have exclaimed that they can’t relate to NASCAR drivers in the wake of Dale Earnhardt’s death, which says a lot about this driver and his relationship to his sport. The “old school” nature of stock car racing quickly became extinct once Earnhardt wasn’t around, and NASCAR has never quite been able to compensate for his loss in my opinion. Even if I might complain that the documentary seems to gloss over some parts of the story and over-dramatize others, I Am Dale Earnhardt is in the end, very worthwhile: a treat for Earnhardt fans and a fine starting point for those either new to stock car racing or unfamiliar the driver that was arguably its most iconic personality. It might not have wide-reaching appeal, but this documentary provides precisely what a viewer would want and is right on par with ESPN’s outstanding 30 for 30 series. I’d have no problem recommending it.

Safety Comes a Long Way in the World’s Premiere Motorsport: 1

1

(4/5)

Pros: Nicely captures the sights and sounds of F1; crash course history is pretty decent; lots of amazing archival footage

Cons: I really mean that this is a “crash course” examination of F1…

It’s always seemed a bit odd to me, a longtime motor racing fan, that Formula 1, F1 for short and indisputably the most popular form of auto racing in the world, has never really taken hold in the United States. It’s easy to make an argument for F1 being a European-based sport (after all, most tracks, teams, and drivers are European), but while the vast majority of American race fans are content to watch drivers circle into infinity on the tracks of NASCAR, I remember many a day in my youth waking up at the crack of dawn to watch live F1 events (since they in many cases take place on the other side of the globe, F1 events usually play in the middle of the night or in the early morning in the United States). In recent years, Formula 1 seems to have gained a bit more prominence in the minds of the American race fan however, in part due to the construction of the United States’ first purpose-built F1 facility in Austin, Texas. Several films in recent years have capitalized on this new-found interest, including the excellent 2011 documentary (about the man who became the sport’s biggest star before his death behind the wheel in 1994), the 2013 docudrama Rush (focusing on the famed rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt), and now the documentary 1 which deals largely with how the sport’s safety has improved over time.

fuk1lFrom bomb to missile…

Produced in 2013 and directed by Paul Crowder, 1 begins with a bang by presenting footage of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix in which the car of British driver Martin Brundle went airborne and flipped end over end before coming to rest in a gravel trap. In previous years, this accident almost certainly would have proven fatal, but Brundle not only escaped from the vehicle more or less under his own power, but actually returned to the pitlane and got into a backup car to continue the race. Anyone familiar with the sport of Formula 1 would know that this level of safety wasn’t always a guarantee – during a period from about 1967-78, an almost jaw-dropping number of drivers were killed while racing. As a documentary, 1 seeks not just to tell the basic story of Formula 1 from its early days as a thrilling and dangerous post-WWII diversion to the modern era in which incredible technology, glitz and glamour threaten to replace the racing as the sport’s primary point of interest, but rather to reveal how this premier form of motorsport cleaned up its safety record over the years.

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Getting air while circling the immense Nürburgring circuit.

During the course of the documentary, 1 devotes significant time to detailing the history of some of the sport’s most recognizable drivers, teams, tracks, and situations. While it’s cool to hear about such legendary personalities as Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Graham Hill, I find the information relating to the classic racing venues to be more interesting. On that note, Crowder’s film chronicles some unforgettable moments from the legendary Monaco street circuit (undoubtedly the most famous and historic track still in use by Formula 1 today), the incredibly fast Monza track in Italy, the famous (or is it infamous?) Watkins Glen circuit in New York State, and the unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring in Germany. Twenty-two kilometers in length, there are few in the world that would challenge the Nürburgring’s reputation as the world’s greatest and most challenging race circuit, yet the ever-increasing speed of Formula 1 helped ensure that the sport no longer uses the facility. It’s also pretty amazing to watch throughout the film as the typical F1 car (each of which is hand-designed by the individual teams from top to bottom, including the engine) have evolved from being clunky and frail vehicles that were little more than bombs on wheels to seeming like jet fighters that are planted to the ground.

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That is an ugly F1 car.

