50 years on – Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix

"I’m not saying it’s my best film, but it was certainly one of the most satisfactory films I’ve made because I’ve had a Walter Mitty idea all my life about what would have happened if I’d really been a Ferrari driver. To be able to indulge your fantasies with ten-and-a-half million dollars is, I think, marvellous" John Frankenheimer, 1969

He was a big-picture man with visions of grandeur, willing to risk his hard-won credibility as a director and his studio’s money to create the greatest motor racing movie of all time.
John Frankenheimer was nothing if not ambitious. Conflicted and conflict-inspiring, the New York-born auteur went for broke, refusing to let technology’s inability to keep pace with his imagination stop him from creating his masterpiece. Half a century on from the release of Grand Prix, this celluloid classic is the most fondly remembered film from his bulging back catalogue; one that packed
as many hits as misses.

That said, it is also one of the most derided, but only if you have a heart of stone or don’t have a romantic fascination with cinema or motor racing. This 1966 production claimed three Oscars, let’s not forget, albeit on the technical and visual side. Style’s triumph is often substance’s loss, and you could argue that cliché-mongers had been let loose on the script. You could, but Grand Prix stretched the bounds of credibility rather than blatantly violating them. The same cannot be said of most films rooted in motor sport.

Scroll back to a time long before Rush or even Le Mans, and racing flicks could be divided into two groups: big-budget melodramas where the central protagonist was a ruthless so-and-so in search of redemption (or a good woman), or B-movies where camp dialogue and stock footage were no substitute for an actual plot. The difference between the two was the difference between the awful and the bloody awful. For all its faults, and it has many, Grand Prix was arguably the first in its genre to actually make a stab at realism. It was, for the most part, shot on location at actual Grand Prix venues – often during race weekends, where real drivers were employed to drive real racing cars. There was no back projection or green screen nonsense here.

Which is how Frankenheimer wanted it. Ever since he made his first short film while in the US Air Force (about the process of manufacturing asphalt…), this future Hollywood colossus had experimented with new techniques, even if they were new only to him. He is quoted in Gerald Pratley’s The Cinema of John Frankenheimer as saying: “Of course I made some terrible movies, but I did learn what I was doing at the government’s expense. That is a strange thing to say, but it’s true because they couldn’t have cared less. They let me take cameras home on weekends with all kinds of films and I’d go out and shoot all manner of stuff. I shot a whole short subject about my automobile. I guess that was the forerunner of Grand Prix. I tied the camera on to it and tried all kinds of angles.”

He was a fast learner. Once on civvy street, Frankenheimer parlayed success as a director of TV plays and serials into making well-received films such as The Bird Man of Alcatraz and The Manchurian Candidate. He did so in little more than a decade. The production of Grand Prix, however, represented the first time he had helmed a big-budget blockbuster. Not only that, he had never shot a film in colour before.

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How and why the film came into being depends on whose version of history you believe, but Frankenheimer stated more than once that the idea came to him while he was in France filming The Train which was released in 1964. But then he also claimed in print that he had previously raced cars himself, but we’re yet to find corroboratory evidence. The script, such as it was, borrowed heavily from Robert Daley’s sensationalist The Cruel Sport and was credited to Robert Alan Aurther, who had hitherto collaborated with Frankenheimer on various TV projects. However, much of the dialogue was reworked by Bill Hanley who had previously written the script for Frankenheimer’s The Gypsy Moths. Nevertheless, his input went uncredited. 

The storyline centres on the battle for the Formula 1 world championship. American driver Pete Aron, who has five wins to his credit but none in the previous three seasons, collides with his Jordan-BRM team-mate Scott Stoddard at Monaco. Aron is dismissed on the spot by his super-irate boss Jeff Jordan, while the gravely ill Stoddard fights for his life. Out of a drive, Aron finds solace in the arms of Stoddard’s wife, Pat. The former model is bored of being married to a man who lives in the shadow of his dead brother, 1958 world champion Roger Stoddard. Meanwhile… Corsican superstar Jean-Pierre Sarti is determined to claim a third title, but finds a distraction from his loveless marriage in the form of fashion magazine editor Louise Frederickson, who is following the GP circus for an article. His former Manetta-Ferrari team-mate, Aron, appeals to the boss of his old squad for a drive, only to be rebuffed. He is obliged to take a job as a commentator instead.

