Appellate Judge Dave Ryan likes to sit in a box and make vroom-vroom noises while pretending to be a Formula One driver. This film does a bit better than that.
"All the glamour and greatness of the world's most exciting drama of speed and spectacle!"
John Frankenheimer's 1966 Cinerama epic Grand Prix is billed as the "greatest racing film ever made." Admittedly, there aren't a lot of auto racing films out there. In fact, short of Days of Thunder and Le Mans, I'm coming up blank…unless Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and The Love Bug count. But I'd be hard-pressed to argue with that little bit of ad copy. Ignore the plot, which is merely a nail on which to hang the real story, the racing. This film, like no other before or since, truly captures the visceral thrill of auto racing. Want to know what it's like to turn a 160 MPH lap at Spa? Watch Grand Prix. Or drop $100M or so to become an F1 owner and drive the course yourself. It's really up to you.
Facts of the Case
Peter Aron (James Garner, The Rockford Files) is an American Formula One driver, driving for an English racing team. At the season opener, the Grand Prix of Monaco, he has car trouble. Peter semi-inadvertently causes a serious accident that nearly cripples his teammate, Englishman Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford, Nixon), and wrecks both of the team's cars. Obviously, he loses his job. But before too long, he's back in the cockpit, thanks to Japanese motor tycoon Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifume, Yojimbo, Rashomon). Izo desperately seeks an F1 victory for his new team, but lacks the champion-caliber drivers to earn one. He's also distracted by a nice little affair with Stoddard's estranged wife Pat (Jessica Walter, Arrested Development).
Meanwhile, veteran French driver Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand, Jean de Florette), the lead driver for Team Ferrari, is having a bit of the old ennui about his career, and the retirement he sees creeping ever closer. He distracts himself with an affair with an American reporter, Louise Fredrickson (Eva Marie Saint, North by Northwest), who is ostensibly preparing a report on the fashion of the F1 circuit.
Finally, hot young driver Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabado (Sr.), High Voltage) is just enjoying life, and enjoying being the number two Ferrari driver. He distracts himself with an affair with Lisa (French singer Francoise Hardy), an F1 groupie.
As the F1 season progresses, these drivers must face the danger of the track…and the danger of affairs of the heart. (Bleh. Did I just write that?)
If you're like me, you look at Grand Prix and immediately think "1966…auto racing…where the hell is McQueen?" Sure enough, Steve McQueen was both the studio's and the director's original choice to play Peter Aron. McQueen was (unsurprisingly) interested—until, as Frankenheimer notes in one of the featurettes, he met co-producer Ed Lewis (Spartacus) to discuss the project. For some reason Frankenheimer wasn't able to attend the meeting, and sent Lewis in his stead. We'll never know what could have happened if he had gone himself, but we do know what actually happened: McQueen instantly hated Lewis, who instantly hated him back; he didn't participate; and he, in his stubbornness, set himself on a personal quest to make his own racing film, which eventually resulted in the Le Mans debacle.
With McQueen definitively out, MGM basically forced Jim Garner on Frankenheimer. He turned out to be a good fit for the role—not for his acting ability, but for his driving ability. Frankenheimer wanted to make a highly realistic racing film. In order to do so, he made all his actors actually drive the cars—at race speeds—in the film. All the principles were sent to racing schools to learn the tricks of the trade. We learn (again, from the featurettes included on the disc) that Montand and Sabado were adequate drivers, and Bedford was atrocious. (He wound up being doubled in the race scenes.) Garner, however, showed actual talent, to the point where the professionals felt he could have had a decent career as a race driver if he had taken it up earlier in life.
If you're looking for a Jim Rockford or Brett Maverick kind of performance from Garner, you won't find it in Grand Prix. The role gives him no latitude to display his natural charm and appeal; in fact, Aron is a somewhat dour character, and it's difficult to warm up to him. The suave veteran Sardi is easier to like, but let's face it—Yves Montand as a race driver? I don't think so. He's way too debonair and distinguished. He's fun to watch, though, because he does capture the sex appeal of these drivers. It's too bad Eva Marie Saint isn't more of a foil for him, because this could have been a fun pairing. Antonio Sabado and Francoise Hardy are afterthoughts. Since it's obvious that neither speaks English as a primary language, their dialogue is kept to a minimum. The ladies should like Antonio, though. He definitely gets the sex appeal thing down. Hardy is attractive enough, I guess, but…well, she sort of looks like a female Kevin Sorbo. It's disturbing, to be honest.
There are two standouts here—actually, "standout" is a relative term in a plot-is-secondary exercise like Grand Prix—who are actually interesting to watch in action. It's the dysfunctional Stoddard couple, Brian Bedford and Jessica Walter. Bedford's Scott Stoddard is thoroughly beaten down by both the grind of his career and the strain it puts on his marriage, and is, in his own mind, constantly in the shadow of his late and more successful brother. Walter's Pat, on the other hand, is beyond complex. In some ways, Pat is a young version of Lucille Bluth, but played straight and not for laughs. She's incredibly fun to watch. And the performance is eye-opening in another way, too. Set the wayback machine 40 years, and Jessica Walter is hot! I mean…wow. How she didn't wind up with all of Jackie Bissett's roles I just don't know. Kudos to you, Jessica. Kudos.