Easily the best thing about 1 is the presentation of astonishing archival footage and photographs (wait until you experience a lap of the from the perspective of Senna’s in-car camera). The program is assembled and edited quite well, occasionally taking a break from the chronological history to focus on more detailed discussion of various related topics. I also really appreciated the fine selection of classic and contemporary interviews that were conducted with various people who were involved with the sport. It’s always cool to hear from drivers like Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Damon Hill, and Mario Andretti as well as the those who worked behind the scenes: team owners, mechanics, and members of the F1 management. Along with the strong visuals provided in the film is a well-assembled soundtrack that contains some pretty classic tunes that serve to represent the time periods in which the story takes place very nicely.

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F1 cars head through the esses at Watkins Glen.

On the downside, 1 almost plays like a blow-by-blow history of Formula 1 fatalities and checklist of safety innovations than as a more straight-forward history of the sport, spending the majority of its duration covering the period of the early to mid 1970s. At a certain juncture of the documentary, it seems like another driver is getting killed every three to five minutes in the chronology. Obviously, the material in this film was taken straight from actual history and the sport was overflowing with tragedy in the early 1970s. Still, it seems to me that the film could have perhaps been handled a little differently so as to ensure that the sense of loss comes through more poignantly. As it stands, I could almost see a viewer being turned off of F1 due to the “consistency of death” that surrounded the sport or even becoming numb to the tragedy that’s present in the film. To me, that doesn’t much do justice to the drivers who lost their lives while piloting F1 cars, and the final five minutes of the documentary, which play as one extended advertisement for the sport, just seems a hastily-executed and empty conclusion to a film that I would have wanted to be more substantial at the end of the day.


Driver Jackie Stewart speeds past a mess of burning cars in Spain, 1970.

An additional issue I had with the film was that there was too large an amount of time spent on the 1976 season – the same story was told by filmmaker Ron Howard in his fictionalized film Rush. Obviously, I can see why this was done – the tie-in factor probably would have helped both films gain some exposure, but considering that many championship seasons are barely mentioned during the program, it seems questionable to spend this much time on a season which wasn’t ultimately that noteworthy in the bigger picture of the sport. I should also point out that although this film does include footage of fatal racing accidents, it shies away from really presenting the grim reality of how some of these drivers were killed. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on an individual viewer’s point of view, but having done a substantial amount of research into racing accidents over the years, I thought the film seemed as if it was brushing the sport’s darkest moments under the rug a bit (the for instance, was absolutely horrible in real life and played out under extremely dramatic circumstances; I don’t think the documentary does justice to just how bad it was). In truth, the producers of the film probably had to do this in order to secure the much-needed support of Formula 1 administration, but I didn’t much care for the sugar coating.

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A dejected David Purley walks away after failing to be able to pull fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning vehicle. Purley, who stopped his car and thus abandoned the race in an attempt to save Williamson’s life, was awarded the George Medal for courage due to his actions.

In the end, 1 is outstanding for what it is, even though it perhaps isn’t the objective and comprehensive program that someone looking to be introduced to Formula 1 might have wanted. This program conveniently ignores large portions of the sport’s history in its attempt to detail the innumerable innovations that have made racing significantly more safe in recent decades, but I suppose it would be an agreeable (literal) crash course in F1 for interested viewers. Most longtime fans wouldn’t be learning much from the documentary, but as I mentioned, it’s always cool to see this vintage footage and hear from the people who experienced F1 during its glory days and helped make the sport what it is today. Though it’s imperfect, I’d still highly recommend the film to anyone interested in motor racing in general or Formula 1 specifically.

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Today’s F1 is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

** Final note: at one point during 1, the film presents a brief image of a trackside sign that exclaims a “warning” to race attendees that “motor racing is dangerous.” I feel this point is often forgotten in an era where auto racing for the most part has been relatively safe in recent years. The illusion of safety was shattered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which took place in early October: French driver Jules Bianchi was critically injured when his race car slammed into a crane removing a stranded car from the race course. I’ve studied this accident and there’s no doubt in my mind that modern F1 safety tech enabled Bianchi to survive an accident which at any other point in history would unquestionably have been fatal. Unfortunately, despite what race broadcasters, drivers, and documentary filmmakers would have us believe or like to believe themselves, there is always some element of risk involved in getting in any sort of car, especially one designed to travel and indeed race at speeds that often fall in the 150-200 mile per hour range. While the traditional causes of driver fatalities (basilar skull fractures; fire; internal injuries) have been mitigated, there is always the chance of “freak accidents” which can be very difficult to predict or prevent: there never should be a point at which driver safety is not improving.

