Let me start off by saying that if you choose to watch John Frankenheimer’s epic Formula One drama, you probably will not find the same level of visceral thrill that I found when I watched it this past week at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy’s summer film series, “The Last 70mm Film Festival,” focuses on those epics of the ’50s and ’60s that were produced on large format film (70mm, opposed to 35mm) and—sometimes—projected using the Cinerama process (in which three projectors simultaneously work together to make what is essentially a super widescreen image) and it attempts to exhibit them as they were initially shown in theaters.
The 70mm/Cinerama moment, which Grand Prix is very much a part of, came as ’60s Hollywood was dying at the hands of television and an audience that was more inclined to stay home with their children in the suburbs than schlep down to the theater. To compete for the consumer’s attention, Hollywood went into epic mode and tried to draw viewers back with sights that small black and white televisions could not provide. Essentially, the 70mm Cinerama film of the 1960s was analogous to the IMAX film of today. Thus, while you can watch Grand Prix on a pretty amazing Blu-Ray treatment, you’ll still be missing out on part of the film’s fundamental appeal: visual scale.
Yet, while part of the film’s essence will be lost in the transition from an eighty-five foot long screen to a fifty-five inch screen, there are still immense thrills and pleasures to be found in this 180 minute long racing epic. The film’s narrative is spun around the lives of four racers: the seasoned Frenchman Sarti (Yves Montand) and his American equivalent, Aron (James Gardner), the physically disabled Englishman Stoddard (Brian Bedford), and the young cocky Italian Barlini (Antonio Sabàto). Over the span of the film, the four men respectfully jockey for the leading position on the world Grand Prix circuit while also utilizing their fast and furious moves on the women of their lives (including Eva Marie Saint, Jessica Walter, and Françoise Hardy).
The plot is thin and defined by stereotypes. Aron’s racing accidentally leads to a horrific crash in the first race, leaving him without a team and Stoddard disfigured. This triggers two character arcs centered on the theme of redemption. Aron finds himself unemployed and attempting to get a Japanese sponsor (Toshirô Mifune) to take a chance on him. Stoddard, on the other hand, loses his wife (Walter) to Aron after tempting death one too many times and tries to win her back. (Which, of course, begs the question why the wife would find Aron a rightful lover as well.) The unhappily married Sarti finds himself in an existential crisis (just like those French fellas of the 1960s!) when he realizes the purposelessness of racing during his affair with a young reporter (Marie Saint).
While the film flounders in its dramatic moments because of the vague, poorly defined characters and the questionable sexual politics that it seems to endorse while also criticizing with a wink, the film’s racing sequences—even in this age of fast editing and the impossible being possible thanks to CGI—are nerve-wracking and stunning. Frankenheimer and his team captured an array of thrilling images through mountable cameras (some worn on the drivers’ helmets!) and twisting helicopter shots that have been collided together—just like the cars on occasion—through a barrage of methods from Eisensteinian cuts to split-screen sequences that graphic designer Saul Bass was consulted on. Moreover, thanks to Frankenheimer’s ability to approach each race with a distinct eye (one is shot from Marie Saint’s point-of-view and contemplates the nature on the course while one gets spatially disorientating thanks to a downpour), the graphic gimmicks never grow stale. Even if you don’t have the luxury of seeing Grand Prix in a large format projection, you should still give it a test drive.