Wednesday, December 21, 2016

1000 Words: Grand Prix

Fifty years ago today, Formula One blasted before the eyes of people unlike ever before. Onboard shots, cameras hanging inches above the streets of Monaco, views of the interwork of the car as if someone peeled away the skin on a human and watched a heartbeat or digestive system turn breakfast into fuel. Grand Prix still grabs people today but what must it have been like to get an early Christmas present and to see this film on opening night.

It was a different era. If you were an American Formula One fan and I have to imagine there were very few in 1966, this film must have been heart stopping. You had an image of what a race looked like after possibly only having description of a race written in National Speed Sport News or some other publication. Television was still young and motorsports wasn't on every weekend like it is today. Most people were probably seeing cars thunder up Eau Rouge or brake into the hairpin at Monaco or fly on the banking of Monza for the first time. The legends of Jim Clark, Graham Hill, Bruce McLaren, Phil Hill, Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney and Jo Bonnier came to life. You got to see the red Ferraris, the British Racing Green Team Lotus entries, the tartan helmet of Jackie Stewart and the throngs of people who showed up to spend the Sunday on a hillside watching race cars zoom by.

What gets me is how much we don't see in Grand Prix. It feels like the film was going to be six hours long as only three of nine races had been covered by the time we reach the intermission. After that it is a brief visit to Zandvoort, blowing over the Nürburgring (we will touch on that in a moment), Watkins Glen and Mexico and then the film picks up with Brands Hatch and Monza.

Nürburgring film existed. The 27 reels of Nürburgring footage had to be turned over by director John Frankenheimer to Steve McQueen and director John Sturges (famous for directing The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape) who had their own project for a grand prix film, Day of the Champion. The McQueen/Sturges project never got off the ground and I still want to know what happened to those 27 reels of film. Were they destroyed? Are they somewhere in a Hollywood archive? Have they already been released and I have just missed them? I want to know if there is extra film of Watkins Glen and Mexico as well but there is something about the Nürburgring and the 14-plus miles that is mesmerizing. 

As much as Grand Prix is a fictionalized version of the 1966 Formula One season, it is a time capsule of the most dangerous era of racing. Hay bales separated the drivers from the harbor at Monaco. Spa-Francorchamps was an endless straightaway with farms as run off. Brands Hatch... well... Brands Hatch hasn't changed much. At least it doesn't appear it has. And then there is Monza, the incredibly fast track with the addition of a 2.6-mile high-banked oval. The actually 1966 season didn't run that layout but it had been used five years early. Many of the drivers with cameos wouldn't make it to the 10th anniversary of the film. John Taylor died on September 8, 1966 after injuries suffered at the Nürburgring. Lorenzo Baldini was killed at Monaco in 1967. Bob Anderson finished sixth in the 1966 Italian Grand Prix and died after a testing accident at Silverstone in August of 1967. The year 1968 saw Jim Clark, Mike Spence and Ludovico Scarfiotti all fatally injured in accidents. Bruce McLaren died in June 1970 and Jochen Rindt perished in September of that year. Jo Siffert lost his life in 1971 at Brands Hatch. Jo Bonnier died at Le Mans in 1972. For perspective of the era, twenty drivers scored points in the 1966 season and all ten of those drivers scored at least a point in the 1966 season. 

While Taylor died during the filming of Grand Prix, he succumbed a month after the accident. What would have happened if the film had been made a year later? Would the project have survived beyond Monaco had it been the year Baldini was killed?

Beyond the racing scenes, the backstory features people looking for comfort in such a stressful and uncertain environment and most of the time the comfort came in the arms of someone other than their current lover. Pete Aron (played by James Garner) plays the calm American who only wants to race. He loses his ride and is immediately looking for a way back in even if it is with Izo Yamura's (played by Toshiro Mifune) team, a fairly new and unproven entity on the grid. Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) chased his deceased brother's success and that urgency nearly killed him and cost him his marriage to his wife Pat (Jessica Walter) for a brief period. The Frenchman Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) is toward the end of his career but still at the top, however he no longer fancies the series that has given him all his riches and posh lifestyle. As an escape and the start of his transition away from his racing life, Sarti falls for an American journalist Louise Frederickson (Eve Maria Saint) whose knowledge of the sport is zilch. Then there is the up-and-coming Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabàto) on the verge of success at a very young age who has turned the woman he met in a club after Monaco, Lisa (Françoise Hardy) into a girlfriend only to lose her on the eve of his home grand prix with a world championship in his grasp. 

The film asks us motorsports enthusiasts the hard questions; the ones we don't prepare answers for but know exist. As Pat leaves Hotel de Paris a crowd of people flock from overlooking the race track to something arriving screen right. At the proposed thought that there has been an accident, unbeknownst to her that it is her husband, she responds to no one in particular as a few hotel guests in the entrance gather around her, "that's what they come for: See someone get killed." Was that true? Is it true today or has enough danger been sucked out of the sport that it isn't worth the time?

In the final scenes of the film, after Sarti's accident left him tangled in the trees at Monza, Louise rushes to the ambulance to see her dying lover only to be kept from the ambulance as Sarti's wife rides with her husband and shares with him his final moments on Earth. Hysterically crying only to be consoled by one of the thousand of strangers who surrounded the ambulance to get one final view of the dying champion, she holds her blood covered hands up to the crowd and cameras yelling "is this what you want?" three times before collapsing in a despondent state. I wonder how the audience absorbed that scene in 1966. Did it turn people off from motorsports all together? 

The film leaves me with a couple of questions even if it seems ridiculous to ponder about a film after the screen goes black. After all, it is fiction. None of it happened. Once the screen goes black, the story ends and the characters vanish. Louise doesn't have to try to live on after the passing of the man he fell in love with. There is no point of wondering if the other families in the paddock console even though she was only Sarti's mistress. Does she resume her life of independence and dive back into her work?

What does Lisa do? She doesn't dance, she doesn't drink and she doesn't smoke. What does she do? Maybe it is obvious to everyone else but I still can't figure out.

How long do Aron and Stoddart continue racing after the 1966 season? Neither were spring chickens like Barlini. Aron could have retired right there among the sea of tifosi at Monza as world champion. Stoddart could have done the same as vice-champion. Stoddart at the end of the film appeared to reach the level of consciousness Nico Rosberg reached this year but perhaps Stoddart made it to a level higher as he seemed content even if he didn't win the world title while Rosberg says he would have continued into 2017 had he not won the title. What would Aron's life look like in retirement? The words of Pat rings true. All we know about him is he drive cars. Does he find love? Can he find something beyond racing to infatuate his life? Broadcasting clearly wasn't suited for him.

It is a film that couldn't be made today but not because of red tape and contractual conflicts and budget but because we have enough Formula One as it is. We have 21 races, multiple onboard cameras each race, half hour pre-race shows, podium interviews done by Elton John and Gerard Butler and Twitter and Instagram and Snapchat to follow drivers off the track. Besides, what would a fictionalized version of the 2016 Formula One season look like especially when the reality is so well known? How could we create a storyline to convince people that Mercedes had a tight title fight with Ferrari or Red Bull or McLaren or Williams? Could we even convince people that an American was on the grid?

Fifty years on and Grand Prix is the best racing film. Le Mans is also great. Winning is good. Rush holds its own against Grand Prix and Le Mans. The reason Grand Prix stands above the rest is because it is sophisticated enough for Formula One fans and yet explains the nuance of it for the general public without seeming elementary. It is a film for all aspiring directors of racing films to shoot for. You got to have something to shoot for.