In 1966, director John Frankenheimer debuted one of the most exhilarating and immersive 70mm film experiences in modern screen history. In many ways, the film Grand Prix (1966) is a departure. 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 mere backdrop – a stylish and gleaming prop photographed against rear projection with little regard to capture the reality of the racing experience on film. With a desire to put his audience in the driver's seat, Frankenheimer's authenticity marked the true spirit of the race.
At the start of Grand Prix – the movie, Frankenheimer fills the screen with the reality of competition. He uses legitimate shots of crowds and actual F-1 drivers, mechanics and pit crew preparing for the 1966 Monte Carlo race. At once, the genius and fascination behind his storytelling is established. As an audience, we are pressed to question; is it a 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 stock car champions out to test their endurance and faith in machinery with speed.
Actor Steve McQueen had always been Frankenheimer’s first choice for the part of American driver, Pete Aaron. Initially, McQueen expressed interest. Unfortunately, for Frankenheimer – he sent assistant Eddie Lewis in his stead to iron out contractual negotiations. Reportedly, McQueen took an instant dislike to Lewis, thereafter dropping out of the project. The part of Pete Aaron went to James Garner instead. Believing that he had been foisted onto Frankenheimer by the studio, Garner eventually came to respect Frankenheimer’s commitments to the movie. Although director and star fell into a syncopated rhythm throughout the shoot, Garner would later muse that Frankenheimer ran roughshod over most everyone in the cast.
The rest of Grand Prix’s roster is rounded out by an international cast; including French matinee idol Yves Montand (as introspective driver and lady’s man Jean-Pierre Sarti), Japan’s Toshiro Mifune (as automotive designer Izo Yamura), England’s Brian Bedford (Scott Stoddard), Italy’s Antonio Sabato (ego-driven, Nino Barlini) and American Eva Marie Saint (fashion writer, Louise Frederickson). Except for James Garner, principle cast were remanded to the care of Jim Russell’s racing school for an intense three week training session on how to master the hairpin turns of each course in the Grand Prix circuit. Frankenheimer absolutely refused to use doubles during these racing sequences. He was reluctantly ‘convinced’ by Russell to use a double for Brian Bedford. The actor could not learn to shift gears. As for Garner; he was assigned F-1 champion Bob Bondurant as his driving instructor. The two spent a month at Willow Springs, at the end of which Bondurant gave a glowing appraisal of his pupil’s capabilities.
Robert Alan Arthur's screenplay for Grand Prix weaves a mostly threadbare fictional narrative between Frankenheimer's peerless racing footage. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a rivalry between American F-1 racer Pete Aaron (James Gardner) and his partner Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). Pete races for the love and thrill of it. But his split second ill-timed decision to allow Scott to pass him 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) 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 Celli) for sponsorship, but 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 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, there’s Italian racer Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato…yes, the father of Antonio Sabato Jr.) whose characterization of the suave Lothario is very much an overplayed stereotype boiling over into cliché. The beauty or perhaps the curse of the Grand Prix circuit is that no two courses are alike, presenting Frankenheimer and his crew with a set of unique and occasionally dangerous challenges that leant an air of verisimilitude to the production. In one scene Garner’s racer had been rigged with butane to catch fire. However, as the car came to a halt, an unexpected breeze fanned the flames into a fireball that engulfed the actor. He barely escaped with minor injuries.
Composer Maurice Jarre interpolates the racing sequences with an eclectic score of rousing marches and poignant love ballads; an almost fairy-tale ballet of automobiles. Sound effects editor, Gordon Daniels evokes the raging engines and more subtle nuances off track for a visceral sonic experience. While many racing purists criticized and even denounced Grand Prix as sensationalizing the dangers of Formula-1 racing, the truth of the matter is that Frankenheimer had meticulously researched F-1’s history before making the film. As though to prove Frankenheimer's point, on April 7, 1968, F-1 racing lost one of its most enigmatic personalities, Jim Clark in a horrific accident that very closely mimics the one that kills Yves Montands’ French racer in the film.
It is Frankenheimer's commitment to every last detail, his really getting down to the nuts and bolts of F-1 racing, that stamps Grand Prix with a hallmark of authenticity unlike any other racing movie made before or since. Years later, Frankenheimer would reflect, “When I look back I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film!” Fifty one 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 of Grand Prix has finally arrived. I say, finally, because at the dawn of the Blu-ray vs. HD format war Grand Prix was one of the first films to emerge from Warner in the HD format, hence it should have been one of the first on Blu-ray too. Whatever the reason, Grand Prix never materialized on Blu until now. Fans of this film have waited a long time. But the wait has arguably been worth it. Grand Prix looks fabulous on Blu-ray.
One aspect of the film that ought to be addressed before continuing is that there seems to be some confusion over format aspect ratios. The opening credits portend the film as shot “in Cinerama” (presumably the single camera derivative that took over from its abandoned 3 camera set up). Yet, just a few credits later we get an insert claiming it has been photographed in Super Panavision 70. These two processes are irreconcilable. Whatever the case, the image is wide widescreen, though in aspect ratio, tends to mimic the proportions of a movie shot in 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 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 pop. Flesh tones look quite natural. Occasionally, interiors can appear just a tad washed out or, shall we say, less vibrant than exterior photography. Fine details are evident throughout. Age related artifacts are non-existent for a very smooth visual presentation.
The audio is 5.1 Dolby Digital. 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 the total immersion of that racing experience. Despite these advances, dialogue never sounds natural. The Blu-ray's DTS accurately captures the dated characteristics of this soundtrack. 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 behind Formula 1. There's also the film’s original theatrical trailer. All of these extras were included on Warner's 2 disc DVD from some years ago. Nevertheless, Grand Prix in 1080p comes very highly recommended!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)