In 1966, director, John Frankenheimer debuted one of the most exhilarating and immersive 70mm film experiences in modern screen history. In many ways, Grand Prix (1966) is a departure from narrative movie-making. To be certain, films about racing and its unsung heroes were nothing new. Yet, if race cars appeared at all on the big screen until then, they had been exploited as mere backdrop – stylish, gleaming props, photographed against rear projection with little regard to capture the authenticity of the racing experience on film. With a desire to put his audience in the driver's seat, Frankenheimer's free-flowing tribute to man and his machine would mark the legitimate debut of racing in the movies. And Frankenheimer couldn’t just give us the race as it occurred, shot overhead with a weighty Cinerama camera strapped to the undercarriage of a helicopter. Oh no – not Frankenheimer’s style. Henceforth, we get an almost balletic display of the arduous circuits that make up the celebrated competition; Frankenheimer’s camera placed at the most intensifying angles, the whole impact of these startling wide angle images magnified by title editor, Saul Bass’ extraordinary marriage of movement to sound; the rumbling, blast and echo from steaming tail pipes, multiplied in kaleidoscopic overlays and set to Maurice Jarre’s unorthodox underscore, once heard in six-channel stereo, never to be forgotten.
At the start of Grand Prix – the movie, John Frankenheimer fills the screen with a compendium of images, collectively representing the high-stakes reality of its competition. He uses legitimate shots of crowds gathered in Monte Carlo and actual F-1 drivers, mechanics and pit crew preparing for the 1966 race. At once, the genius and fascination behind his storytelling is established. As an audience, we are pressed to question; is this going to be a narrative movie or a docu-drama based in reality? Well…Grand Prix is a little of both and very much more than just another movie about male chest-thumping in the world of stock car champions out to test endurance and faith in their machinery with unbridled speed. Grand Prix is engrossing, ambitious, even audacious film-making; so blindingly inventive and riveting in spots that one can easily overlook the rather conventional handling of its decidedly cardboard cutout characters, etched into our collective memory by Robert Alan Aurthur’s ability to write mere linking passages between Frankenheimer’s indulgences behind the wheel.
Even so, we cannot help but get involved in one of three narratives unravelling behind-the-scenes. Aurthur asks us to affix our star to the passionate Pete Aron (James Garner); considered something of a bad luck charm after his split second ill-fated decision making causes fellow driver, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) to nearly lose his life. Stoddard has been living in the shadow of his late brother; a scapegoat for the family honor and ruthlessly pushed into the limelight and toward a very public nervous breakdown by his unscrupulous manager, Jeff Jordon (Jack Watson) as Scott’s self-destructive wife, Pat (Jessica Walter) looks on with daggers in her heart. Then there is Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand); France’s great white hope, whose precision and cool-headedness under pressure remain unchallenged, but are soon to be put to the test as Sarti takes up with fashion editor, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). On the sidelines, though still in the race, is the pompous and womanizing Italian, Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato…we can see where Jr. got his looks and attitude), taken up with the devil-may-care car junkie, Lisa (Françoise Hardy). Rounding out the international cast are Toshirô Mifune and Adolfo Celi as Japanese manufacturer, Izo Yamura and Ferrari company president, Agostini Manetta respectively. After everyone, including Manetta, gives Aron the cold shoulder, Pete gets the opportunity to drive again, this time for Yamura in the pivotal race that will decide the fate of many in this death-defying profession.
At the time Grand Prix was set to go before the Cinerama cameras, it was being touted in the trades as one of MGM’s road show ‘landmark’ movies. Yet, with Grand Prix the studio got so much more, Frankenheimer effectively moving Formula-1 out of its relative obscurity as a niche sport, usually seen only in fuzzy black and white still images and/or newspaper clippings, brought into an extreme and viscerally nail-biting motion picture experience. Grand Prix netted MGM millions, temporarily staving off the studio’s inevitable demise; Hollywood’s premiere production company becoming the victim of a very hostile corporate takeover. Determined, as he was, to capture the experience of the actual 1966 Grand Prix on film, Frankenheimer was given unprecedented access to the racing circuit, inserting fictional characters into a compelling back story that, for many a racing enthusiast since, has served as a vintage snap shot and time capsule marking the moment when Formula One (F-1) racing left its ‘independent’ roots to become a worldwide commercial phenomenon.
