Wheel to reel

He's sleep-deprived, his eyes are shot, but Richard Heseltine has made it through the best and worst racing movies of all time...

 

Star Ratings:

* * * * *    Absolute must-see

* * * *      Great racing footage, OK movie

* * *         Fast forward to racing scenes

* *            Best viewed under the influence

*              Warning!  Burt Reynolds is in it... 

 

DRIVEN

(2000) *

Given that Champ Car tanked shortly after this film bombed on release, it could lead you to surmise that the two mishaps were interlinked. This Sylvester Stallone vehicle was originally to have been rooted in Formula One, but jumped over to CART following Sly's falling out with Bernie Ecclestone (presumably he'd read the script). But it still retains a distinct grand prix vibe: arrogant German superstar? Check. Wheelchair-bound team boss? Check. And so on.

The story involves an up-and-coming (if easily distracted) driver who's in danger of losing his seat. Fortunately, washed up old-pro-turned-coach Stallone comes to the rescue. He has his work cut out; not only is said up-and-comer copping off with his German rival's Corinna Schumacher-alike other half, played by synchronised swimmer-turned-actress Estella Warren, he is also being royally stitched up by his brother/manager. With cameos for Roberto Moreno and Jean Alesi among others, the race footage isn't too terrible until the shonky computer-generated stuff kicks in. 'Best' scene: Stallone and his young charge self-start their Champ Cars and race through a neon-drenched cityscape. Or there's the crash sequence on the rain-sodden (!) oval, or the...

 

UN HOMME ET UNE FEMME (1966) * * * *

Racing only serves as a backdrop, but this Claude LeLouch offering deserves veneration for the great soundtrack alone. Seemingly filmed entirely in the rain (lots of lingering shots though windscreen wipers), the plot centres around a beautiful widow and a bereaved racing driver who fall in love following a chance encounter at a school. He drives for Ford France so there's some great footage of GT4Os and Mustangs at Montlhéry among other circuits, interspersed with actual race footage: look out for Jean-Louis Marnat crashing a works Triumph Spitfire in front of the Le Mans pits on being overcome by carbon dioxide fumes. Best to ignore the 1986 sequel — A Man and a Woman: 20 Years Later — which is frankly too baffling to bother with.

 

TINY LUND' HARD CHARGER! (1967) * *

And he was, too. This fairly obscure documentary celebrates the career of South Carolina ace DeWayne Lund, imaginatively nicknamed Tiny on account of his bulky 6ft 5in build. Lund entered into NASCAR legend after pulling Marvin Panch from a burning wreck during practice for the '63 Daytona 500. Panch returned the favour by suggesting to his Wood Brothers team that Lund replace him for the race. Despite little experience in the big leagues, Tiny proceeded to win the race. The film includes quality footage of '60s stockers exchanging paint, and cameos from the likes of Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.

 

THE LAST AMERICAN HERO (1973) * * *

Derived from an article in The Saturday Evening Post  by Tom Wolfe, this film is (very) loosely based on the life of the great Robert 'Junior' Johnson, arriving with the tagline, 'It took him 20 years to find out who he was and two laps to let the world know.' The always-reliable Jeff Bridges plays Elroy 'Roy-Boy' Jackson Jr, who hones his driving style running 'shine, gets caught by Johnny Law and then spends some time in choky. On release he starts driving on short dirt ovals, catches a break and becomes a NASCAR hero. Well, sort of. Continuity isn't particularly hot and the racing footage is too brief to satiate NASCAR fans, but it's still worth catching next time it's on telly.

 

THE RACING SCENE (1970) * * * * *

A must-see documentary which opens with the preternaturally cool James Garner (who also narrates) driving his Corvette from LA to Mexico, where he will compete in the '68 Baja 500 (he finished second a year later). He then flies to the UK to test his Formula 5000 Lola at a snowy Silverstone. Then it's on to Daytona, where he's entered a brace of T70s for the 24 Hours under the American International Racing banner. The in-car footage on the banking is a joy.

The film ends with his driver Scooter Patrick getting caught up in the carnage of a seven-car F5000 demolition derby at St Jovite which effectively ended Garner's brief tenure as a team owner.

 

BOBBY DEERFIELD (1977) * *

OK, hands up anyone who managed to sit through all of this. Didn't think so. Starring Al Pacino, a man who has latterly given up acting for simply shouting, this is a dire movie regardless of racing content. The eponymous hero is an American in F1 who's estranged from his wife and falling for Lillian Morelli (Marthe Keller), who just happens to be terminally ill. Not that you'll care as she's profoundly irritating. Providing you tough it out long enough, you'll get to see Brabham-Alfas (Pacino is supposedly driving one), Tyrrell P34s and lots of other great kit in action, particularly at Dijon. Chances are you will have lost the will to live long before.

