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Friday Finds: Appreciating “Grand Prix” amid the debris of racing films

Friday Finds shares a piece of content I’ve recently experienced.

Poster from "Grand Prix"I’m a big fan of car racing and racing films. Not so much today’s scene, but racing from the early ’60s to the late ’70s. Thus it was with a pleasurable surprise that I saw this week that a film is heading to production this fall, starring Matt Damon and Christian Bale, about the mid-’60s battle between Ford and Ferrari for supremacy at Le Mans.

It has all the elements of a good story. Two industry titans (Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari) going toe-to-toe. Ford depending on good ol’ Texas boy and racing genius Carroll Shelby to design and produce his challenger, and British driver Ken Miles to test the beast. A classic story of New World versus Old World at the macro level, and an oil-and-water buddy story at a personal level.

The Curse

However, despite A-list actors and director (James Mangold), this film will have a hard time to avoid the historical curse on movies about car racing. Ron Howard’s Rush was the last attempt at a prestige racing film. It failed miserably at the box office. Racing films are unfortunately more represented by candidates for the annual Razzie awards, including Sylvester Stallone’s Driven, Tom Cruise’s Days of Thunder, and even Elvis Presley’s Speedway (apologies to The King).

One has to go all the way back to 1966, to John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix – starring James Garner and featuring many real Grand Prix drivers in cameos – to find a racing movie that was both a critical and a box office success. It was a technical and editing tour de force. Grand Prix remains one of my all-time favorite movies, period.

Others might point to Steve McQueen’s Le Mans (1971). It’s more a product of the late ’60s confusing creativity with a hot mess. But the filming of the cars and racing of this era is undeniably well done (and features my favorite Porsches!).

Looking for a Win

Ironically, documentaries have recently fared better than features. Senna (2010), Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (2015), and The 24 Hour War (2016) all present interesting stories (the latter also being about the Ford-Ferrari battles in the mid-’60s).

As for the new Ford-Ferrari feature, if having Matt Damon and Christian Bale can’t open it and get it past the checkered flag, then this niche market may have seen the last racing film for some time. Heck, since Damon somehow got The Great Wall to pull in $45 million in US box office, he might be able to drive this new film to a win and beat the curse.

David Tice is the principal of TiceVision LLC, a media research consultancy.
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