Judge P.S. Colbert once tried to repair a damaged car with reverse psychology.
"Five laps to go and it's beginning to drizzle."
Bad weather—typified by a large ominous cloud looming over Mont Agel—proved to be a constant bugaboo for the participants of the 29th Grand Prix of Monaco, held during the third weekend of May, 1971.
"I wanted to do a movie about a friend," said Roman Polanski (Tess), explaining his inspiration for producing Weekend of a Champion, a fly-on-the-wall look at premier Formula One racer—and three time World Drivers' Championship winner—Jackie Stewart.
Nicknamed "the Flying Scot," Stewart (whose helmet featured an emblematic tartan ring just above the visor) went on to win the 80 lap race through the streets of Monte Carlo that year, but not before huddling with his pit crew, pressing the flesh with winners of the Daily Express newspaper's "win a trip to Monaco as Jackie Stewart's guest" contest, taking breakfast—dressed in only his tighty-whities—with Polanski, testing his newly rebuilt car during qualifying laps, and lots upon lots of trepidation about possible rain hazards.
I'm not proud to admit that I'd hoped—considering this was a portrait of a handsome young daredevil in his prime, with no less than Roman Polanski in tow—for a front row seat to witness some Bacchanalian ribaldry of the sort hinted at in Ron Howard's recent Rush.
No such luck. First, Stewart had brought along Helen, his wife of nearly a decade, for support. Second, in addition to being a consummate gentleman (he and Helen are still married; now over fifty years), Sir Jackie was nothing if not totally dedicated to the task at hand. In fact, it becomes clear several times during the course of events that a film crew following his every move was probably the last thing he needed.
I'll also admit that, charming and intelligent as Stewart proves to be, and brilliant as Bill Brayne's cinematography is, Weekend of a Champion started feeling longish and padded for time well before the actual race began at about the hour mark. Discussions about rain vs. dry road tires. Gear shifting strategies. Shots of racetrack crew members securing the barriers and painting in the white lines. For Formula One fetishists, this may be the stuff of wet dreams, but for me? Oy vey!
And then, the big race, which is just another race on film. But unlike cinematic fictions, a la Grand Prix, Le Mans, or half a dozen Elvis movies, the documentary can employ neither driver close-ups or point-of-view shots. Therefore the editor is left with no choice but to inter-cut from medium-long shots of cars crossing the frame to reaction shots of spectators. Let's be honest: there's not much less interesting than watching people watching race cars go by, even when one of the spectators is wearing hot-pants with a "Yardley Team" patch over the right butt-cheek!
Back to those Formula One racing fanatics for a moment. You lot are going to be gob-smacked at how beautifully this feature (which premiered at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, and had a limited European run before being shelved for decades) looks and sounds on this stellar MPI DVD release. The package trumpets one "Special Feature:" a trailer for the film's re-release. More importantly, there are optional English subtitles; the better for understanding Jackie's wee Scottish burr.
One more thing: the last fifteen minutes of Weekend of a Champion feature Stewart and Polanski looking back on that weekend of 1971 from the vantage point of 2013 (while sitting in the very same hotel suite they'd breakfasted in forty two years prior). What starts awkwardly as a light-hearted discussion of Pork-chop sideburns soon devolves into a heartfelt discussion that not only managed to bring tears to Polanski's eyes, but even managed to convince cynical old me that professional auto racing could be a sport of intelligence, sophistication, and first class sportsmanship.
Three cheers for Jackie Stewart, still out in front.
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