 

THE YOUNG RACERS (1963) * * *

A rarely-seen offering from King of the Cheapies Roger Corman, an auteur deified by sunlight-starved film gnomes. And with good reason. He admits in his autobiography, How I Made A Hundred Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime, that the main reason for making this was so that he could follow the grand prix circus. With the tagline, 'A little death each day... a little love every night! They treat beautiful women as if they were fast cars — rough!' this was never going to be high art. Who cares? Instead you get footage from Aintree, Spa, Rouen and Monaco during the 1962 season, the plot supposedly centring on a retired driver writing a bitchy exposé on one of his former rivals. Jim Clark, Trevor Taylor and Bruce McLaren all appear and, on fast-forward during the boring bits, it's not at all bad.

 

ROAD RACERS (1958)  * * *

As a rule of thumb, the better the poster art the more rubbish the film, this melodramatic nonsense being a case in point. The plot, for want of a better word, sees wealthy race-car entrant Harry Wilson blaming his son Rob for the death of fellow driver Billy Johnson in a crash at Willow Springs Raceway. He then lends his support to the skint but talented Greg Moore (Rob Wilson, Greg Moore...?) who is competing in his 'ol' bucket o' bolts' (Ol' Yeller). It all gets resolved in a big showdown during the American Grand Prix at Riverside. Wilson Jr's heated antics in what appears to be Jerry Unser's Pikes Peak Devin against assorted Jaguars, Corvettes, Arnolt-Bristols and a Kurtis 500S almost make up for the rest of the film. Later remade by Robert  From Dusk Till Dawn  Rodriguez but without the racing element. Erm...

 

THE CROWD ROARS (1932) * * * *

A classic of its kind and not to be confused with the boxing flick of the same name made a few years later. Directed by Howard Hawks (who decades later made Redline 7000 ), it stars the always watchable Jimmy Cagney as a tough oval ace, competing in the bullrings aboard his Greer Special while embroiled in a battle of wills with his brother who also wants to be a driver. Worth watching just for the racing footage, this film nonetheless stands up as a decent viewing experience in its own right. It was remade seven years later as Indianapolis Speedway starring Pat O'Brien.

43— THE PETTY STORY (1974) * *

Also known as Smash-up Alley. This biography kicks off with Richard Petty's monster real-life crash during the 1970 Darlington 500, father Lee (played by Darren McGavin) pacing the hospital waiting room reminiscing about the family's previous 20 years in stock car racing.

So begins a series of flashbacks where you get to view some reasonable race footage. Unfortunately, you also get the full horror of Richard Petty playing himself. You'd think he'd be a natural at it, but wooden isn't the word. Marvel as he re-enacts his wedding day (he must have been pushing 35 acting 18...) while country & western troubadour Marty Robbins provides the soundtrack. It really begs the question: 'What, precisely, is so good about good ol' boys?'

 

WINNING (1969) * * *

The film that turned the great Paul Newman on to racing. He plays veteran driver Frank Capua whose biggest rival is Luther Erding (Robert Wagner). This being a Hollywood soap opera, there's a love interest (played by Newman's wife, Joanne Woodward) whose son gets under Capua's skin while she predictably hops into Erding's bed. Ignoring this, there's some wonderful footage of the gorgeous Honker in action and the real life 1966 Indy 500 startline pile-up. Also be sure to look out for the Ford Fairlane shunt at Riverside. Ouch!

 

TO PLEASE A LADY (1950) * * * *

In his efforts to rebuild his war-interrupted racing career, ruthless Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) takes to the midget circuit but stumbles after newspaper reporter Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck) writes a scathing attack on his 'by all means necessary' lack of track etiquette. He gets blacklisted and is reduced to stunt driving in a rodeo (stunt-man and oval star Joie Chitwood not only doubles for Gable, he also appears as himself). And wouldn't you know it, after being slapped around a bit by Brannan, Forbes falls for him. Once rehabilitated, he makes the leap to the big leagues and gets to drive in the 1950 Indianapolis 500 in which he battles with three-time winner Mauri Rose (playing himself). Great action sequences and well worth locating.

 

STROKER ACE (1983) *

An amusing novel; a truly lousy movie. Starring Burt Reynolds and real-life squeeze Loni Anderson, this execrable offering sees a NASCAR driver's career on the skids — he wears a chicken suit in one race to aggravate a Colonel Sanders-like sponsor — whose only point of focus is the contents of the virginal Pembrook Feeney's under-crackers. That she's the sponsor's assistant and wise to his jive means that much hilarity ensues. Well, that was the intention anyway. There is some race footage apparently, but we were too busy stapling our eyelids shut to notice.

 

BORN TO RACE (1988) * *

A classic of its kind — that kind being sub-B-movie dross. The very lovely Andrea Lombardo (Maria Heasley) is an Italian engineer who devises a new demon tweak that will shake up NASCAR. With NASCAR founded on Neolithic levels of technology this is hardly difficult, but anyway she hooks up with penniless racer Al Pagura (Joseph Bottoms) before getting kidnapped by evil team boss Vincent DuPlain (Oscar winner George Kennedy slumming it). Pagura rides to the rescue and the film ends with a racing showdown between him and DuPlain's driver, Kenny Landruff (Mark Singer). Who wins? Go on, take a wild stab. Still, it's got more heart than Days Of Thunder...

