I think it’s fairly safe to say that of the many films to feature motor racing, few have achieved any artistic distinction, and even fewer have managed to appeal to the vast audience that watch the sport. Of course debate will always rage amongst enthusiasts concerning the relative merits of Steve McQueen’s pet-project Le Mans (1971) and John Frankenheimer’s epic Grand Prix (1967) and though these two films will always stand head and shoulders above the rest, the fact is that few might appreciate the incredible number of films to use motor racing as a backdrop. The output of racing movies reached a peak between the production of these two seminal films, with the international success of Grand Prix leading not only to the well-known Paul Newman vehicle Winning (1969), but to a multitude of B-movies, each hoping to cash in on the passing appeal of the sub-genre. With many of the films being targeted at the undiscerning drive-in crowd, it’s unsurprising that few have found any favour with critics, but with the passing of years many can now be appreciated by racing historians purely for their setting, and the occasional moment of previously unseen race footage. So, if you’ve seen Pete Aron fished out of the Monaco harbour, or Claude Aurec struggle from his crashed Ferrari one too many times, there are some interesting alternatives.
The first notable racing film of the 1960’s, The Young Racers (1963), was 32 year-old producer/director Roger Corman’s thirty-sixth feature film and thanks to his economic methods, not one of them had lost a penny. Armed with a $150,000 budget; a script originally about bullfighting; and a skeleton crew, he set out to capture the sights and sounds of the 1962 European Formula One season, visiting Monaco, Spa, Rouen, Reims and Aintree. The film proved to be an international success and in terms of production methods it established a precedent, proving the feasibility of simply arriving at a few races and using the paddock as a backdrop to the dramatic action.
Corman’s distributors, American International Pictures (AIP), had a long history of youth oriented B-movie fare, including such cinematic delights as I Was A Teenage Werewolf and the series of Beach Party films which starred singing heartthrob Frankie Avalon. Given the success of MGM’s well-known Elvis Presley racing pictures, it was only a matter of time before Avalon put down his beach ball and picked up a crash helmet. In the atrocious Fireball 500 (1966), he starred as Dave Owens, stock car driver, singer, ladies’ man, and all-round tough guy, who unsuccessfully treads the fine line between laidback cool and rudeness – proving beyond doubt that only Elvis could make such a potentially noxious concoction palatable. The producers followed this with more of the same good ole boy NASCAR nonsense in Thunder Alley (1967), which starred another singing heartthrob, Fabian Forte (who had also appeared in Fireball 500). Both films prominently featured the work of West Coast customizing legend George Barris, who for Fireball 500 created a replica of Richard Petty’s iconic number 43 Plymouth (supposedly raced by Owens) and a barely recognizable Plymouth Barracuda, whilst for Thunder Alley he modified a Dodge Charger. The latter cars toured America promoting their respective films and were subsequently licensed as 1/25th scale plastic kits, the sales of which rivaled the box office takings.
Fabian Forte would don overalls once again for the last of AIP’s racing films, The Wild Racers, shot over the summer of 1967 in much the same style as The Young Racers, and featuring action from Formula 2 races at Rouen, Brands Hatch, Jarama and Zandvoort (which were cunningly presented as Formula 1 events to the unsuspecting audience) along with the Sportscar race at Magny Cours. An underrated and stylish piece of filmmaking, it also contains some extraordinary footage, much of which centers around the Winkelmann Brabham BT23 driven by the “King of Formula Two”, Jochen Rindt.
After the successful releases of AIP’s films the floodgates truly opened, and with the gradual relaxation of censorship laws filmmakers could focus increasingly upon unsavory characters and violent action for cheap thrills. “Raw Flesh Against Steel!” exclaimed the advertisements for the “crash-o-rama” flick Pit Stop, which centered around ‘Figure Eight’ racing and contained some genuinely hair-raising sequences. With its grotesque array of protagonists and atmospheric black and white photography, Pit Stop is exploitation filmmaking at its finest, though any picture directed by Jack Hill should not, however, be held as a standard, for few such talented men operated in the milieu of B-movie production. Proof enough might come from the ill-advised viewing of writer/director/star William F. McGaha’s 1968 opus The Speed Lovers, which co-starred NASCAR driver Fred Lorenzon as himself, and placed the duo at the center of a rather implausible race-fixing plot to negligible dramatic effect. Equally uninteresting were John Russell’s dealings with a similar bunch of gangsters in Fireball Jungle (1969) and singer Marty Robbins’ romantic exploits in the artistically barren Hell on Wheels (1967). Stock car potboilers aside, feature-length documentaries also exploited the dangers of oval racing – US cinemagoers could hear the racing philosophies of Mario Andretti and Parnelli Jones in Profile of a Race Driver (1966), or see the remarkable story of stock car hero Tiny Lund – Hard Charger (1969) whilst countless others extolled the daring of the Figure Eight racers and dirt-trackers. Perhaps the most interesting documentary of the period chronicled the difficult first season of Grand Prix star James Garner’s American International Racing team. The Racing Scene (1969) followed the team to the Daytona 24 Hours and the Sebring 12 Hours, then to Limerock and St. Jovite for the Formula A events, and combined first-rate on-track footage with an uncompromising look at their mixed fortunes.
