Starring: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand
Genre: Drama/ Sport
After a crash with his team mate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) at 1966 Monaco Grand prix leaves Stoddard severely injured, American driver Pete Aron (Garner) is sacked from his Jordan-BRM team. However an offer from the highly financed Yamura team led by its very ambitious owner Izo Yamora (Seven Samurai’s Toshirȏ Mifune) means Aron can once again compete for the Formula One world title that he so craves to win, he also starts to have an affair with ex-wife of Stoddard, Pat (Jessica Walter). Vowing to recover and still challenge for the title, this only enhances Stoddard’s determination to get back in the car and beat Aron. Meanwhile Ferrari driver, the veteran and former world champion Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand) is becoming increasingly underwhelmed by life as Formula One driver, this feeling only enhanced by a relationship he starts with Louise (Saint). However his rookie teammate Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) absolutely loves the thrilling playboy lifestyle of a Formula One driver. These four very different characters all compete fiercely on the track, risking everything to win the 1966 Formula One world title, while their intertwining personal lives only enhance the competitive spirit.
After the death of James Garner at the age of 86 very recently and the fact I stumbled upon it on TV the other day, I feel it seems appropriate for me to review what is in my view still the best motor racing film ever made. Yes the story is painfully clichéd and has very generic ‘you stole my girl’ soap opera nonsense, the dialogue is often beyond clunky and many of the dialogue scenes that are supposed to enhance the character development are overlong and way too slow in a film that is probably a bit too long at 176 minutes. Of course, this being a sports film we also have clunky exposition dialogue that is opportunely said by a commentator at the most convenient of times within the narrative.
However what makes Grand Prix such an exhilarating film and unbelievable technical achievement is the context of when it was made, both in the case of what the film achieved visually, and what Formula One was like in the 1960s. I would genuinely love to have been in a cinema in 1966 seeing Grand Prix and experiencing that pure feeling of exhilaration at seeing this at the big screen. While some films of this era may feel dated, Grand Prix does not as the thrilling footage we see is very much real, and that never looks dated.
This was a time when racing in Formula One was incredibly dangerous, it had more of an air of romance about it then as most contenders were amateurs competing for the sheer love of the sport (and admittedly having lots of money at their disposal), but the smallest mistake often led to instant death. Frankenheimer, very much a pioneering filmmaker, somehow depicted this in a way that broke so many boundaries and certainly took a few risks; the man himself is quoted as saying “When I look back, I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film.”
For the actual races of the 1966 Formula One season Frankenheimer and his crew would set up cameras all over the track, so a lot of the footage we see is actually real. While on the Monday and Tuesday after the race he got the actors to actually drive, these were Formula Three cars made to replicate Formula One cars, but make no mistake about it, they were still very fast and very dangerous. Cameras were placed on the actual cars to capture the actors faces as they drove, former Formula One world champion driver Phil Hill drove a camera mounted Shelby (a car that also could do 200mph) to follow them and cameras were placed on actual Formula One cars driven by the actual drivers.
This allows Grand Prix to have thrilling on board footage of the 1960s versions of Spa, Monza (including the daunting and now never used banking), Monaco, Zandvoort and Brands Hatch. Footage like this had never been seen before at the time, and it is just as spectacular now and an invaluable document of just how dangerous Formula One (or indeed any motor racing) was in the 1960s. The sweeping camera work, on board footage, use of montages (sometime various images on the screen together) and the incredible use of sound all capture the sense of speed, excitement and almost suicidal danger with incredible authenticity. From the film’s wonderful opening sequence where the sound of engines is the music, Frankenheimer sticks the audience right in the action in way that could never ever be repeated
The Formula One teams and drivers were very much involved with the film, not just with the footage being real, but with many drivers acting as consultants and even testing out their acting chops in scenes at driver’s briefings and the heavy drinking sessions that they indulged in after each race. In this day and age, insurance and health and safety laws as the well as the ultra professional sponsorship circus that is Formula One would mean that these methods of filmmaking could not be implied today, so thank God for John Frankenheimer having the sheer balls to do just what he did.
Acting wise, James Garner’s role was originally intended for Steve McQueen, but McQueen choose to do Le Mans; McQueen’s loss is our gain as James Garner oozes screen charisma as the maverick driver Pete Aron. Yves Montand gives world weary gravitas to a role that provides surprising heart, of the veteran driver Jean-Pierre Sarti who becomes increasingly disengaged with life as a Formula One driver and all that entails. Admittedly Bedford (the voice of Disney’s Robin Hood by the way!) and Sabato aren’t great in their roles, but that does not matter too much. The female characters do have a slightly misogynistic portrayal and the actresses have very little to do apart from pout or cry.
If you do not like motor racing then admittedly Grand Prix may not be for you, and there is no doubt that story wise, it is not exactly the greatest of films. However it is essential viewing for all petrol heads, and is not just a ground breaking visual spectacle that could never be either imitated or bettered, but a document that does true justice to the danger and romance of Formula One in the 1960s. See it on the biggest screen possible, turn up the volume and just be astounded.