50+ years later, Grand Prix will still put you on the edge of your seat
Gears shift, gloved hands grasp steering wheels, side-view mirrors frame the faces of drivers. Pit crews rush around them, and an enthralled crowd looks on. Engines rev, a stopwatch ticks, a heart beats. You can almost smell the smoke from the roaring tailpipes and burning tires. Finally, an establishing shot: the starting line, and the race begins.
This is Monaco, or at least a vision of Monaco shared by director John Frankenheimer and artist Saul Bass, blended with real Formula 1 footage. In Grand Prix’s first race, Pete Aron gives his teammate the signal to pass, just as his gearbox freezes up, and a terrible crash follows. Aron is dropped from the team, disgraced, but he’s not finished yet.
Frankenheimer’s 1966 racing epic chronicles the journeys of four drivers through a single season during the Golden Age of Formula One. During the film’s opening montage, an announcer introduces our protagonists. British Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) is broken by a car crash, haunted by the death of his racing champion brother, and struggling in his marriage to Pat (Jessica Walter), who has an affair with Aron (James Garner), the American who once drove for Ferrari and BRM. Former world champion Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), who’s trapped in a loveless marriage, falls for journalist Louise Frederickson (Eva Marie Saint). Young rookie Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabàto) doesn’t care about much—not even popular 1960s French singer Françoise Hardy—except for going fast. Toshiro Mifune plays Izo Yamura, a character inspired by Soichiro Honda, who takes on Aron after Ferrari and BRM are done with him. If you haven’t already figured it out for yourself, take Garner’s word for it; he described it as “pure soap opera.”
Although Grand Prix’s interpersonal plot is pure melodrama, the racing feels authentic, invigorating, innovative. In previous racing films—in many movies’ driving scenes, in fact—actors generally sat in stationary cars while footage was projected behind them. Some filmmakers chose to shoot slow-moving cars, then speed up the footage. But Frankenheimer didn’t want any of this—he wanted realism. So Bedford, Montand, and Sabàto spent three weeks learning the basics from Jim Russell. Garner, on the other hand, trained with driver Bob Bondurant for two months. Bondurant took each of the actors for runs in a Shelby Cobra 289 and later claimed, “James Garner was a natural.”
While Bedford was doubled by Phil Hill (the driver in which Aron was partially based on) and Sabàto’s car was modified and dragged around the track, Garner did of all his own driving—even during scenes when fire was involved. During one such segment at Brands Hatch, Garner recalled that “the fire got a lot bigger than I was expecting. It wasn’t a very comfortable moment, and I got out of the car in a real hurry.”
Grand Prix was shot on location during race weekends, with actors in real, moving cars (mostly F1 shells with F3 engines); action was filmed with in-car and mounted cameras, which didn’t exist prior to the movie. According to cameraman John M. Stephens, Frankenheimer approached him and asked, “How would you like to be the cameraman going at 180 mph in a specially-built camera car while photographing the actual drivers on the Grand Prix circuit?” Stephens replied, “It would scare the hell out of me.” So to avoid that scenario, Stephens built a remote control pan-and-tilt camera and affixed it to the side of a car. He controlled the rig and watched the action from the safety of a helicopter. The crew employed two other rigs for filming, and multiple cars were used, from an AC Cobra to a Ford GT40 prototype driven by Hill. The crew engineered the camera mounts onto the cars to capture its natural shake, which enhances the viewer’s feeling of being in the driver’s seat. Carroll Shelby served as technical advisor.
Maintaining authenticity, the lead character tours the actual Ferrari factory, not a set. His personal car of choice is a 1966 Shelby GT350H, and his race car is a McLaren disguised as a “Yamura.” Making cameo appearances were Jimmy Clark, Jochen Rindt, Bruce McLaren, Dan Gurney, Richie Ginther, Jack Brabham, Denis Hulme, Joe Bonnier, Jo Schlesser, and Juan Manuel Fangio, as well as John Surtees, Jackie Stewart, and Lorenzo Bandini, who had characters loosely based on them.
In addition, Frankenheimer used footage of real pit crews, real crowds, and real races. The film orients us with aerial shots of the race, quick cuts between drivers, and then puts us in the driver’s seat for long stretches of time, thanks to Stephens’ special camera, which swivels from the driver’s face to the track ahead. The camera seems to take pleasure in every detail of the race track, the driver, the crowd, and the car. Frankenheimer’s love of racing and cars shows, and he captures the thrill of it.
The film features six Grand Prix races: Brands Hatch, Monaco, Spa, Monza, Zandvoort, and Clermont-Ferrand, and each one feels unique. Saul Bass was tapped for more artistry than just the film’s title sequence; he also created its striking aesthetic of montages and multiplying split screens during each race sequence. Sometimes his designs are intended to build suspense, other times to create a mood, but always to help tell the story and involve us in the race. The Clermont-Ferrand race is the most impressionistic, using slow-motion, multiple exposures, dissolves, soft colors, and Maurice Jarre’s score, rather than the raw sounds of the racers. Bass and Frankenheimer focus on the observers, the crowd, and Louise’s experience at her first race. A dissolve blends an image of an enraptured Louise with the race itself. The crowd moves as one, heads swiveling, gasping, part of the ecstasy. In this sequence, Louise falls in love with Jean-Pierre Sarti, the winner at Clermont-Ferrand, and with racing. This race belongs to them.
Belgium’s Spa is one of the most exciting and devastating races featured. The camera follows the cars and drivers using shots from the low-to-the-ground point of view of the driver/car. There is no score, only engines and the announcer’s voice. Rain droplets hit a stopwatch, then the camera lens blurs, as if from the drivers’ perspective. A cloudburst. Race car carnage at the side of the road foreshadows the rain’s aftermath: Sarti wipes out, killing two children. Aron wins, and his victory is intercut with the trauma of Sarti’s crash.
The next race features a bombastic, triumphant score, marking the return of Scott Stoddard to racing after having nearly died in the film’s first race. It makes the most of split screen, showing us several drivers at once, or a car with its driver next to the character who’s watching them, thinking of them. Stoddard wins, despite his pain.
Nino Barlini wins the fifth event at Brands Hatch, a straightforward race, like Barlini himself. Monza, the final race, is the most dangerous, with a steep, banked track and high speeds reaching up to 180 mph. From the perspective of Stephens’s car camera, it sometimes appears as if the cars are driving on a 90-degree angle. It’s also the most tragic and reflective race. A split-screen view shows Monza itself, and flashbacks to each driver discussing their fears, how they struggle, what they feel, why they race.
While Steve McQueen’s Bullitt may have been the blueprint for the modern car chase, Grand Prix taught people how to film cars, and how to look at them. The race movie and the car-chase movie aren’t so different: on the surface, one is a pursuit, the other is a competition. But Grand Prix is about men in pursuit of something, an obscure object of desire, and the race is existential. In Grand Prix, the race is both an escape from life and it’s a heightened, adrenaline-infused, simpler version of it. The track is the crucible where men win or lose, break or heal, become famous or fade away. It is dangerous, and there’s no telling who will be the victory or loser, what the spoils will be—or the damage done.
In a flashback during Monza, Yamura asks Aron why he does it, and Aron answers, “I don’t think there’s one of us who doesn’t ask himself at least once in the middle of a race, ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ … Maybe to do something that brings you so close to the possibility of death and to survive it is to feel life and living so much more intensely.”