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Bianchi being extricated from his car following a tremendous impact at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.


No extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, widescreen editions from the Millennium Studio. This film has screened numerous times this year on the NBC Sports Network as a supplement to their coverage of the 2014 Formula 1 season.


2/10 : Generally non-graphic but nonetheless violent footage of sometimes fatal auto racing accidents.


1/10 : Minimal profanity; much of this is bleeped in the version of the film that’s played on television.


1/10 : A few isolated instances of blurred topless nudity; I’m unsure as to whether this footage is similarly obscured on the DVD release.


4/10 : Probably a must for auto racing enthusiasts, with a ton of fascinating archival footage and interviews.


“We want to see something exceptional, breathtaking; that we think can’t be done. We want to see gladiators, warriors, and let’s face it: we do like to see a bit of a shunt. But we don’t want to see deaths. It is incredible how this changed and suddenly it became unacceptable to die in the name of sport.”

Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH

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(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama

Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

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A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

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Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.

Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

in the film
The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

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Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.

Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

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Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.


6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.


5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

A Dumb and Incoherent but Fun Crashtravaganza: Ron Howard says EAT MY DUST!

EAT MY DUST!

(3.5/5)

Pros: More beer consumption than any film I can think of; lots of fun!

Cons: Script loads up on padding and frequently seems undeniably dumb

Playing as a sort of slapstick comedy made with vehicles instead of people, 1976’s Eat My Dust! (written and directed by Charles B. Griffith, best known as the writer of the wickedly funny B-movies The Little Shop of Horrors and A Bucket of Blood) exists in the genre of the car chase film as an undemanding entertainment film designed to simply be fun to watch. Much less serious and bizarre than Vanishing Point and less downright outrageous than Death Race 2000, Griffith’s film follows the story of somewhat dorky teenager Hoover Niebold who, in an attempt to impress the girl he has a crush on, steals a stock car in order to take a joyride with said female. Problems arise in the form of Hoover’s father, the local sheriff, who is forced to try and stop the youths before they cause too much property damage or personal injury.

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Yeah, so there’s actors in this film. We still know who the real star is…

Like most so-called carsploitation films up to and including recent pictures like the Fast and the Furious franchise, the story here is pretty basic if not non-existent. The whole film serves as one big excuse to show cars barreling along back roads and across countrysides, cracking up and crashing into things at every possible opportunity. In terms of the amount of screen time devoted to the actual car chase, Eat My Dust! has to be placed right alongside films like the original Gone in 60 Seconds and Dirty Mary, Crazy Larry for having the least amount of “downtime.” The chase is on within about fifteen minutes of the start of this film, and throughout the rest of the picture, Hoover’s stolen ‘68 Camaro only slows down for a respite of ten minutes or so when it initially runs out of gas. The remainder of the time, this film strives to operate at a foot-to-the-floorboard pace, throwing in copious amounts of goofy humor, rampant beer consumption, and fantastic, rickety bluegrass music courtesy of Dave Grisman. In short, the film is a blast to watch, even if it is positively moronic and has noticeable bumps in the road.

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Eat My Dust! sometimes plays like a ballet with cars.

Ron Howard, fresh from his starring role as Richie Cunningham on Happy Days, plays Hoover and apparently, only agreed to do the film after producer Roger Corman offered him the chance to direct his own picture (which turned out to be the following year’s somewhat similar Grand Theft Auto) provided he star in Eat My Dust! Yes, it’s one more Famous Figure of Film Land who got his start at the Roger Corman Film Academy. Here, Howard plays Hoover as a slightly friskier, more mischievous version of Richie: he’s a sort of lovable loser (his method of wooing the ladies: “Just cuz I got a stupid name doesn’t mean I’m not worth going with”) who just happens to hop at the chance to go on that big adventure many of us wish we had. As Darlene, the female along for the ride, we have knockout blonde Christopher Norris, who appeared in numerous television shows from the 1970’s onward. Despite having a boy’s name, Norris is all female sexpot, prancing around in short shorts and occasionally, only a bra. Generally, she comes across as being the bubbly, precocious teenager one would expect to see in a film like this. Since this was a theatrical feature instead of television program, Howard and Norris are allowed to have light make out sessions (some of which occur while Howard is behind the wheel of the stock car), and even engage in some shower fun time when they honker down in an abandoned farmhouse to catch their breath. Don’t worry though: even by the somewhat permissive standards of a 1970’s PG rating, Eat My Dust! is relatively safe viewing for most audiences.

