Racing Movie Month: "Grand Prix" (1966) Review

Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

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Rating: PG
Length: 176 minutes
Release Date: December 21, 1966
Directed by: John Frankenheimer
Genre: Drama / Sport

Although newer racing films such as the 2014 "Need for Speed" do not fall short on glamor and thrill, they can never come close to beating classics like "Grand Prix."  When Grand Prix driver Pete Aron is responsible for a crash that severely injures his teammate at the Monaco Grand Prix, he is fired from the team and becomes disillusioned. He later is invited to join another team, and a blossoming romance grows between him and his injured teammate's estranged wife. Often heralded as the best racing film of all time, this movie offers realistic racing sequences, superb acting and cinematography that is way ahead of its time.

At the starting grid of the Monaco Grand Prix, audiences are introduced to Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand) in the lead, Pete Aron (James Garner) in third place and Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) on Sarti's tail. Although the beginning of the race is promising, Aron begins having trouble with his transmission. Team manager Jeff Jordan (Jack Watson) is livid as he shouts at Aron to continue despite the car trouble. When his car slips a gear, he is rear-ended by Stoddard's vehicle, sending Aron flying into the harbor and leaving Stoddard seriously injured. Jordan fires Aron, believing him to be lying about the circumstances of the accident. In the hospital, Stoddard's wife, Pat, visits him and makes it known that she wants to leave him.

Sarti meets a beautiful American journalist named Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint), and the two soon develop a romantic relationship. Meanwhile, Pete heads over to the Ferrari factory to see if he can once again drive for Agostini Manetta, but he is refused. Viewers then see the opening of the French Grand Prix, and Aron is now a TV commentator rather than a race car driver. When Aron sees Japanese car owner Izo Yamura (Toshiro Mifune) pull up in a limousine, he seizes the opportunity to introduce himself but is unable to arrange an interview. After an exciting race, Aron begins talking with Pat, but the two are in constant disagreement. Later that night, Aron finds an invitation to the Yamura garage slipped under his door. He heads to the garage and accepts Yamura's offer to drive on his team and help him achieve his first win. Aron must now reconcile with his past to redeem himself and have a shot at entering the winner's circle of the next Grand Prix.

Although "Grand Prix" is decades old, it continues to influence the car racing subgenre even today. The plot is nothing special, utilizing a mix of soap opera romances and a basic underdog story, but this does not detract from the great racing scenes and overall appeal of the film. The characters are interesting, and the film goes to great lengths to tell the back story of each one. The soundtrack is also a highlight of the film, featuring fast-paced scores that add to the emotion of every scene.

Director John Frankenheimer brings viewers into the world of Formula 1 racing through a series of strategic action shots and camera angles. Cameras placed in the vehicles let viewers feel as if they are in the driver's seat, revealing what a high-speed race looks like from the inside of a race car. Another spectacular aspect of the cinematography is the use of wide-screen shots that make racing sequences feel even more real. Unlike many of today's movies, "Grand Prix" did not use heaps of special effects to amaze viewers. Nearly everything about this film is genuine, from the cars to the racing sequences to the on-site filming done on a real F1 racetrack. It is obvious that stuntmen were kept to a minimum in the film, as viewers clearly see the actors driving the race cars, further adding to the thrill of this classic flick.

The adrenaline-pumping races are what truly attract viewers to this film, but the acting is also phenomenal. James Garner does not disappoint as Pete Aron, giving a heartfelt performance that never leaves audiences second guessing. Jessica Walter is completely believable as the stern, estranged Pat, and Brian Bedford gives an emotional performance as the injured Scott Stoddard. These actors come together in an amazing way, creating realistic character interactions that entrance viewers.

"Grand Prix" is a classic movie that belongs on any racing fan's must-watch list. Although the film is nearly three hours long, the action never gets dull, and audiences find themselves glued to their seats from beginning to end. The most valuable aspects of this film are its realistic action shots and unique camera angles that capture the atmosphere and excitement of a race in a way that no film has done since.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5