Half-a-century ago, American theatres saw the release of a cult movie that completely revolutionized the ‘racing film.’ It adopted the best technology available at the time, as well as some champion drivers to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
21st December 1966, the day the movie Grand Prix was released will be remembered for the debut of one of the most spectacular and technically successful films about the world of automobile racing – winning three Oscars (Best Editing, Best Sound and Best Sound Editing).
Indianapolis, Speedway (with Paul Newman and Robert Wagner) and The 24 Hours of Le Mans (with Steve McQueen), considered cornerstones of this genre, would be released only in 1969 and 1971 respectively – very much following in the footsteps of the path charted out by this movie.
The film, directed by a 36-year-old from New York, John Frankenheimer (1930- 2002) – his ninth movie and first coloured one – is something completely original. It’s not only about narrating an exciting story of racing drivers and F1, but doing so in a completely realistic and trustworthy manner – showing all the fascination of authentic speed, where the champions really risk their lives on the most important race tracks on the planet, such as Brands Hatch, Monaco, Monza, Spa Francorchamps, Watkins Glen, and Zandvoort, just to mention a few.
Frankenheimer had a reasonable budget of 9 million dollars, which is not much compared to the 18 million dollars that John Huston had to produce The Bible – the colossal cult film of the same year. This budget, assembled by Metro Goldwyn Mayer, was not only used to cover the vast expense to transfer the troupe to racetracks around the world, but also to secure the latest technology available to get the best camera angles – especially on-board shots. And that’s to say nothing of the huge number of drivers and consultants that were recruited to make the racing as realistic as possible – the likes of Phil and Graham Hill, Richie Ginther, Jo Bonnier, and Jack Brabham. There were a total of 32 professional racers (ten of whom would go to lose their lives over the following next decade), under the technical guidance of manufacturer and team manager Carroll Shelby.
The only exception in this quest for authenticity, which at that time was unparalleled, was the use of disguised Formula 3 single-seaters that featured less powerful engines when compared with Formula 1 cars. As a result, the crew came up with some innovative solutions to simulate wheelspin and tire smoke – such as wetting the track when needed.
NO TRICKS, ONLY REAL SPEED
Frankenheimer immediately discarded the idea of shooting scenes with the single-seaters moving at low speed and then accelerating them in the editing phase. He insisted that everything should appear as it does in a real Grand Prix – afraid that an audience of enthusiasts would catch out any trickery. And to be on the safe side he secured consulting roles from the leading teams of the era – BRM, Ferrari and McLaren. The scenes shot at high speed require camera cars able to both ensure high performances and stability – in order to manage the weight of the huge Panavision 65mm cameras. And so the production team chose sports cars, such as the Shelby Cobra 427 and Ford GT 40 – properly reinforced and modified, of course, to accommodate cameras both on the front as well as the tail.
But logistical problems weren’t easy to overcome, and even extreme weather proved to be challenging – to the extent that somebody on the set compared them to the ones faced by the director David Lean, who had to deal with sand storms and torrid temperatures during the shooting of Lawrence of Arabia (1962).
The movie is a celebration of the competitive spirit. It had the effect of immediately making racing films that came before this seem old fashioned and clumsy. Anyone familiar with the world of Grand Prix racing of that era will instantly feel at home while watching this epic racing film – whether it’s in terms of the racing itself, or even the atmosphere in the pit lane and the stands. And don’t forget, since television cameras were not a regular part of the F1 circus until about ten years later, this is quite invaluable.
ON THE SIDELINES
The role of protagonist Pete Aron, which was eventually played by James Garner (1928-2014), was earlier assigned to Steve McQueen (1930-1980). But his first meeting with the producer, Edward Lewis, ended up being a disaster and the American actor didn’t get the part. Apparently, McQueen took his anger out on his friend Garner – who, in the meantime, had become his neighbour in Los Angeles – to the extent that he stopped talking to him for 4 long years. Even Monica Vitti was supposed to join the cast in the role of the American journalist Louise Frederickson, but she refused the part – which was then assigned to Eva Marie Saint.
James Garner did most of his driving scenes himself. In fact, during breaks while filming, he even joined in some improvised competitions with the professional drivers hired for the film.
The graphic on the helmet worn by Garner is the same one used by Chris Amon. The only difference with the one worn by the racing driver from New Zealand is that there’s no kiwi pictured on it – since the character played by James Garner is American.
Garner was too tall to fit in a single-seater race car, so they had to remove the seat and have him sit on a towel directly placed on the chassis.
At the beginning of filming, Yves Montand spun out and got so shocked that they had to modify his single seater so that it could be pulled by a Ford GT 40 that was being used as a camera car.
After an accident at the historic Monte Carlo circuit, the American driver Pete Aron finds himself forced to switch teams. He goes on to win the world championship in the race where his rival loses his life.
Director: John Frankenheimer (USA, 1966)
Production: Metro Goldwyn Mayer, Douglas & Lewis Production, Joel Productions, John Frankenheimer Productions Inc., Cherokee Productions
Written by: Robert Alan Arthur
Director of photography: Lionel Lindon
Music: Maurice Jarre
Main actors: James Garner, Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune, Brian Bedford,
Jessica Walter, Antonio Sabato, Françoise Hardy, Adolfo Celi.
Box office sales: 20.8 million dollars
Awards won: 3 Oscars.
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Also read: Lynk & Co – The Carmaker of the Future