Snippets of Ron Howard’s upcoming Formula 1 racing film “Rush,” about the James Hunt/Niki Lauda rivalry during the sport’s last Golden Age, had me hankering to re-watch the movie it will be compared to — John Frankenheimer’s 1966 SuperPanavision epic, “Grand Prix.”
It’s still the gold standard for racing movies, a film which was decades ahead of its time in terms of on-track realism. It’s only recently that Fox’s TV racing coverage, with miniature cameras everywhere, has caught up with what Frankenheimer and his team were able to pull off with huge, clunky film cameras way back in the day.
A three-hour plus magnum opus about Formula 1’s most dangerous era, with perhaps its sexiest cars, it’s a movie that sizzles on the track and doesn’t utterly fall apart off the track, which is all you could hope for from the big Cinerama/Cinemascope or 70mm BIG screen pictures of that age. Try watching the film that inspired Kevin Costner to make “Dances With Wolves” — “How the West Was Won” — now. Or don’t. I did.
James Garner, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford and Antonio Sabato star as drivers struggling to stay on top, to stay employed and just to stay alive on the dangerous circuits of F-1 in those deadly open-wheel race cars of the day.
Eva Marie Saint, Jessica Walter and French singer Francoise Hardy are the women who love them.
Garner’s the hard-bitten, hard-driving American who causes a wreck that takes out his season-leading British teammate, Scott Stoddard (Bedford). For an encore, Pete Aron sleeps with Stoddard’s wife (Walter) . Aron is a selfish jerk who knows this about himself, leading to occasional lapses in which he takes the high road.
Montand is the veteran French champion whose fatalism is catnip to an American fashion reporter (Saint).
Sabato is the young hotshot second banana on the Ferrari team, the one destined to replace the Frenchman should the team owner (Adolfo Celli) decide to make the change.
Over the course of a long, leisurely season, the drivers race and race and break cars and crack up and carry on love affairs. Frankenheimer puts us in the cockpit with them as they roar through Spa (a track so dangerous they closed it), Monaco, Silverstone and Monza, among others.
The great Toshiro Mifune plays a Japanese car maker trying to crash this Euro-car party. Jack Watson is the British BRM team owner who hates Aron for what he’s done to his best driver. And real Formula 1 drivers mix in with the cast, showing up for the morning driver’s meeting (something we never saw, “for real,” until the racing doc “Senna” came out last year) and provided racing expertise and even drove the camera cars that blended in with races and made the action ultra realistic.
“Grand Prix” has one of the worst performances I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture, a hallmark of 1950s and 60s Hollywood-financed blockbusters which always seemed to need some non-actor in a key role, with disastrous results. That would be Ms. Hardy, ineffably gorgeous in a timeless, willowy French way — her voice dubbed in every scene, her face blank at every moment.
Garner, who did his own driving and stunts, is conflicted and complicated, heroic and manly and a bit of a heel. Perfectly cast.
As the 45th anniversary DVD makes clear with its extra feature documentaries, this was a Steve McQueen vehicle until the temperamental McQueen took a dislike to a producer. He made “Le Mans,” which is quite similar (different class of racing) and just as good — maybe even a little artier than “Grand Prix.”
Whatever the merits of Ron Howard’s “Rush,” chances are, we’ll see it for the racing footage — super light, super fast cars hurtling over road courses (none of this “Rednecks Never Making Right Turns” NASCAR nonsense).
And he’ll have to go quite a ways to surpass the wide-screen/split-screen glories of “Grand Prix,” a film that is as real as the races the actors and their cars found themselves filming in.
MPAA Rating: Adult situations
Cast: James Garner, Eva Marie Saint, Yves Montand, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter, Antonio Sabato
Credits: Directed by John Frankenheimer, written by Robert Alan Aurthur and John Frankenheimer. An MGM release.
Running time: 2:54