No matter, he is subsequently offered a seat by Japanese industrialist Izo Yamura and goes on to win the next two rounds. By this time, Stoddard is well enough to race again and is soon challenging for the title. After the British Grand Prix, four drivers – Aron, Stoddard, Sarti and his team-mate, Sicilian motorcycle champion turned car racer Nino Barlini, are vying for the prize. In the title decider at Monza, Sarti stalls his car at the start, recovers, and charges through the pack only to perish in a grisly accident. Manetta-Ferrari withdraws Barlini which leaves Aron and Stoddard to slug it out for the drivers’ crown. In a photo finish, Aron narrowly wins from Stoddard, who has by now been reunited with Pat. The end. 

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This is a mere thumbnail sketch of a film that marries race action with soap-opera melodrama. As for the choice of actors, Frankenheimer claimed in later years that he wanted an unknown actor to play Aron, but his MGM paymasters insisted on Steve McQueen. The ‘Cooler King’, however, blew hot and cold. He didn’t get along with Grand Prix producer Ed Lewis, so baled on the project and flew to Taiwan to make The Sand Pebbles instead. James Garner, erstwhile star of hit TV series Maverick, ultimately landed the role despite the director’s objections.

He recalled in The Garner Files by Jon Winonkur: “I think he [Frankenheimer] was looking for someone he could control. He had worked a lot with Burt Lancaster, and Burt always had an opinion. But both Lewis and the studio wanted me, and they overruled Frankenheimer.” Garner was joined by Yves Montand as Sarti, Eva Marie Saint as Frederickson, Antonio Sabàto as Barlini (in only his second-ever film role), pouty pop chanteuse Françoise Hardy as his love interest, theatre actor Brian Bedford as Stoddard
and Jessica Walters as his wife. The brilliant Toshiro Mifune played Izo Yamura in his first English-speaking role, although he was later dubbed by a different actor.

From all accounts, Frankenheimer wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly or otherwise and got things done through sheer force of will. He insisted on realism and, as such, refused merely to borrow cars, have them tootle around a track and speed up the footage later. Legend has it, perhaps apocryphally so, that he had hoped to field his own Formula 1 team, shooting exterior and in-car footage at each round of the ’66 championship, but the plan was nixed on cost grounds. The production team then tapped each constructor for technical drawings from which the special effects department could produce replicas of each car.

None was forthcoming. Shock.

Unbowed, he contacted racer-turned-motor mogul Carroll Shelby for advice. His star driver Bob Bondurant recalls: “I was out at Riverside in 1965 testing the new GT350. Shelby called me in to meet someone he was talking to in the pits. It was John Frankenheimer. John explained how he was going to make an epic film about F1 racing and Carroll suggested that I spend some time with him the following day out at Willow Springs with the GT350. I would show him from inside the car what racing on a track was really like; go through all the fundamentals. I wanted him to make the film as authentic as possible. From there we hit it off and I was invited to be the movie’s technical advisor and a driving double for the actors.”

Bondurant was one of more than 20 active or retired top-line drivers who participated in the shoot, with the likes of Graham Hill, Richie Ginther, Bruce McLaren, Jo Bonnier and Jochen Rindt also having minor speaking roles. As for the real actors, Bedford couldn’t drive, Montand had owned several fast road cars while Sabàto had zero experience on four wheels but reputedly made up for this with bravado.

Garner, meanwhile, was a keen driver, and used to stage impromptu ‘Brentwood Grands Prix’ with McQueen where they would terrorise the locale in identical Mini Coopers. However, unlike his next-door neighbour, he had never been on-track before Bondurant took him under his wing. “James was a great natural driver. He listened and took direction very well,” he recalls. “We started in a GT350, moved on to a 289 Cobra and then a Formula Junior. Later on, we borrowed a BRM F1 car and he took a few laps in that as well.”

