Monday, January 23, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Grand Prix (1966)

There is no film quite like Grand Prix (1966). It is the quintessential racing movie and while it's not the best film out there we are very lucky to have it. Grand Prix was made during a golden era of race car driving, when Formula 1 was glamorous, safety in driving wasn't all that important, race car drivers were rock stars and racing teams were owned by individuals or car companies not corporations looking for another advertising opportunity.

Grand Prix (1966) was directed by John Frankenheimer and stars James Garner as Pete Aron. The cast also includes Eva Marie Saint, Antonio Sabato, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Toshiro Mifune and Jessica Walter. Originally, the studio wanted Steve McQueen for the principal role of Pete Aron and Frankenheimer wanted an unknown. McQueen had signed up for the role, however, he did not see eye-to-eye with producer Ed Lewis and during their meeting together McQueen decided to bail out on the movie. James Garner, who expressed a lot of interest in the role, got to play Pete Aron in the end, not knowing that his rival (McQueen saw him more as a rival than vice versa) had wanted to play the part. McQueen would have been amazing in this film, considering he was the quintessential sporting bad boy of the 1960s. Alas, it wasn't meant to be. James Garner proved he could drive the race cars well and I believe he did a decent job as Pete Aron.

Grand Prix was a way to showcase the different Grand Prix races of Europe and to celebrate Formula 1. But with any movie, there has to be a plot. The story, which anchors the movie and makes it more than just a lot of glamorous shots of races, follows 4 race car drivers. There is the American Pete Aron who is in trouble with his sponsor Ferrari when he crashes into his fellow team racer British Scott Stodard (Brian Bedford), whose life seems to be already in shambles even more so now with a serious injury. Aron finds a new sponsor in Japanese business man Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) and also has sort of a fling with Stodard's estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter). That affair made absolutely no sense to me, I think they could have just cut it right out. The third driver is the French Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) who is at the end of his career and although married, falls in love with magazine journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). The last driver is fun-loving Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) who thinks he his immortal, fears nothing and has a lazy fling with a race car groupie. The love affair between Sarti/Montand and Frederickson/Saint was the only one that made sense and had some heart to it. The others seemed forced and a lazy way to add sex into a sports film. However, when you compare this film with Le Mans (1971) which has no plot and Winning (1969) which has a boring plot, Grand Prix's plot looks amazing!

All of the principle drivers, except for Brian Bedford, did their own racing. They were trained at a legendary racing school in England and James Garner proved to be the most talented in the bunch. To provide as much realism as possible, Frankenheimer shot everything on location, used real drivers and had actors do the driving. Stunt doubles and dummies were used for the dangerous crash scenes. The film follows each of the major Grand Prix races in Monte Carlo, France, Belgium, England, Netherlands and Italy. Frankenheimer basically takes us on a trip through Europe! Cameras were mounted on cars for POV and over-the-shoulder shots. There are some shots that are so realistic looking you almost feel like you are in the driver's seat. Race sequences were choreographed by the legendary designer Saul Bass who also did the title sequence and the different montages (splits of the screen with multiple images or the multiplication of a single image across the screen). The title sequence takes place in Monte Carlo and includes shots of the different race cars and drivers getting reading for the first Grand Prix race. Attention to detail is key in this film. Frankenheimer and his crew knew that in order to get cooperation from Formula 1 drivers and companies like Ferrari (their headquarters is featured in the film, it was no small feat to get access to it), they needed to respect the sport, to show it as truthfully as possible and to place close attention to details. In the first race in Monte Carlo at the beginning of the film, every single sound you hear is as accurate as possible. They even did a special recording of two drivers, who were familiar with the Monte Carlo track, in which they did all the gear changes for the race to match what it would sound like. All the races in the film are on the real Grand Prix tracks.

In James Garner's memoir, he devotes a chapter to racing and how preparing for and film Grand Prix developed his love for racing cars. Because he did all his own driving in the film, he was at risk for injury and he had an accident on set.
"Toward the end of the shoot, I did a fire stunt with butane bottles that I ignited with a switch in the cockpit on the final turn. When I crossed the finish line going about 120, I slammed on the brakes and threw another switch to put out the flames. But something went wrong and the car erupted in a giant fireball. I scrambled out of the cockpit as the crew blasted me in the face with fire extinguishers and smothered me in an asbestos blanket. I wasn't hurt, but it shook me up. The producer wasn't happy that I'd done the stunt and neither was Lloyd's of London. They canceled my policy, and for the rest of the picture I drove without insurance."

When I say there is no film quite like Grand Prix, it's because it was lucky we got Grand Prix in the first place considering all the obstacles Frankenheimer had to face in making this 3 hour racing epic! If you enjoy sports films as I do, watch Grand Prix! It's all about the ambience. The glamour, the racing, the sights and sounds. Saul Bass' design, Maurice Jarre's score and Frankenheimer's direction make the film a beauty to behold. Just don't pay attention to the plot and you'll enjoy it!


  1. sad as it is for me to say i have yet to see this film so i avoided reading your review in case of spoilers! i'm pretty sure its in my netflix queue tho so i'll have to remedy this problem soon! funny about McQueen because a few years later he made LeMans which was not all that great a movie but had some pretty amazing racing footage.

  2. Paulie - Your comment is a bit disconcerting and it made me very sad when I read it. I try very hard not to include spoilers in my reviews. In fact, my reviews are written with people who haven't seen the film in mind. My review of Grand Prix has less spoilers than the actual trailer does. I don't give anything crucial away and I don't even talk about the ending. I try to make a point of indicating a spoiler if I do talk about one but usually I don't. I think the last time I talked about a whole film, spoilers included,w as when I wrote about Old San Francisco (1927). I separated the spoiler review into it's own post.

    I also should have mentioned that this post is first of a three part series. Next up is Le Mans and following that is Winning. :-)

  3. Let me just add that it was disconcerting and made me sad because I wonder if other people are avoiding my reviews because they think it has spoilers. :-(

  4. awww i didnt mean to make you sad Quelle :( after reading your comment i went back and read your post and will no longer worry about spoilers in your reviews :) i def need to see this tho, i think Frankenheimer made some of the best films of the 60's.

  5. Whilst the storyline is a bit thin, the wealth of the film is in the historic scenes of many tracks not used today. The original Spa Francorchamps, Zandvoort, the Monza banked circuit are all featured in their glory as well as Monaco before the days when safety took over. The acting is decent, with a few love interests and driver rivalries going on, but the attention to detail on the cars, sounds, scenes are superb. Many of the scenes were shot only an hour before that actual real GP took place so the crowd was in place for the real event - F1 today would not allow this type on intrusive filming to happen. The mock races where then intercut with actual footage of those GP races, so some of what you are seeing is the actual 1966 GP races.
    A great film, near documentary, where the real value lies in the historical shots of old tracks from a more amateur, glamorous time.


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