As is the case in many of the hot rod films of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Eat My Dust! is pretty remarkable in its depiction of the youthful main characters as being the only smart folks within a five county radius. Without fail, all the honest-to-goodness adults who attempt to put a stop to Hoover’s joyride wind up crashed in a ditch or worse. The many police officers on the trail of the hot rod (including Hoover’s sheriff father, played by frequent character actor Warren J. Kemmerling) come across as being complete buffoons, and one could almost believe that this film (with its country music soundtrack, rambunctious sense of humor, backwoodsy feel, and lingering views of a souped-up stock car kicking up dust on country roads) may have served as a semi-inspiration for The Dukes of Hazzard. Eat My Dust! may come in a distant second to Gone in 60 Seconds in terms of the sheer number of vehicles destroyed during the film, but the crashes and destruction scenes are clear highpoints of the picture: lovingly captured by Eric Saarinen’s camera, often punctuated by gong strikes, and sometimes shot in slow motion so as to have an almost orgasmic effect. J.G. Ballard would be proud.


Whoops!

Fun as it is though, there’s no way to get around the fact that this film is obnoxious and dumb to the point of being eye-rolling bad. It’s painfully evident that Griffith’s script had maybe a half hour or 45 minutes worth of material in it, which was then padded (and padded …and padded…) out to a 90-minute run time. Sequences that should barely be bumps in the road of the ongoing film are fleshed out to an extent that they border on absurdity. A perfect example of this is a scene where the runaway stock car (and its police pursuers) completely trash a farm. This would have been fine (and maybe even funny) had it been a short set piece that was quickly forgotten but instead, it’s an overdone, extended sequence that sends the picture way off course. In my opinion, there are simply too many throwaway moments like this in the film, most of which depict corny and almost cringe-inducing visual gags. When a patient on a runaway stretcher ejected from a crashed ambulance wakes up and looks around dumbfounded or the script dwells on pointless, unfunny sitcom material dealing with the local citizens being crowded together in the local jail’s holding area, a film that should be an adrenaline-fueled roller coaster ride becomes unnecessarily draggy.

Even if it’s not the most inventive film one is likely to ever see, it’s hard to really get down on a film that not only tries oh so hard to entertain its audience, but also showcases perhaps the worst-sounding marching band in cinema history. Eat My Dust! has a multitude of likable elements, not the least of which is some pretty colorful cinematography which includes some really cool in-car camerawork. Though the acting isn’t all that hot, the cast is appealing (look for film director and Corman regular Paul Bartel, The Partridge Family’s Dave Madden, and a very young Corbin Bernsen in smaller, supporting roles) and the film boasts a rather offbeat ending for a film of this type. Try as I might, the film eventually won me over in spite of its stupidity: all in all, this is ideal drive-in fare, and it’s not at all surprising that it turned a hefty profit for producer Corman on a minimal investment. It’d be a stretch to call it one of the better of the car chase films, a title which I’d be inclined to bestow on a film (like Vanishing Point or even Two-Lane Blacktop which, if anything, is the anti car chase movie) with more substance, but Eat My Dust! is definitely worth a peek for car enthusiasts or those in the market for a mindless but genuinely enjoyable popcorn flick.


Though it’s available as a stand-alone disc, I’d recommend the Ron Howard Action Pack double feature set (part of the Roger Corman’s Cult Classics series from Vivendi Entertainment). This set also includes the feature Grand Theft Auto from 1977, and a nice selection of bonus features. Eat My Dust! is presented in a nice-looking widescreen print and includes interviews with both star Ron Howard and producer Roger Corman, a making-of featurette, and (perhaps most interesting) an interview with longtime movie poster artist . A really cool DVD.


2/10 : Many car crashes; minimal actual violence.


4/10 : Quite a few potty-mouthed characters even if this doesn’t include what I would call “harsh profanity.”


3/10 : Implied sexual encounters and innuendo, including a few make out sessions. Also, a female parades around in her skivvies some of the time. No nudity.


