James Herbert Harrison

Racing on Film: The Thrills, Spills, and Pitfalls of Hollywood’s Speedway Saga

In the 1960s, Hollywood produced some good films about motor racing. The content of this article will be limited to the author’s lifetime, and as such, the myriad of films prior to the mid-60s are not mentioned and a few may be commendable given the technology of the period.

Grand Prix, a movie directed by legendary director John Frankenheimer, was a breakthrough for racing on the silver screen, a great film shot during the 1966 Formula One season.

The star-studded cast featured premium actors who actually mirrored real-life drivers, i.e. James Garner and Dan Gurney, Brian Bedford and Jimmy Clark, and Yves Montand and John Surtees. While some of the cars were actually Formula Twos, they appeared authentic, and the racing footage, both real and fabricated, was awesome. The plot wasn’t super intriguing, but somewhat interesting to the casual or non-motor racing enthusiast. As a kid of twelve, it sparked my lifelong interest in the sport.

The Paul Newman film Winning followed, not on par with Frankenheimer’s work but the footage from Bobby Unser and Dan Gurney’s Eagles from the ’68 Indy 500 were good, although the plot of an overzealous driver catching his wife (real-life spouse Joanne Woodward) cheating on him with his teammate (Robert Wagner) was lame.

Steve McQueen followed three years later with Lemans, an exciting movie for the purist with virtually no plot at all for those uninterested in racing. My fondest memory of that production was the irony of McQueen’s saga at Sebring that same year of production when Mario Andretti had retired in a factory Ferrari 512, replaced a teammate driver in the lone surviving Ferrari late in the race, and piloted the Prancing Horse prototype to victory over the leading Porsche 908 driven by McQueen and Peter Revson.

Hollywood seemed to go into a malaise in the years following Lemans, producing films that had little for the motor racing fan. The 1975 film The Last American Hero, starring Jeff Bridges, was a low-budget attempt to depict the legend of Junior Johnson. Bridges was pretty good although the plot opening police chase scenes were cartoonish. The 1977 Al Pacino movie, Bobby Deerfield, was slightly entertaining for one was not expecting a movie about racing, followed by foolhardy cartoonish films such as the 1983 NASCAR satire, Stroker Ace.

While the sport of motor racing was gaining unparalleled popularity by the early ‘90s, Hollywood had chosen to inject absolute stupidity into its racing films. With the star power of Tom Cruise on tap, the 1990 movie Days of Thunder had a decent plot and was partially entertaining for the race fan until Hollywood confused NASCAR with a demolition derby. One almost felt sorry for the late Fred Dalton Thompson in his role as Bill France when forced to tolerate two drivers late for a meeting while they were trashing each other in two rental cars.

The worst of Hollywood’s attempts to produce a decent racing film was the 1999 Stallone film Driven, an absolutely ridiculous rendering of the former CART IndyCar Series with a scene involving two drivers racing IndyCars at speed through the streets of Chicago at night, adding insult to injury with an amateurish final race scene depicting Stallone passing cars on the road circuit as though they were sitting still.

The advent of technology and access to actual footage made possible a couple of better racing movies in the new millennium (I won’t mention Talladega Nights). Ron Howard’s Rush, the depiction of the historical 1976 Formula One championship dual between playboy James Hunt and engineering genius Nikki Lauda, was a very good docudrama, both entertaining while restrained on the modern Hollywood temptation of turning good action on the race track into science fiction.

Ford versus Ferrari, the depiction of Carroll Shelby’s involvement with Ford and their quest to defeat Ferrari at Lemans deserves high marks. Matt Damon and Christian Bale were great, the storyline was really good (even if Iacocca wasn’t really the one Henry Ford sent to Maranello). Some of the racing scenes were a stretch, but nothing is perfect and Frankenheimer has passed away.

All in all, with the combination of great racing footage and modern technology, it would be so grand if Hollywood could produce a great new action film with motorsports as a backdrop… The new rumored F1 Brad Pitt may be good, but the plot seems eerily similar to Stallone’s role in Driven, the has-been driver brought in to prop up the young up-and-comer. Let’s hope Hollywood may give us some semblance of action and drama without making the film cartoonish.

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