Ultimately, though, this isn't a starring vehicle for anyone. It's about the cars, and the tracks, and the men who drive the cars on the tracks. As the film opens, you see (in a stylish credit sequence designed by Saul Bass) not the actors, but the real Formula One drivers preparing for the start of the Monaco race. Bass's jumpy, close-up-centric visual style accentuates the stress and anticipation of a race's start, while the emphasis on the real drivers shows you that this isn't going to be a typical Hollywood false-reality film. From there, the film dives right into the actual race. I mean the actual race—Frankenheimer blended footage he shot of the actual 1966 Grand Prix of Monaco with scenes shot with his actors (in real cars, with the real drivers on the course as well) to create the sequence. Frankenheimer put his cameras on the cars themselves, on a chase car (a Ford Le Mans-class racer driven by professional F1 driver Phil Hill), in a chase helicopter above the race, and anywhere else he could get a creative and unique shot. The results are truly spectacular. They're spectacular even by today's standards, when on-camera video is an accepted (and expected) staple of auto racing coverage, let alone by the standards of 1966, when most people followed racing via newspaper photos and radio broadcasts.
Does it get better? You bet. Frankenheimer films three races extensively—the Monaco race, the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa, and the season-ending Italian Grand Prix at Monza. There is also lesser coverage of the French Grand Prix in Cleremont-Ferrand, Auvergne, and the British GP at the Brands Hatch course. He uses a different visual and sound style for each of the races. Monaco, as noted above, is covered with jump cuts, close-ups, and techniques designed to emphasize the claustrophobic, dangerous, and technical nature of the Monaco street course. There is no background music over the footage; all you hear is the whine of the racing engines as the drivers go through the 400+ gear changes it takes to run a single lap of the course. The next race, at Auvergne, is shot like a Sunday drive. The track is more open and less twisty; Frankenheimer uses mostly long shots to make the driving look almost trivial. A lilting waltz-like piece by composer Maurice Jarre serves as the musical backdrop. The Spa race is affected by weather; Frankenheimer relies primarily on the in-car footage here to show how bad the visibility can be in the rain. And the climax, at Monza, is shot to emphasize the high speeds reached on that legendary Italian course. This is more than artsy-fartsy camerawork—it differentiates the races and gives the viewer the feel of actually proceeding through a season, not just a series of filmed events. In the end, Grand Prix won three Oscars, all of which related to the film's visuals and sound. They were certainly well earned.
Visuals and sound on this new DVD are quite good. This all-new transfer is anamorphic, and is quite clean for a 40-year-old film. It preserves the Cinerama presentation of the original, which is essential. Pan-and-scan would seriously harm this film (especially the Saul Bass sequences). The film's soundtrack has been remastered into Dolby 5.1 surround, which—as is the case with most of these Sixties films that have been mixed into surround—really affects the score more than anything else. There isn't a lot of rear channel action in the racing scenes, which is a bit disappointing, but the music does sound great.
The real strength of this DVD package is in the extra features. The "making of" featurette is split into four distinct parts, each of which is deep and of high quality. Unfortunately, several of the key players on the film—most notably, Frankenheimer—have passed away, but a lot of the living players are on hand to give their stories about the huge undertaking that was Grand Prix. Frankenheimer does appear to give his side of the story, though, via interviews filmed prior to his death. A lot of time is spent on discussing how the racing scenes were filmed, and how the actors were trained to drive. The featurettes also cover a bit of the history of Formula One, providing some context for the film. Seemingly incongruous, yet fascinating nonetheless, is a featurette dedicated solely to a description of how a driver would attack the Brands Hatch F1 course in England, which is briefly featured in the film. The featurette gives the viewer an idea of how complex the task is, and how skillful a driver must be to succeed in racing. All in all, it's a substantial featurette package that should leave any fan of the film (or of the sport) happy. A contemporaneous featurette, "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions" is also included. Although promotional in nature, it is substantially more warts-and-all than the typical promo featurette. (We even get to see Garner punk out a Monaco shopkeeper who was holding up production.) These featurettes go to show that sometimes quantity isn't necessary to have quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like I said, the plot isn't anything to write home about. Take away the racing, and this is a B-grade Peyton Place-light melodrama. We never truly become involved with the main characters, and the side characters are almost non-entities. Many of the plot twists are predictable. However, the plot is thin but not really awful; and it certainly doesn't detract from the racing, which is the really good part of the film.
Today, Formula One racing is, by financial measurements, the biggest sport in the world. It also has a huge international following, across all five continents. When popular Brazilian driver Ayrton Senna was killed in a crash in 1994, the country practically ground to a halt. (It is estimated that a million Brazilians lined the route of his funeral procession.) Only soccer (a.k.a. football) rivals F1 in its global scope and power. But once upon a time, the sport was mainly an old boys' club with a handful of car makers and a handful of drivers racing across Europe and North America every year. Grand Prix captures that simpler era of F1 right before it began to turn into the high-speed, high-tech, big money extravaganza it is today. (It's also much safer for the drivers today.) In the hands of John Frankenheimer, the film literally puts the viewer in the driver's seat, capturing the speed, the intensity, and the danger of auto racing. Don't be misled by the soap opera plot; this is a true, high quality racing film that's an absolute must-see for racing fans.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix
Review content copyright © 2006 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.