If riding with someone else driving on a three hour road trip is boring and mind numbing, Judge Ryan Keefer asks: what's it like watching a three hour movie about driving?
All the glamour and greatness of the world's most exciting drama of speed and spectacle!
Not knowing much about it, Grand Prix was apparently a forgotten gem in the filmography of John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Iceman Cometh). Filmed on location in many locations of actual Formula One races, the film had been hibernating for four decades before making its DVD release earlier this year. Is it any good, and does it look any better on HD?
Facts of the Case
>From a story by Robert Alan Aurthur (All That Jazz), Grand Prix tells the stories of several drivers on the European racing circuit. The big name for American audiences is James Garner (The Great Escape, Maverick), who plays Pete Aron and drives for a British racing team until the Monaco race, where he causes a crash that seriously injures his teammate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford, Nixon). Pete is thrown off the team and does some broadcasting for a time, covering the success of two of the more successful drivers of the team, the aging Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand, All Fired Up) and the womanizing Italian, Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato, Barbarella). Pete later receives an offer from a Japanese businessman named Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai, Red Beard) to race for him.
But to focus exclusively on the drivers would be a little bit tedious, so the women of the circuit are given scenes with which to provide their characters some much-valued exposition. Scott's wife Pat (Jessica Walter, Arrested Development) fears for her husband's life and leaves him while he's in a hospital in Monaco. Along with Pat, there's Louise (Eva Marie Saint, North By Northwest, On the Waterfront), the photojournalist who is reluctant to get romantically involved with one of the drivers, but eventually does.
I've got to get this out of the way; Grand Prix is a long movie. 176 minutes in all. And there are some parts that make it a chore to watch. But I think the reason for the length is to try and make the viewers feel as much a part of the circuit as possible, perhaps even making them feel like they are a driver just tooling along. But in defense of the running time, it provides for the proper pacing so that you enjoy what the characters do and how they do it. What it does rather effectively several times through the film is also shows how the drivers live on the edge of life. Pat leaves Scott after witnessing his crash, the last straw after putting up with his sleepless nights before a race. After witnessing someone she cares for die in the last crash of the season, Louise holds up her hands (covered in his blood) to the media, saying "is this what you want?" The drivers who survive the race each Sunday hold parties afterwards, presumably to celebrate living after such a threat to their mortality. It addresses the larger concern of those who are attracted to it. As a fan of racing, ask yourself if you're watching it for the racing, or for the crashes?
Now obviously, the outstanding camera work (which Frankenheimer seemed to borrow liberally from when it come to shooting Ronin) puts you in the car, or within breathing distance of the cockpit. It's amazing to watch some of the driving in the last race, as a camera appears to be bolted on the car, that no one either in Europe or in the American NASCAR circuits had thought about doing this until the late '90s, when cameras were more practical to put anywhere on the car so the viewer could get as complete an experience as possible.
The high definition version of the film is perfectly acceptable, but I'm not jumping up and down about it. The print is clean for the most part, thought there's some issues with it that don't translate very well to high definition, and the images don't exhibit a lot of depth. The Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack doesn't provide a lot of thunder to the racing sounds, but Maurice Jarre's score sounds pretty clear from the start of the feature, as musical "cars" pan from the front to the rear speakers. The extras come straight over from the special edition DVD that recently came out, and while they aren't terribly long, they're quite informative on the topic. "Pushing the Limit" features interviews by the surviving cast members, drivers and some modern day enthusiasts who are historians about the time. Along with those, Frankenheimer appears in some archived footage that originally aired on the Speed Channel in 1998. There's a lot of on-set/in-track footage of Frankenheimer conducting his work on set, along with a discussion about Steve McQueen almost starring in the film, before refusing to do it (he went on to do Bullitt, whose director, Peter Yates, appears in some of the extras here). The actors share their thoughts about the legendary director (who apparently was a bit of a mad genius on set), and everyone recalls how tense the shoot was. One brief clip shows Garner being restrained while he yells at a Frenchman in Monaco. All in all, I was very interested by this. "Flat Out" takes a look at Formula 1 in the 1960s before corporate sponsorships (and increased safety regulations) inhabited the sport. And the drivers recall the times, along with some of their friends who unfortunately died in crashes along the way. One thing I did notice is that there are quite a few British drivers who were apparently knighted, which I'm assuming you get when you don't die from racing in the circuit for a few years. It takes a look at the sport in that period, and it's quite nice. "The Style and Sound of Speed" recalls the collaboration between Frankenheimer, Saul Bass, and Jarre, along with the innovative camera work done for the film, and the decision to release it in the Cinerama format. A look at one of the famous tracks follows, and the original featurette for the film completes things, aside from the trailer. The on-set featurette is topical, as most of these pieces were during the time, but after watching the first few extras on this disc, it was nice to get a break from it.
Call me crazy, but they probably should have done more with the extras on this disc. I think if you were going to go "hog wild" and trick out the disc, a commentary with Garner, Walter and Frankenheimer's widow would have been perfect. Or even a combination film/racing historical appreciation commentary of sorts. But it has been 40 years since the film's theatrical release, so you take what you can get I guess.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Nice acting and really cool camerawork aside, Grand Prix is a long movie. About racing. In a racing circuit not many people in America are familiar with or have a concern about. This movie about driving has an overture, intermission, everything and can be grueling to sit through in one sitting if you're not prepared for it.
Grand Prix certainly has an audience and has often been mentioned as the best film ever made about racing. I don't know if anyone is bold enough to try to take a run at the title now with racing's popularity at its peak, but this film tries to cover every aspect of it possible. With the way technology is now, it screams for a remake, but I don't know if it can be topped. But it certainly was something that wasn't necessary to release on HD DVD just yet.
Wave the yellow flag on this one, as the HD release of Grand Prix wasn't really necessary. Bring in the next case.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix" Featurette
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