6/10 : Almost a must for car chase film aficionados.


“What’s so funny – it just makes me sick to see grown men laugh at something like that. You know when you laugh, it only encourages them to do more of the same. How in the hell do you expect to control your kids?”

Brother Against Brother on the Race Track : INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

INDIANAPOLIS SPEEDWAY

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See it or ! 

(1/5)

Pros: Ann Sheridan and her smartass remarks

Cons: Just about everything

Featuring a climax that takes place during the famed Indianapolis 500 mile auto race that occurs each Memorial Day weekend, 1939’s Indianapolis Speedway plays like a scene-for-scene remake of 1932’s The Crowd Roars directed by Howard Hawks. Considering that Hawks’s film, which featured James Cagney and Joan Blondell in leading roles, was none-too-great to begin with, one has to wonder just what exactly Warner Brothers was thinking in green-lighting a remake only seven years later, especially given that the pool of talent assembled for Indianapolis Speedway pales in comparison to those who worked on the original film. I’d have to suspect that one of the main reasons why Speedway got the green flag was the fact that the same racing sequences seen in the original film could be inserted as-is into the remake, thus saving quite a bit of money and effort. These were, after all, the “action sequences” of the story, and most of the remaining footage could be thrown together quickly, cheaply, and without too much effort. Ultimately, the lack of imagination is what sinks the remake: Indianapolis Speedway is a complete waste of time, a piece cranked out rapidly in order to make a few bucks at the box office.

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Ah, the good ol’ days of motorsports…

It’s pretty shocking that the script for Indianapolis Speedway is credited to Sid Herzig and Wally Kline, based on a story by Howard Hawks. To say that this film is an original work stretches the notion of authorship beyond the breaking point: essentially, it’s a shot-by-shot recreation of The Crowd Roars, featuring the same set of characters and an identical scenario. The story starts off by introducing Joe Greer, a champion race car driver, visiting his younger brother Eddie for the first time in several years. Viewing his kid brother as the “brains” of the family, Joe’s been using his race winnings to send Eddie money to pay for his college tuition. Turns out though that Eddie’s been spending the money on other things, namely the construction of his own race car, and he’s been having moderate success on the local circuit. Initially reluctant to see his brother enter the dangerous world of auto racing, Joe agrees to tutor him in the “rules of the road” after he witnesses Eddie’s determination to succeed. The brothers’s racing career hits a major hurdle however when Eddie falls for a sharp-tongued young woman named Frankie who Joe believes would provide a bad influence in the young and naïve man’s life. This leads to inevitable hostilities between the two brothers that only intensify when they’re racing together, and following a tragic accident that occurs as a result of aggressive driving, it seems that Joe’s racing career is all but over. Do you suppose that the rivalry between family members can settle down long enough for the duo to claim victory in the world’s biggest automotive race?

To be frank, director Lloyd Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway is just a clunker of a movie, even (perhaps especially) when compared to the strictly mediocre film that served as its blueprint. By any stretch, The Crowd Roars wasn’t a great flick, but to its credit, it did have a legitimate talent in Howard Hawks calling the shots from behind the camera. The entire feel of the film seemed to have been flavored by the types of crime thrillers that Cagney is best known for, and indeed one of the most interesting aspects of this talky and mostly tedious film was that one could see the actor in a role outside of his typical “tough guy” characterization. Bacon’s Indianapolis Speedway plays in a much different manner, operating during its opening third as light slapstick, emphasizing goofy humor and witty dialogue spat out very quickly by its cast of actors. This comedic tone is simply forgotten at some point in the film in favor of a more dramatic storyline, but I wasn’t willing to buy into this abrupt and rather jarring transition. The “tear-jerker” moments that exist later in the film are more ludicrous than heart-wrenching, and the blame for this situation falls on a cast that simply can’t hold their own with the given material.