The roots of Grand Prix motor racing are not discussed in the Aurthur’s screenplay, but bear further – if brief – mention in any review of the movie itself. Begun as a fashionable past time amongst the wealthy in France in 1894, the Grand Prix quickly escalated from an extreme test of physical endurance for both driver and car to a heart-palpitating spectacle in the 1920’s, drawing scores of spectators to marvel at the 100mph speeds, readily challenged and broken. Despite these advances, Formula One racing, circa the early 1960’s, had retained an elusive quality as belonging to the moneyed and inbred thrill seeker. Driving vehicles that, by today’s standards are perilously unsafe, with very little control over their brakes and grip – and, at speeds topping 150mph - F-1 drivers were amongst the most daredevil and respected sportsmen. A gregarious brotherhood was born: drawing wild, risk-taking personalities to the forefront and creating its own mythology along the way.
It was the Cooper Car Company’s evolution in racer design – brought on by the relocation of F-1 engines behind the driver’s seat instead of in front – that began a new era in auto racing. Within a few short years, rear engine design was the accepted standard and, by the mid-60’s, the 1 ½ liter engine had given way to a deluxe 3 liter model, adding to the complexity of each car’s engineering. In this pre-commercial epoch of F-1 celebrity, cars were primarily built by individuals – not car companies; Ferrari being the one exception to this rule. F-1 racer, Jack Brabham, as example, built the car that won him the 1966 Grand Prix, the same year the fictional Pete Aron takes home the coveted trophy in the film, Grand Prix. Alas, the lack of uniform fabrication on a mass scale yielded to a virtual litany of guaranteed mechanical failures during every racing season. Some were minor disappointments and hiccups. Many, however, proved near fatal. The men who designed these vehicles were not established engineers and were interested in only one criteria of performance: speed – in hindsight; a recipe for disaster.
With such disregard for driver safety and the increasingly severe and unpredictable state of racing conditions, F-1 racing practically guaranteed a few drivers would die each season. Those odds exponentially grew for each driver with each season he re-entered the competition and remained accident free. Veterans of the sport had little more than five years behind them. Titans could proudly boast surviving ten years with life-threatening injuries as their badges of courage and honor. Reporters assigned to cover these races often focused more intensely on the casualties. After all, a ‘good’ disaster sold lots of copy. In preparing Grand Prix for its ‘up close and personal’ with the Cinerama camera, John Frankenheimer was well aware of this casualty list as well as the logistics behind pulling off such a coup. But Frankenheimer was buoyed by his own ego and his passion for the sport, his deepest admiration for its victors and his even more genuine humility for the fallen.
Much of Frankenheimer’s early career had been spent studying film’s ability to bottle up the illusiveness of verisimilitude: reality and fiction running a parallel course. As remarkable as it may seem today, Grand Prix was only Frankenheimer’s eighth movie. By far, it remains his most technically proficient and ambitious. But nothing in Frankenheimer’s early repertoire as a TV director could have prepared him for the tribulations of the real Grand Prix. Overall, he was a congenial sort. But he could lose his patience when he felt he was not getting everything from an actor or crew member. This delicate balance between benevolent collaborator and tyrannical despot set precedence while on location in Monte Carlo. Frankenheimer broke new ground on Grand Prix. But the shoot nearly busted everyone else down to bedrock. Still, the movie not only introduced audiences to the spectacle of F-1 racing; it did so in a tremendous splash of sights and sounds captured in the grandiloquence of 70mm Cinerama; a hi-fidelity motion picture presentation, arguably, never equaled. By 1966, Cinerama’s cumbersome 3-camera setup had given way to this newer and less problematic single-strip precursor to modern-day Panavision. While some Cinerama purists have poo-pooped the transition as not having the same equilibrium-altering effects as its predecessor, when projected onto a massive curved screen, Grand Prix proved every inch the exhilarating ‘you are there’ movie-going experience.
