DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Grand Prix

Saturday 4 June 2011

Grand Prix

Grand Prix (1966) dir. John Frankenheimer
Starring: James Garner, Toshiro Mifune, Eva Marie Saint, Brian Bedford, Antonio Sabato


By Alan Bacchus

Grand Prix is an incredibly thrilling, unbelievably real dramatization of what it’s like to be in a real Formula One race, a film so authentic, a 15-minute reel compiled by director John Frankenheimer managed to convince the finicky owner of Ferrari to lend him all the rights to his team name, logo and even manufacturing facility. Impressive, but the film is also boring as hell and damned near unwatchable. Why such contradictory feelings?

The fact is car racing as fictionalized, dramatic entertainment just isn’t exciting. Secondly, whenever the cameras are not covering the races, it’s dull as dishwater. The characters, conflicts and relationships sag like soggy bellbottoms, inert and immobile like airless Goodyear tires.

Technically, it’s a monumental achievement. It was made in 1966, shot on the Super Panavision system in 70 mm and presented in CINERAMA! For strict authenticity, Frankenheimer had his actors driving real race cars on the same track used by Formula One racers and in some cases driving in an actual race. The bulky 70 mm cameras were strapped to the cars for the rugged, intense feelings of being inside an actual car. Helicopter shots cover the race with awesome epic feeling. What does this translate to? Some of the most spectacular imagery ever shot for a dramatic film. Watching Frankenheimer’s wide-angle lens in the pristine 70 mm format up close on James Garner’s face travelling at high speed around the track is stupendous.

This film, now in the height of race season, is available on pristine Blu-ray. It looks great, but by golly, how it must have looked in Cinerama! I will probably never get to experience this, and so without this medium of spectacle much of the film is lost on the small screen.

The actual narrative mostly serves as a coat hanger for the racing. Four racers, James Garner as the American, Yves Montand as the Frenchman, Toshiro Mifune as the Japanese and Brian Bedford as the Brit compete in a Formula One season. Some interpersonal relationships and sexual encounters add some mild spice to the mix, but clearly the film is built to show cars going fast.

Racing today uses the same camera angles as Frankenheimer did, and so with today's eyes Grand Prix is like watching a regular Formula One race. So what's so special about that? With historical context in place, audiences never ever saw the camera angles. It was a new world opened up and a highly dramatic effect we can't discount. But because of my young age, I can only guess at this. Either way, it's very difficult to truly appreciate the spectacle in the present.

So for gearheads and Formula One fans, this might be the last word on racing on film, and thus a worthy Blu-ray pick-up. But it’ll be a struggle through each and every minute off the track. Feel free to fast forward.

Grand Prix is available on Blu-ray from Warner Home Entertainment.

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