Pat O’Brien as Joe Greer comes across as a jerk from the opening moments of the film. Mind you, Cagney’s Greer wasn’t much better, but at least Cagney could act. O’Brien seems incapable of presenting any genuine emotions when he’s called on to do it: it’s pretty amusing to watch scenes in which he gets that far-away look in his eyes when he attempts to reconcile his feelings of worthlessness and failure. A scene in which he starts out whining to his on-again-off-again girlfriend only to break down weeping is nearly too much to bear, perhaps one of most jaw-dropping examples of “overdoing it” I’ve seen in quite a long time. John Payne portrays Eddie as a sort of go-lucky everyman, but why is it that he (easily the more appealing of the brothers) permanently plays second banana to the womanizing, boozing, and rather despicable Joe? The most satisfying thing in the film is watching Joe hit rock bottom and mope about it – this guy doesn’t in any way, shape, or form deserve any better. That we have to later witness his character’s miraculous redemption actually ruins the film since it details precisely what I didn’t want to happen under any circumstance.

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Can’t. Keep. Eyes. Off. Ann. Sheridan.

Given that Joe is a scumbag, his would-be girlfriend Lee (played by Gale Page) is perfectly forgettable, and Eddie clearly isn’t the main focus of the story, it’s really no surprise that Ann Sheridan all but steals this movie playing Eddie’s spunky ladyfriend Frankie. Sheridan (at one point strutting around in GASP! a revealing outfit that exposes her bare midriff) has all the best lines (listen for the scene in which she – rightfully- admonishes Lee for hanging around with Joe), and gives this film the spark it oh-so-desperately needs. Problem is that the writers and director don’t seem to latch onto the fact that Sheridan is easily the best character here – right when it seems like we’re finally going to have a character who can potentially make this film watchable, Frankie is all but eliminated from the narrative, playing only a very minor role throughout the last half of the film. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost declare that those responsible for making this picture purposely sabotaged the production by focusing the narrative on characters a viewer doesn’t give a damn about while downplaying and/or eliminating the film’s best aspects.

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Yep. They’re really racing…

As mentioned earlier, all the racing scenes in this film were lifted straight out of The Crowd Roars, and while they played OK in the film they were designed for, these sequences look like the “stock footage” that they are in Indianapolis Speedway. Cut-ins featuring O’Brien and Payne sitting in cockpit mock-ups with dirt being thrown at them while rear-projection race cars speed around in the background aren’t at all convincing, and in the end, the very race scenes that should be the highpoint of this film wind up being bland, positively tiresome and lackadaisical. Even if a film like the much-maligned Days of Thunder careened off course, becoming a full-on romantic drama at some point, the thrilling race sequences ensured that a viewer didn’t completely lose faith in the production. Yes, the film was super cheesy (not to mention dumb), but it delivered what a viewer expected he would get out of it. Indianapolis Speedway, on the other hand, not only focuses too heavily on domestic issues, but lacks any tension or suspense as it builds up to a sputtering, unexciting climax. Poorly acted and lazily directed, this unoriginal and corny film stands as a horrific remake of a film that in no way shape or form ever needed to be remade. Skip it: the real deal Indy 500 has truckloads more action and drama.


It’s available on a DVD-R paired with the highway scare film The Bottle and the Throttle (which sounds like it would be more fun that the feature). I caught this on TCM, and personally, wouldn’t recommend shelling out any cash for it.


3/10 : Realistic portrayal of the dangers of racing, including a fatal accident. Minimal blood; some disturbing themes.


1/10 : Some threatening language; nothing major


2/10 : Ann Sheridan oozes sex appeal, but alas, we get nothing more than a few glimpses of bare skin


0/10 : Tame and lame


“You’ve taken that guy’s exhaust for so long you’ve got monoxide poisoning…”

A Definitive but Imperfect Spectacle Picture: GRAND PRIX

GRAND PRIX

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(3.5/5)

Pros: Sound; editing, racing sequences

Cons: Acting; story

Focusing on a sport that still may be the most expensive and most outright dangerous in the world, director John Frankenheimer’s 1966 film Grand Prix, which follows the Formula One world championship as it (literally) circles around Europe, is regarded by many as the finest auto racing movie ever made. I can see why this would be the case, since the racing sequences themselves are incredibly exhilarating and technically marvelous considering the time in which the film was made. Unfortunately, this nearly three hours long film plays too often in the manner of a soap opera, dealing mainly with the romantic exploits of a group of generally unlikable characters. Throughout much of the picture, I was unsure who exactly I was even supposed to be rooting for or viewing as the main character since the narrative jumps around quite a lot and rarely seems to settle in long enough to provide a satisfying depiction of any individual figure. Ultimately then, Grand Prix is a film of contrasts: one that will undoubtedly captivate the viewer for the half of its running time that chronicles the racing itself but will put him to sleep during the remaining duration that follows off-track activity.