 

THE SPEED LOVERS (1968) * *

Racing drivers acting. Oh the horror! Chances are you won't have heard of this film (with good reason), which involves NASCAR superstar Fred Lorenzen and a bunch of gangsters trying to fix races. The son of his lead mechanic desperately wants to race but their estrangement means he has to look elsewhere. Fortunately he hooks up with a lady NASCAR owner who will give him a drive if he can persuade Lorenzen to jump ship too. But what's this? Lordy, she's in the mob. Lorenzen won't leave but then some bad men threaten to kill the mechanic's son if he doesn't. To be perfectly honest we can't remember how it ends (the Pro Plus wore off) but there's some super footage of stock cars in action. That's not enough to recommend it though, unless you have a high tolerance for truly atrocious acting. Remarkably, Lorenzen is just about the best 'actor' of the lot. Which is a worry.

 

THE DEVIL'S HAIRPIN (1957) * * *

This long-forgotten flick starring Cornell Wilde (also directing for the first time) is about a champion racer whose robust take-no-prisoners approach ends with him crippling his brother in an accident. The ostracised Wilde then attempts a comeback, his road to redemption aided by Jean Wallace (keeping it in the family — she was Wilde's wife at the time). Ignoring the hokey script, this is worth catching for some great footage of assorted D-types, Allard J2s, Siata 208s and the like mixing it in real and staged battles.

 

GRAND PRIX (1966) * * * * *

Much-loved but overlong at 171 minutes, this John Frankenheimer classic features some of the greatest racing images ever committed to celluloid. Pete Aron (James Garner) is an American F1 driver with an unfortunate reputation for causing accidents, a crash at Monaco involving his Jordan-BRM team-mate Scott Stoddard (theatre thesp Brian Bedford) seeing him fired from the squad. Aron soon finds himself embroiled in a relationship with Stoddard's missus while signing for the fledgling Yamura team and winning the World Championship. A very abridged outline, but the plot really is secondary. Footage from actual races at Spa, Zandvoort and Monza among others is seamlessly woven into staged sequences, with a few of the actors performing driving duties in Jim Russell-modified Formula Juniors. Look out for the many cameos from the likes of Graham Hill (looking daggers) and Jo Bonnier, not forgetting Phil Hill: "He's on fire!"

 

DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) * *

After the success of Top Gun, it was inevitable that Tom Cruise would team up with über-producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson for another dose of 'high-concept entertainment'. And this being Hollywood on NASCAR, it's awash with clichés. Cruise plays cocky young hotshoe Cole Trickle, who manages to wreck every car Robert Duvall can build in his barn. He finds a nemesis in big-man-on-the-stock-car-campus Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker), has a major accident, starts a relationship with his doctor (Nicole Kidman) and regains his mojo by guiding his car through fiery wreckage. Loosely based on the relationship between veteran crew chief Harry Hyde and the tragic Tim Richmond, this had the potential to be good. Instead it's unutterable guff.

 

CHECKPOINT (1957) * * * *

Deliciously silly film from the Rank Organisation that sees the British Warren-Ingrams (Lagonda V12s) thoroughly trounced by the Italian Erminis thanks to a revolutionary engine mod of some kind. W-I boss James Robertson Justice assigns rotter Stanley Baker to steal this demon tweak but, as is often the way with rotters, he's spotted and ends up killing a policeman. Fortunately the around-Italy Arno-Alpi race is taking place, so how better to get to the Swiss border than teaming up with works W-I driver Anthony Steel? Cue a high-speed punch-up as they near the land of cuckoo clocks, ending with the famous car-teetering-on-edge-of-cliff face-off. Worth watching for footage from the 1956 Mille Miglia interspersed with what appears to be the Brecon Beacons: Cliff Davis, Roy Salvadori and John Coombs were among the drivers used in the making of the film. Checkpoint also features the only known screen appearance of the Fairthorpe Atom.

 

LE MANS (1971) * * * * *

106 minutes of sheer racing porn. Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) returns to the 24 Hours after being involved in an accident the previous year that killed his rival Belgetti. He then meets the widow Belgetti and the lingering implication is that he's beginning a relationship with her. That's all there is in the way of plot — and that's how McQueen wanted it. Fuelled by his own megalomania, the Cooler King fired director John Sturges and bullied replacement Lee Katzin while roping in the likes of Derek Bell, Jacky Ickx and Masten Gregory among other stars to help realise his drivers' view of the round-the-clock classic. It lost a fortune and cost him his marriage. It'll likely cost you yours too if you inflict this on your other half.