Back in the 1960s, there was a particular genre of movies comprised of big budget epics with large international casts. Their sudsy stories usually centered on some larger-than-life subject. Another prime example would Guy Hamilton’s Battle of Britain. This film shares a lot of DNA with the later war epic. Both films work best when focusing more on the machines than the people inside them. When Grand Prix is in its element, using director John Frankenheimer’s car mounted cameras on the real circuits of the Formula One racing season, the film is exciting and visually spectacular. When the characters get out of their cars, strip off their racing suits and start talking to each other, the film runs into trouble.
The characters are mostly shallow, better suited to daytime serials than widescreen epics. Pete Aron (James Garner) is a self-centered American driver who loses his ride when he causes an accident that nearly cripples his British teammate, Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford). Pat (Jessica Walter), Scott’s decorous wife, loves him too much to stay married to him as he attempts to come back from his injuries.
Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), the world-weary French champion driving for the Ferrari team, begins an affair with a pretty American journalist (Eva Marie Saint) as he begins to question why he continues to pursue this death defying sport.
Meanwhile, Pete is offered a ride by Izo Yamura (Toshirô Mifune), a Japanese industrialist and team owner who is new to Formula One and impatient with his other drivers’ lack of success.
Part of the problem is the script’s inability to keep all of its balls in the air at once. Characters disappear off stage for too long and then re-appear after so much time has passed that we almost need name tags to recognize them again.
The performances are a mixed bag. Garner has none of his usual charm as a standoffish loner and Montand is too old and worldly to be believable. Mifune clearly struggles with his English, hampering his character. Surprisingly for a film of this time and genre, the women (Walter and Saint) have the meatiest roles and make the most of them.
For an aging Formula One aficionado, however, the race scenes in the film are a nostalgic orgasm. Frankenheimer brought his cameras to three of the sport’s most picturesque and legendary tracks, the streets of Monte Carlo, Spa in Belgium and Monza in Italy. Being 1966, this was well before these tracks were emasculated in the name of safety. Monza was still a six mile monster combining a road course with a high-speed banked oval (a version of the circuit which was never actually used after 1961, for safety reasons). If they had managed to squeeze in the old Nurburgring, old-school F1 fans could die happy men.
Unlike modern racing movies like Days of Thunder and Driven, Grand Prix overcomes its soapy limitations by respecting its subject matter. The film is true to the spirit of racing at the time, when drivers had some of the dash of World War I fighter aces rather than the corporate sponsored jet pilots of today. The cars were still fiberglass deathtraps with none of aerodynamic protrusions that mar the bodywork of the modern cars and keep them glued to the track like the Disneyland Monorail.
Grand Prix is a flawed classic with its dizzying camerawork and great nostalgic value. If you’re not into this kind of racing, you might not care for it but if you’re any kind of racing fan, you should check it out.