Actor, Steve McQueen had always been Frankenheimer’s first choice for the part of American driver, Pete Aron. Initially, McQueen expressed interest. Unfortunately, for Frankenheimer – he sent assistant, Eddie Lewis in his stead to iron out the contractual negotiations. Reportedly, McQueen took an instant dislike to Lewis, thereafter dropping out of the project. The part of Pete Aron would ultimately go to James Garner instead. Believing he had been foisted onto Frankenheimer by the studio, Garner eventually came to respect Frankenheimer. Although director and star fell in and out of their syncopated rhythm as shooting progressed, Garner would later muse, “John ran roughshod over most everyone in the cast.” Except for Garner, principles were remanded in the care of Jim Russell’s racing school for an intense 3-week training session to master the hairpin turns for each course in the Grand Prix circuit. Frankenheimer absolutely refused to use doubles for these racing sequences, arguing there had been too many ‘fake’ movies about racing and he was not about to make another one. Reluctantly, Frankenheimer was coaxed by Russell to use a stand-in for Brian Bedford after the actor proved he could not master the art of shifting gears. As for Garner; he was assigned F-1 champion, Bob Bondurant as his private instructor. The two spent a month at Willow Springs, at the end of which Bondurant gave a glowing appraisal of his pupil’s capabilities - “He can race with the best of them!” And indeed, Garner would do exactly that, with a Cinerama camera strapped to his racer no less, although during one harrowing moment, a ruptured gas line caused Garner’s car to be engulfed in flames; the moment, captured on film as Garner successfully brought his racer to the curb, leaping to relative safety; his pit crew waiting with fire extinguishers in hand.
As cast continued to hone their racing skills, Frankenheimer unintentionally garnered a bit of negative press in Monte Carlo. The director’s penchant for doing things his own way (some would suggest ‘the hard way’), coupled with a certain dispensation for the niceties in his solitary quest for total perfection, circulated the rumor Frankenheimer could be counted on to be utterly demonstrative. In retrospect, this snap assessment of Frankenheimer’s general demeanor seems quite unfair. After all, Frankenheimer was an artist, and artists are regularly allotted a certain margin for temperament. Yet, even prior to stirring this buzz about his reputation, Frankenheimer quickly discovered a genuine and growing animosity amongst the professional drivers. “Everybody was skeptical about another movie being made about racing,” Frankenheimer confided many years later, “As a matter of fact, Ferrari wanted nothing to do with it.” The rebuke is significant – since without Ferrari’s participation, Grand Prix lacked the authenticity Frankenheimer so desperately needed to legitimize his movie. The only Formula-1 racer on Frankenheimer’s side was Carroll Shelby, who proved the lynch pin in securing other drivers, Dan Gurney and Phil Hill to a two year exclusivity contract. Eventually, pros Graham Hill and Bruce McLaren would also join the cast, adding even more authenticity to the production.
Still, the grumbling continued. After all, allowing Frankenheimer access to shoot key sequences along the circuit just hours – or in a few cases, minutes – before the actual race, meant less time for the real mechanics and drivers to test the course in preparation for the real race. But the Monte Carlo shoot was even further complicated by a minor snafu between the two ‘owners’ of this coastal principality; as both the Onasis and Grimaldi families refused Frankenheimer public access to portions of the streets necessary to shoot the race on the same day. For the most part, Frankenheimer kept his cool, although at one point James Garner had unkind words of his own to pass along to one of Monte’s shop keeps. The incident began innocently enough with negotiation between Frankenheimer and a small band of local merchants whose businesses lined the narrow and winding streets. The production unit manger had paid compensation for all of them to stay indoors and keep their doors closed while Frankenheimer restaged portions of the race for the benefit of close-ups and in-car shots. However, upon further consideration, a few of the merchants banded together, feeling more remuneration was in order. Meanwhile, Garner – who had been dunked in the Mediterranean and loaded onto a boat in preparation for another key sequence, was quietly developing a chill. After thirty minutes of stalemate between Frankenheimer and the shop keepers, Garner ordered the boat back to shore, whereupon he made it quite clear, in no uncertain terms, that unless the proprietors cleared their premises immediately, he was prepared to start tossing each and every last one of them into the Mediterranean for an impromptu swim.
As the actual Grand Prix got underway, Frankenheimer found yet another form of opposition brewing from the local officials in Monte Carlo. His cameraman, John Stevens had been outfitted on a rig inside an Alouette-3 helicopter for aerial photography. But the pursuit of cars around the difficult terrain and winding streets necessitated the copter swooping down on crowds at very severe and dangerous angles. Publicly, Frankenheimer instructed the pilot and Stevens to remain more removed from the action – then, in private commanded them to come as close as possible to the spectacle: the result, some of the most breathtaking aerial racing footage ever captured on film. To stage the initial horrific accident that cripples fictional character, Scott Stoddard, Frankenheimer and special effects man, Milton Rice came up with the inspired notion of removing the engine from one of the cars, creating a mockup with a dummy on board; then, firing the car from a hydrogen canon. The final effect proved startlingly real.