During the biggest Formula One race of the year taking place in Monaco, teammates Pete Aron (played by rather surly James Garner) and Scott Stoddard (a lackadaisical performance from Brian Bedford) are having a fierce battle on-track when a mechanical failure causes Aron’s transmission to seize. Stoddard, with nowhere to go, plows into the rear of Aron’s car and is seriously injured in the ensuing crash. Furious at the mishap which he believes is Aron’s fault, the team owner fires Aron, leading him to seek a racing drive elsewhere. An opportunity arises in the form of an up-and-coming team owned by Japanese businessman Izo Yamura (the great Toshiro Mifune, whose voice is dubbed by the same guy who did the voice of Dr. Hu in King Kong EscapesWTF??!?), and Aron jumps at the chance to get back in a race car. As the rivalry between Stoddard and Aron heats up, one is also brewing at the Ferrari team between veteran French driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (French actor Yves Montand) and his cocky and young Italian teammate Nino Barlini (a lively Antonio Sabato). Meanwhile, soap opera shenanigans taking place off-track pop up when Aron tries to shack up with Stoddard’s flirty, suddenly-estranged wife (played by none other than Arrested Development’s Jessica Walter), while Sarti puts the moves on a plucky, older American woman (Eva Marie Saint) doing a story on the racing scene and Barlini charms any female in sight (including French singer/actress Françoise Hardy). As the championship battle comes down to the wire at the season’s final race in Italy, these interpersonal relationships begin to either spiral out of control or get real, and not everyone is going to walk away from this racing season unscathed…

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On the high banks at Monza

As one might expect considering that this is the work of a director coming off a number of tightly-constructed thrillers including The Manchurian Candidate, Seven Days in May, and Seconds, Grand Prix is a technical marvel even if it in ways comes across as a bit of a mess. On one hand, the film definitely does a fine job of capturing the glitz and glamor of Formula One racing and the high society folks that inevitably are drawn to the sport. The picture also is phenomenal from a cinematic standpoint, with split-screen work and rapid-fire editing (designed by legendary graphic artist Saul Bass) that does a remarkable job of relating the tense atmosphere surrounding the races themselves. This film was photographed in 70mm and it shows, playing as a sort of test run at the types of techniques that would be used in the landmark music/concert film Woodstock. The editing and split-screen work flawlessly convey the idea of concurrent events taking place and give the viewer a seemingly authentic portrait of a “live” event as it happens. Additionally, Grand Prix boasts amazingly colorful photography by Lionel Lindon which not only captures breathtaking international locations, but also makes it seem like a viewer is right in the driver’s seat much of the time. I can easily see how this film influenced television coverage of auto racing since it includes aerial shots taken from helicopter which provides a “bigger picture” view of what’s happening in the race as well as in-car views that show how intense the competition is on the ground. Obviously, this film was made well-before in-car-cameras became widely used, so all this technology had to be developed exclusively for this film. The results of all this work are stunning to look at.

Problems begin to creep into the picture anytime cars aren’t barreling around on various racing circuits though: the script by Robert Alan Aurthur gets increasingly lame and tiresome as it goes along. Any sort of relationship issue one can imagine might turn up in the film, actually does – I was waiting for one of the women to declare that she’s pregnant at any moment. It’s rather disheartening that Aurthur appears to use various cliché story devices simply to elicit a gut response in a viewer rather than develop anything any aspect of these characters, and the barrage of sappy story material left me more nauseated by than legitimately concerned about them. I also thought the ending of the film was downright ineffective: I can understand that the film didn’t want to end on an entirely sour note in its depiction of Formula One, but the cop-out final scene with Garner walking the grid at Monza lessened the impact of the hard-hitting moment that featured at the climax of the picture. Given that one of the minor themes of the film deals with the racing audience’s need for accidents, blood, and potentially death, it’s strange that Frankenheimer and Aurthur didn’t go for the jugular here when they very easily could have. The conclusion of the film, in my mind then, simply drops the ball.

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Early in-car camera…yikes!