The other ‘drivers’ were coached by Jim Russell, who also oversaw the construction of replica F1 cars based around Lotus 20/22 Formula Juniors. In addition, the production company acquired a Lotus 25/33 (which appeared on-screen as a ‘Yamura’) and either bought, leased or borrowed other Lotus F1 cars and a BRM. There was, however, a rather more pressing issue: McQueen and The Great Escape director John Sturges had teamed up to make their own racing drama, which not only irritated Frankenheimer but fostered a rivalry between Garner and McQueen that became increasingly toxic, if only from McQueen’s side. They didn’t speak again for two years. The race was on.

The audacity and naïvety of all concerned remains astounding given that the shoot began in May 1966 and finished in early October. The film was released in the USA on December 21! The crew didn’t exactly endear itself to the residents of Monaco, though, or race-goers for that matter. It took over the principality in the run-up and during the Grand Prix. Logistics seemed to have been addressed in a cavalier manner. The set-up shot in which Stoddard’s car was fired off the road by a hydrogen cannon (dubbed Big Blue) took an age to perfect. Footage also exists of a testy-looking Garner being repeatedly fished out of the Mediterranean after his ‘car’ had gone into the drink.

The media was a mite sniffy about the invasion of movie folk, too. Henry Manney’s Monaco Grand Prix report for Road & Track was particularly barbed, the veteran journalist commenting: “The normal confusion of practice was compounded by pits full of Hollywood types, scuttling little men with walkie-talkies, movie cameramen underfoot everywhere, make-up ladies, strutting actors with fake grease marks on their faces and the usual collection of camp followers.” He went on to add: “The producer had also imported an unlikely collection of clapped-out Formula Juniors with phony exhausts springing out of the boot-lid in true comic-book style and various pilots, both unemployed and otherwise, had been engaged to motor these around in the 30mph queue beloved of Hollywood directors, sawing furiously at the wheel like Greek taxi drivers.”

Frankenheimer recalled: “When I look back, I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film. We were always shooting, usually where we weren’t wanted, and usually with everything out of our control. But we just had to get those crowds.” The interminable wait between shots, also tried the patience of real wheelmen – including Chris Amon, whose helmet design was shared with Aron’s for continuity purposes. 

The Kiwi, who along with Bondurant and Phil Hill also drove the Ford GT40 camera car, recalls: “I remember it being pretty boring as you would sit around for hours, if not days, for set-ups to be done. In the middle of this I won Le Mans with Bruce McLaren, so I was probably a logical option when they were looking for a driver for the GT40 camera car. I really enjoyed that because it meant I was busy most of the time and it gave me an insight into the scenes we were shooting.”

Despite being coached in how to drive racing cars, Bedford threw in the towel almost immediately. A double was employed wearing a Nomex balaclava beneath the white and tartan skid lid (Jackie Stewart’s design, again for continuity purposes with real and staged footage). Sabàto reputedly scared himself silly when towed behind the GT40 in a two-wheeled racing car-cum-sled. Montand coped manfully, but didn’t enjoy the experience. Amon recalls: “I’m not sure it would pass health and
safety criteria these days, but we had a lot of fun towing the various actors, some of whom coped a lot better than others. I can only say that I was glad not to have been the one being towed.”

Intriguingly, Graham Hill had been vehemently against bulky cameras being used in the races proper, as were several other members of the Grand Prix Drivers’ Association. However, the Briton and several colleagues conveniently forgot the GPDA’s blanket ban on the use of in-car cameras during races on learning of MGM’s eight-figure budget. Their change of heart disgusted ’64 world champion John Surtees to the point that he resigned from the organisation.  

