Grand Prix (1966

When it’s on: Friday, 18 August (2.30 pm)
Channel: BBC2
IMDb Link

Many moons ago, I wrote a review of Goal! for Digital Fix. My main issue with it was also my problem with almost every sports film. You get either a rags to riches story, or a peek into the lives of the celebrity sportsperson, in other words a cliché you’ve seen many times or the disconnected experience of following individuals whose lifestyle you could never aspire to, therefore cannot empathise with. There are a few noble exceptions, but for every This Sporting Life there’s a slew of titles that conform to the usual tropes.

I thought about Goal! when watching Grand Prix, John Frankenheimer’s epic about Formula One drivers in their contemporary mid-sixties setting. Goal!’s sequel, an entry no one asked for but everyone was committed to making, was subtitled Living the Dream, which also acts as our entry point into the world of motor racing. The four drivers whose tales are the backbone of the story are impossibly rich playboys, indulging their glamorous habits and apparently living the aforementioned dream. As viewers we have very little sense of connection with them, and it’s a three hour movie that, in its lengthy scenes away from the track, drags horribly. As Yves Montand sparks a romantic relationship with Eva Marie Saint’s journalist, their slow burning interludes feel like an extended sequence of scenes from Dynasty, while his cynical comments about the sport that’s made him rich, famous and successful hopelessly foreshadow where his character is heading. Difficult to care.

And yet, it’s impossible not to be sucked into the film’s race scenes, a track side and intimate depiction of the hype, fever, danger and breakneck speeds that have made the sport such an enduring spectacle. Frankenheimer built relationships with the companies, notably Ferrari, sending them footage of what he’d shot in Monte Carlo and in response gaining levels of access that at the time were unprecedented.

Getting Ferrari’s approval was a coup. The oldest and most iconic constructor of them all, with those signature red racers and commitment to quality, gave the film a real sense of authenticity. Actual drivers substituted for the actors in many of the racing scenes. The performers received training, but only James Garner of the principals turned out to show the prowess that allowed him to be filmed while driving. Formula 3 cars were mocked up to look like they belonged on the Formula 1 circuits, and Frankenheimer oversaw the filming techniques that made the races such breathless experiences, notably the cameras mounted on cars that lent viewers a driver’s eye perspective. It’s disorientating and certainly delirious to watch. Cars appear to be hurtling straight for the hoarding before they turn away on a bend at the last minute, and every time you’re wondering if the steering will fail, whether they will burst straight through. Just as good is the sound direction. During the races Maurice Jarre’s sumptuous score gives way to the noise of engines, ear-splitting in volume and lending perspective to the sense of angry speed they’re achieving. Just to emphasise the point, Frankenheimer also used helicopter footage, the sound kept at a distance and the vehicles looking like toys, before cutting back to the cockpit.

In every way, the races in Grand Prix are a delight for the senses, truly wondrous. The sense of glamour is palpable, the drivers at these moments being transformed into super humans as they drive at fantastic speeds. But it also gets across the peril. Safety was not the primary concern of the race back then, and it shows in a number of crashes that result in various casualties. In the film’s opening race, at Monaco, Garner’s car collides with the Williams of his teammate, played by Brian Bedford. The incident is an accident, the result of a mechanical failure, but it ends in Garner ripping through the barriers and straight into the Mediterranean, while Bedford comes off considerably worse, suffering major injuries and bedridden for some weeks. Garner’s sacked from Williams, and spends time as a commentator before being hired by Toshiro Mifune’s Japanese Yamura team. Their fortunes instantly pick up, Garner’s driver points racking up as he catches up to Montand and Antonio Sabato, the men in Ferrari’s cars. Sabato plays a young, spunky Sicilian, filed with self-confidence, while Montand’s ageing pro is a more jaded figure, increasingly conscious of his own mortality, something exacerbated when he crashes in a later race and kills some children.

This half of the plot is compelling enough, though as with any sports flick it falls short of the thrills of real life as it’s clearly contrived and heading towards a scripted emotional punch at the finish. Away from the circuit, things get worse as the soap opera plotting never comes close to matching the drama taking place on the track. Garner gets close to Bedford’s wife (Jessica Walter), who’s grown sick of her partner’s bouts of nervous tension before each race. Montand starts seeing Saint despite his own nuptials, a relationship that feels very under-cooked as the chemistry between them refuses to come to life. That leaves Sabato and his flighty romance with Francoise Hardy. Despite the latter’s easy charms, it’s clear Sabato is in a much richer love affair with himself, which comes with obvious consequences.

But none of this is what you take away from the film, the affairs and romances serving as padding to the main event. If viewers are anything like me, they’re wiling the action to return to the track, to the film’s bittersweet and all too possible conclusion.

Grand Prix was exhibited in Cinerama exhibitions, which must have made for exhilarating watching at the time. The races are an absolute technical marvel, and Frankenheimer and visual consultant Saul Bass pull out every trick to add to the suspense, with frequent montages, split screens, focusing on rivets being tightened, the drivers shown as pensive and resolved. It’s let down by the rest, but when it gets these bits as right as it does then the overall effort is just about worth it.

Grand Prix: ***