As much as I could say that the acting performances in this film are par for the course in a film of this nature from this time period, I also could point out that the actors don’t entirely impress. Generally, it seems as though most of the attention here is on Yves Montand as the honorable, veteran French competitor who’s beginning to see that his days racing are numbered. Considering that the Montand story comes across as schmaltzy despite the actor turning in arguably the best performance in the picture, it seems a ridiculous notion to focus a large amount screentime on an even less interesting storyline involving James Garner and his relationship with the wife of his main rival. It’s also pretty astonishing that a universally appealing and likable actor as Garner comes across like a prick in the film: I just couldn’t in any way shape or form like this guy no matter how much charm Garner as an actor has. To be frank, Jessica Walter seems like a total bimbo as she flip-flops from one guy to another while “living it up” in the racing scene, and Eva Marie Saint simply gets too hysterical down the stretch after doing a nice job in her early scenes. Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out the hilariously awful scene in which Sabato and Hardy engage in a war of words late in the going – listening to these two attempt the English language will just make your jaw hit the floor.

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Formula 1 Racing in the 1960s was DANGEROUS!

While the story leaves quite a bit to be desired, it should go without saying that Grand Prix would be an absolute must for fans of Formula racing since it shows the cars, tracks, and drivers that actually were competing in the sport in the mid 1960s. Being a fan of F-1 since I was a lad, the history on display was amazing to see, and it was also fascinating to me that this film seemed to capture the exact moment when the “old time” racing drivers were starting to find themselves challenged by “hotshot” younger talent – a situation that is even more prevalent today. I also loved how the climactic race took place (and was filmed) at the classic combined Monza circuit replete with high-speed, high-banked turns – this made the whole finale all the more exciting for me. Finally, it was pretty remarkable to see how much safety regulations have changed since the mid 1960s. I was shocked to see these cars speeding around the (full and lengthy) Spa-Francorchamps course in Belgium considering that this course uses public roads, runs within feet of actual residences, and has no guardrails of any sort over much of its length. Though the film doesn’t shy away from depicting how dangerous the sport is/was, it may actually downplay the outright brutality of Formula One racing in this era: in the era from 1966-1975, fourteen drivers – including Jochen Rindt, Jo Schlesser, Jo Siffert, and Lorenzo Bandini who all appeared in the film – lost their lives due to injuries sustained in crashes.

Despite its (many) shortcomings, it’s safe to say that Grand Prix is decidedly more interesting to watch than big-budget, star-studded melodramatic trash of the Airport variety – as much as I did get frustrated with all of Grand Prix’s stale off-track debacles, it never reaches the ultra-cheesy lows of a piece like the aforementioned 1970 disaster opus. A viewer can endlessly wish Frankenheimer’s amazingly ambitious film would have been more consistent, had better story material, and gotten better mileage out of a talented ensemble cast, but I’d have no problem saying that the images and sound alone make it worth watching. The roar of automobile engines have rarely been captured this well (the film won well-deserved Oscars for Best Sound, Sound Effects, and Editing), and Maurice Jarre’s music perfectly captures the ups and downs of competitive racing, with the opening overture in particular superbly mimicking the sound of race cars whizzing by. This film seems to be exactly what modern television producers are trying to achieve in their coverage of racing events, and imperfect though it is, Grand Prix is, quite simply, spectacular viewing.


A nice home video package – a gorgeous widescreen print of the film is supplemented with a half-hour “making-of,” a featurette about Saul Bass’s editing schemes and the sound design, a short tour of the famous Brands Hatch raceway, and a vintage behind-the-scenes program. Most interesting (to me anyway) was a short featurette dealing with F-1 racing in the 1960s that included interviews with various drivers and some cool archival footage.


3/10 : A few gnarly racing accidents showing the expected blood and carnage. If anything though, this film actually tones down the brutality of classic Formula One racing.


2/10 : Some adult-oriented discussions, a few uses of the word “damn;” pretty sanitary overall.


3/10 : These drivers get lucky on and off the track, though this film is mostly all saucy talk.


4/10 : Race fans will dig the hell out of the action sequences – and be bored beyond belief in between them


“I used to think nothing could be better than motorbike racing. Three times I am a World Champion on my motorbike. I am happy. Then I go into one of these, these cars: you sit in a box, a coffin, gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb! Crazy, but of course the cars are faster, and that is the most important thing. ”