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Most of the circuits used during the shoot were active GP tracks, save for Clermont-Ferrand – which substituted 1966 French Grand Prix host Reims. The Nürburgring, however, was barely mentioned in the film as it was allied to the McQueen/Sturges vehicle Day of the Champion, which had exclusive dibs. An unexpected problem arose during the British Grand Prix at Brands Hatch, too. The Ferrari squad didn’t make it to the UK due to a metalworkers’ strike at the factory in Maranello. In order to maintain continuity, privateer Chris Lawrence was persuaded to hand-paint his Pearce-Ferrari red in double-quick time so that it could double for Sarti’s car in the race and during the following day’s shoot. Enzo Ferrari, meanwhile, had been unwilling to assist with the making of the film but he changed his mind after Frankenheimer showed him the early rushes.

It isn’t difficult to see why as Grand Prix was a remarkable technical and visual achievement. No expense was spared, with Frankenheimer employing 18 state-of-the-art Cinerama cameras. Former Cunningham racer/car builder Bill Frick created a new type of rig that could be fitted to the side of the cars without tipping them over under the strain. The film also reunited Frankenheimer with Lionel Lindon, who had been principal cinematographer on The Manchurian Candidate. The veteran lensman found himself hanging out of a helicopter for most of the action sequences. He also devised and edited the film’s in-car sequences. 

In The Cinema of John Frankenheimer, the director recalled: “Having driven a race car, and driven one fairly well, I can only tell you that when you are driving you have not very much sensation of speed, and I tried to create that in the French Grand Prix [scenes] that we shot on long lenses; on 1000mm lenses and things like that, where you got an almost slow motion effect… I got the idea for the use of a split screen or multiple images from Francis Thompson’s film To be Alive at the New York World’s Fair… Grand Prix was ideally suited to the split screens… What we were trying to do was to show other events taking place during a race but, if you wanted to, you could keep on looking at the race...”

With the incomparable Saul Bass providing the graphics, and the then white-hot Maurice Jarre composing the score, Grand Prix couldn’t lose. And it didn’t. The film more than recouped the investment, and garnered three Academy Awards while Warner Brothers’ rival flick Day of the Champion was axed before completion. Grand Prix was not well received by reviewers, however. 

“In some reviews, critics said that the story was not as good as the racing sequences,” Frankenheimer recalled to Gerald Pratley. “I think that is false criticism. While the racing sequences were done well, the story was good. If you look at what happened in racing since that film was made, you will see how true and tragic it was. Lorenzo Bandini was killed at the same place that our accident occurred in Monte Carlo. And Bandini, who was a Ferrari driver, helped stage the accident… Every incident in the film is based on something that really happened in racing. I don’t particularly want to say who the actual people were, but I think it’s no secret that the American driver played by James Garner was certainly based on Phil Hill. The English driver was certainly based on Stirling Moss. The Yves Montand character was based on three drivers, really: [Juan Manuel] Fangio, Wolfgang von Trips and Jean Behra, the French driver. It was a composite of the three men… I can go through each character on that film and tell you who they really were in real life.”

You can drive a horse and cart through the plot holes; outline the ridiculousness of Sarti’s crash, and about how the Monza banking wasn’t used in the Italian Grand Prix any more, anyway. That sort of thing. Sure, the gussied-up Formula Juniors look stupid, but so what? The bits shot in the Ferrari factory are enough to make your spine tingle, while the scenes of a sodden Spa-Francorchamps are worth the price of admission alone. As Garner put it: “At the end of three hours, you felt as though you’d been in the races, not at the races. I think it’s still the greatest auto racing picture ever made.” 

As for the real drivers who helped make it happen, Bondurant says: “It would be impossible to make that movie today. Shutting down a track before and during an F1 race to film a motion picture will never happen again. It was also a very dramatic period in racing and to capture it on film – the way the cars looked before wings, the lack of safety and how the race circuits were back then – is exciting to watch all these years later.”

The last word goes to Amon: “In terms of the end result, I think it’s grown on me over the years. When I first saw Grand Prix, some parts seemed far-fetched. Unfortunately, looking back, it was closer to reality than we all would have wanted…”