However, there is a postscript of irony pertaining to this staged wreck. During the planning stages for this catastrophe, Frankenheimer had walked the Monte Carlo course with F-1 driver, Lorenzo Bandini to make inquiries as to where on the actual circuit such an accident would most likely occur. Bandini prophetically directed Frankenheimer’s attention to ‘the Dog Leg’; a perilous twisting stretch of road that would claim his life two years later under an almost identical set of circumstances as depicted in the film. Immediately following wrap up on the Monte Carlo shoot Frankenheimer rushed to complete what would ultimately become his ‘minor miracle.’ Frenetically cutting together the first thirty minutes of his movie, including all of this racing footage, the director telephoned the head of the Ferrari Corporation with an invitation to a private screening. Although receiving a very frosty initial reception, the director of the Ferrari Corporation eventually relented to Frankenheimer’s request. But any apprehensions Frankenheimer may have had going into the screening were immediately quashed after the house lights came up. Not only was Ferrari on board with its participation on the project from this moment on, it would also grant Frankenheimer unprecedented access to its manufacturing facilities where several crucial sequences were ultimately filmed.
Robert Alan Arthur's screenplay for Grand Prix weaves a threadbare fictional narrative in between Frankenheimer's peerless racing footage. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a rivalry between American F-1 racer, Pete Aron (James Gardner) and his former racing partner, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). Pete races for the love and thrill of it. But his split second decision to allow Scott to pass him on the narrowest of stretches during the Del Monaco race results in a near fatal accident. Upon his recovery, Stoddard, an introspective and insecure Englishman, living in the shadow of his dead brother, teeters on the verge of mental collapse. He suffers from night sweats while his marriage to sultry American model, Pat (Jessica Walter) successively crumbles. After the accident, racing manager and notorious sponge - Jeff Jordon (Jack Watson) dumps Pete from his roster – erroneously sighting incompetence as the culprit for Scott's accident. In reality, Jordon is backing Scott because his family has the funds to keep him solvent. Meanwhile, Pete approaches the head of the Ferrari Company, Agostini Manetta (Adolfo Celi) for sponsorship; alas, to no avail. Instead, he is relegated to the press corp. But a reprieve of sorts comes from Japanese manufacturer, Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) whose deep admiration provides Pete with a new opportunity to drive.
Meanwhile, French racer and champion, Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is contemplating an extra-marital affair with American fashion magazine editor, Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint) – a miscalculation that will end in tragedy. Finally, we are introduced to Italian racer, Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato) whose characterization of the suave Lothario is very much an overplayed stereotype boiling into cliché. The beauty or perhaps the curse of the Grand Prix circuit is no two courses are alike, presenting Frankenheimer and his crew with a set of unique and occasionally dangerous challenges to overcome, not the least, an impromptu thunderstorm that caused many of the racers to veer off course or smash into sandy embankments, all of it caught on film and later used in the final edit. As the qualifying meets unfold and tension builds for the final race, Pete realizes he will be in direct competition with his old partner. Anxiety gets the better of Scott. But the unexpected casualty of the last race is Sarti, having swerved at a high velocity to avoid a wreck and suddenly forced off the elevated highway to his bloody death on the tarmac far below.
Louise is driven mad by the recovery of his body, but perhaps more so when, at the finish line, she briefly encounters, Sarti’s wife, Monique Delvaux-Sarti (Geneviève Page) who, in death, if not in life, lays claim to her husband’s remains. Grand Prix’s most sobering moment follows. Having been foisted upon the shoulders of his new backer and pit crew for winning the race, Pete Aron now surveys the aftermath to this exercise; the bandstands emptied of their leering/cheering crowds; the marching band retired and all the cars put away for another season; the track empty, except for the littered debris left behind by its revelers, who have probably already forgotten his name and the victory. Pete turns away from the camera with a shrug, walking off into the distance as the piercing sound of revving engines begins to echo yet again – real or imagined – reminding the viewer of a time-honored maxim: “all fame is fleeting.”
While many racing purists criticized and even denounced Grand Prix as sensationalizing the dangers of Formula-1 racing, the truth is Frankenheimer had meticulously researched F-1’s history. The recreated wrecks in his movie were actually ripped from sports newspaper clippings, interviews and relayed accounts from real drivers, some of whom had watched helplessly as their colleagues slipped into that margin of error and lost their lives as a result. As though to prove the point, on April 7, 1968, F-1 racing lost one of its most enigmatic personalities, Jim Clark, in a horrific accident – ironically played out on an inferior F-2 course in Germany. Later attributed to mechanical error, Clark’s demise sent shockwaves throughout the sport. Considered an ‘untouchable’ at the pinnacle of his career, Clark’s death impacted F-1 racing considerably. Most immediately, it forced engineers to redesign the width and separation of tires on all racers and standardize the adjustment as a pre-qualifier for anyone wishing to partake. Until Clark’s time, tires were apt to fly off when pressed into service under extreme mechanical duress. After Clark’s death, all F-1 racers were required to have their tires bolted to their suspension. In the wake of Clark’s loss, another driver, Jackie Stewart emerged as the unsung crusader for more advanced safety measures. In fact, Stewart would make it his personal manifesto to rid the sport of such unbearable calamities. Initially, he met with vehement opposition from his fellow racers. Eventually, Stewart was successful in getting the Sport’s Commission to accept more stringent safety measures, such as security barriers and seatbelts; since a part of the accepted racing standard.