The proliferation of adventure and espionage films resulting from the success of the Bond franchise led to the inclusion of brief racing sequences in many films during the latter half of the decade, largely in efforts to lend a little additional glamour to proceedings. Examples included the Spanish caper movie The Magnificent Tony Carrera (original title: El Magnifico Tony Carrera, 1968), which opened with an F3 Lotteria at Monza; whilst the denouement of the atmospheric spy thriller A Dandy in Aspic (1968) played out against the dramatic backdrop of the Avus banking in Berlin during a Formula 3 race; and secret agent Stephen Boyd pulled an associate from the burning wreckage of an F2 Lotus at Brands Hatch in Assignment K (1968). Oddly enough Stirling Moss appeared momentarily alongside racing fan and team owner Peter Sellers in the overblown spoof Casino Royale (1967). When asked in typical fashion to “follow that car” Moss does so, on foot – “Idiot” remarks Sellers “I’ll get Fangio next time”. The legendary Juan Manuel Fangio was himself no stranger to the big screen, appearing in two Argentinian productions: the comedy Viaje de una nocha de verano (1965) and the racing drama Turismo de carretera (1968) along with his cameo in Grand Prix.
The big budget Japanese production Safari 5000, attempted to rival the epic scope of Frankenheimer’s film, and featured action from the Monte Carlo Rally along with the titular event. Unfortunately, in spite of being the highest grossing Japanese film of 1969, Safari 5000 (originally entitled Eiko e no 5,000 kiro) was seemingly never released internationally, at least not in its original form. A heavily edited version was released in Europe in 1972 with an advertising campaign inexplicably featuring artwork of Jacky Ickx in a Ferrari 312 B2 at Indianapolis! Viewers must surely have been somewhat disappointed at the absence not only of Ickx in his Ferrari, but of an intelligible plot.
During 1960s the Italian film industry was booming and the film-makers of Cinecitta were notoriously swift to exploit the latest cinematic trends down to the very last Lire. After the release of Winning several racing dramas went into production. The first, Formula 1: Nell’Inferno del Grand Prix (US title: Maniacs on Wheels) attempted to lend a little authenticity to proceedings by featuring none other than reigning World Champion Graham Hill and ex-Ferrari driver Giancarlo Baghetti (who also served as Racing Advisor) as two of the protagonists, whilst the starring role went to Giacomo Agostini, who, rather unimaginatively portrayed a motorbike champion given his shot at F1 stardom. Though his role could hardly be described as challenging, acting-wise Agostini isn’t bad – he looks suitably unimpressed when first shown his new 4WD Grand Prix car – and thankfully Hill isn’t really onscreen for long enough to appear as magnetically wooden as he had in Grand Prix. The racing sequences interspersed footage from the ’69 Monaco, Canadian, American and Italian Grands Prix with staged sequences shot mostly at Monza using F3 cars. The crew also attended the rainsoaked F2/F3 meeting at Albi and captured some exciting shots of the field slithering through the downpour. Agostini would return to the big screen for another racing asventure the following year, this time co-starring with pop singer Mal in the risible Amore Formula 2. It was aimed squarely at the teen market and opened to terrible reviews and mediocre box-office, thus ending his spell as a matinee idol. Opening later the same year, Le Mans – Scorciatoia per l’Inferno (English title: Le Mans – Shortcut to Hell) would be the third and final racing drama to emerge from Italy during this period. It starred American actor Lang Jeffries as an ex-driver turned manufacturer, haunted by the memories of the Le Mans crash of 1955 and troubled by the young upstart he has hired to drive for him. Footage from the 1970 Spanish and Dutch Grands Prix along with the Italian round of the Formula 5000 Championship was combined with more Baghetti coordinated slipstreaming action from Monza, this time using a variety of Formula 2 machinery, predominantly a Tecno (doubling for a Ferrari 312B in the race footage). With typical Cinecitta resourcefulness and sensationalism, footage of Jacky Ickx and Jackie Oliver’s fiery collision in Spain, and the aftermath of Piers Courage’s fatal accident at Zandvoort were made integral to the plot – the combination of the latter with a staged accident being a decision of questionable taste.
With the commercial failure of Le Mans the brief vogue for racing films largely ended, and the genre of the ‘road movie’ emerged, which would more accurately reflect the climate of social disillusionment in which they were made, as a series of displaced loners threw off society’s shackles and hit the road. Commercialisation, in the guise of the multiplex cinema, would soon put an end to the era of the exploitation ‘quickies’, just as corporate involvement would effectively end the glory days of the privateer in motor racing. Of course a big budget and decision making by committee is no guarantee of success, just ask the Toyota F1 team, or alternatively take a look at Days of Thunder…
First published in Octane magazine February 2011