Grand Prix (1966)

I Sleep In A Racing Car, Do You?

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

Grand Prix may be the best Howard Hawks film he didn’t make – a loosely plotted film following four Formula 1 drivers with the theme of male bonding. There is even a Hawksian woman in the form of Eva Marie Saint as Louise Frederickson in a role similar to that of Jean Arthur in Only Angels Have Wings, an onlooker who  is taken back by this subculture and the reaction or lack thereof the drivers have to death and injury. The loosely plotted structure avoids the cliché of many sports films in which the drama hinges on whether or not the protagonist or team wins the final bout. Rather Grand Prix is an examination of these stoic modern gladiators and the women who come to reject their men’s participation in the sport.

Grand Prix was John Frankenheimer’s first picture in colour and while something is lost when compared to his earlier films which are some of the most visually astounding black & white films of the era, Grand Prix is one colourful and eye-popping film. Grand Prix is one of the best examples of a movie which offers such a vibrant slice of exotic, European flavor; complete with beautiful locations, gorgeous women, an exquisite score by Maurice Jarre and the full glitz and glamour of the sport. It plays like a not so cynical tourism commercial complete with early use of film product placement (the first of two Frankenheimer films to make use of the Good Year brand).

The 1960’s, when every movie was over three hours long, complete with an overture, intermission and entr’acte. Filmed in Super Panavision for display on a Cinerama screen, Grand Prix was a movie designed for the theatrical experience with its astounding racing sequences – no further proof is required that Frankenheimer is one of the screen’s greatest directors of action. During the film’s three major race sequences there are no instances of cars being filmed slowly with footage sped up in post production as seen in many older films – no, this is the real deal. Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 racing season with the actual actors in the film performing their own driving (bar Brian Bedford).

The location shots during the film’s opening race at the Monaco Grand Prix are a thing of beauty to look at with the winding roads, palm trees and glorious architecture. Combine that with extensive use of shot types and transitions and you have an unforgettable feast for the senses. Right from the Saul Bass opening credits with the extreme use of close-ups and use of checkered frames to the fast-moving ariel footage, POVs, split-screen and quick cuts – Grand Prix is a marvel of editing. In relation to the sound design, just like the sound of galloping horses during the chariot race from Ben-Hur, the sound of Formula 1 engines ramps up the suspense without the aid of music – rather it creates a rhythm of its own. One race in Grand Prix is however scored by Jarre’s music in a surprisingly relaxing and dreamlike montage of overlapping footage of F1 cars which the sounds of their engines subtly in the background. I wonder if Grand Prix played an influence on George Lucas for the pod race sequence in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Well guess who was a young camera operator on Grand Prix back in 1966?

Among the glamour of Grand Prix, things do u-turn on several instances during the film’s bloody and graphic injury scenes of various drivers, not to mention a very upsetting scene involving two young boys who should not have entered the race track as and when they did. With the comparable lack of safety back in 1966, one has to ask does this make the sport more exciting for both the drivers and spectators? There is even one scene in which James Garner is recklessly driving on a country road and no one in the car is wearing a seatbelt.

James Garner headlines Grand Prix as American racer Pete Aron, a bit of jackass but one who has a sympathetic streak to him. Toshiro Mifune makes his Hollywood debut as Japanese automobile magnet Izo Yamura. I’ve read many reviews complaining that Mifune’s English dubbing is on par with a Godzilla film but I beg to ask what copy of the film are they watching? – I can’t see any issue with the quality of the dub. Yves Montand however in the role of Jean-Pierre Sarti brings the highest level of gravitas from the film’s cast. He questions his participation in the sport and has wanted to quit after witnessing many an accident (“Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely”). In a sign of mutual respect and good sportsmanship, he even stops in the middle of a race when Pete Aron is trying to escape a burning vehicle. Montand’s character appears to be a stereotype for French existential angst, a man wearied by the absurdity of his existence. This is backed up by the fact that his name is similar to that of French, existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

Grand Prix hits its emotional peak with the tragic ending in which Sarti’s body comes flying out of a vehicle and only to lie mangled on a tree, all because he drove into a pipe which came loose from another vehicle. The irony of the character who contemplated most on retiring would see such a bloody end and not to mention the emotional breakdown in which Louise Frederickson screams at the press, while her hands are covered in Sarti’s blood – it leaves much food for thought. Grand Prix is as much a tribute to Formula 1 as it is a reminder of how dangerous it once was – for better or worse.