Today, Formula-1 racing is arguably no longer the sport of true daredevils. While the very real risk of injury still exists, fatalities have been greatly reduced and are rare. And the days of the independent are long gone too; given way to corporate sponsorship by mainstream automotive companies gearing up to out-flex one another’s engineering muscle. The likes of Ferrari have been met with competition from Ford, GM, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda; revolutionizing automotive design; the bygone rickety creations now supercharged, high-tech ‘billboards’ for their companies. In reflecting on the movie, Grand Prix today, this aforementioned transformation pegs Frankenheimer’s movie as decidedly a time capsule from the 1960’s. But Grand Prix remains as compelling and as exhilarating as ever. Undeniably, the skillful editing of Saul Bass, diverse performances from the international cast and Maurice Jarre’s melodious orchestral arrangements immensely contribute to Grand Prix’s timeless allure.
But Grand Prix is far from more deserving than of the moniker foisted upon it by some critics as just another soap opera wrapped in the enigma of an action movie. Grand Prix’s legacy is enriched by Frankenheimer’s dedication to making the most authentic movie about the profession ever, as yet, attempted. Yet, at its core, there is really only one name to which all of the credit for the picture’s success must go - John Frankenheimer. In his dedication to really getting down to the nuts and bolts of Formula-1 racing, his unforgiving and telescopic focus, occasionally misconstrued as belligerence rather than perfectionism, Frankenheimer’s perseverance as a film maker has since stamped Grand Prix with the mark of excellence that few movies – racing or otherwise – can lay claim. In a sea of imitations depicting life behind the wheel, Frankenheimer’s remains the one true testament to the greatness of the sport, and, as time goes by there is little to suggest another will be forthcoming to better his efforts. “When I look back…” Frankenheimer mused years after the thunder and roar had ceased to echo in his ears, “…I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film!” Almost fifty years later, racing enthusiasts and film fans alike remain eternally grateful to Frankenheimer – that he dared to try. Gentlemen…start your engines!
Warner Home Video’s Blu-ray is a checkered flag winner through and through. One aspect of Grand Prix that ought to be addressed before continuing is the confusion over aspect ratios. The opening credits portend the film as being shot “in Cinerama” (presumably the single camera derivative). Yet, just a few credits later, we get an insert announcing it has been photographed in Super Panavision 70. These two processes are irreconcilable. Whatever the case, the image is wide gauge widescreen, in aspect ratio, mimicking the proportions of Todd A-O. Grand Prix has decidedly NOT been photographed in Todd A-O. But I digress. On Blu-ray, Grand Prix roars to life with colors that are deeply rich and vibrant. This is to be expected since the original camera negative whether Cinerama or Super Panavision has a lot to offer hi-def and/or vice versa. Colors, particularly reds and greens, really do pop. Flesh tones look quite natural throughout and there is a startling amount of fine detail in hair, fabrics, background foliage, etc. to digest and appreciate. Occasionally, interiors can appear just a tad washed out or, shall we say, less vibrant than exterior photography. But age-related artifacts are non-existent for a very smooth and compelling visual presentation.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital – alas, no DTS for this catalog title. At the time of its theatrical release, Grand Prix’s sound mix was considered state of the art. Today, there is still much to admire in the multiple overlays of effects layered to suggest a total immersion of the racing experience. Despite these advances, dialogue never sounds natural but thin and occasionally strident. The Blu-ray's digital tracks accurately capture these dated characteristics. Extras include ‘making-of’ featurettes that are engrossing, with interviews from real racers and film stars alike as well as several other informative featurettes on the racing culture and featuring the late Frankenheimer schmoozing about his contributions on the film. We also get the original theatrical trailer. All of these extras were included on Warner's 2-disc SE DVD from some years ago. Nevertheless, Grand Prix in 1080p comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)