The need for speed

They don’t call them motion pictures for nothing. From 1913’s The Speed Kings to Michael Mann’s forthcoming Ferrari epic, Hollywood’s love affair with fast cars shows no signs of slowing down after over a century. We take a fast and furious look at the history of racing in movies…

In 1895, the Lumiére brothers presented projected moving pictures to a paying audience for the first time. In 1896, commercial production of automobiles began in the United States. It didn’t take long before someone had the bright idea to put a car in a film. Movies and motors have been teaming up ever since. They’ve practically grown up together.

Like any long-term relationship, both parties have evolved, becoming technologically more complex and ambitious over time. We’ve gone from Model Ts to Teslas and from Kinetographs to GoPros. When Buster Keaton was almost hit by a train in a chase scene from 1924’s Sherlock Jr minds were blown by the simple use of back projection. By the 1960s, the camera was actually in the car. Today, the Fast and the Furious franchise is built on trying to deliver something that might not have been possible even one film before. The consistent advances in technology – in both the motor and the movie business – are part of the reason the partnership endures. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

Racing movies also reflect the times. From the silent wonder of the 1920s when both cars and cinema were still brand new, to the more pulpy racing flicks of the ’30s and ’40s, full of drama and danger as cinema started to define its genres. The ’50s brought the beginning of more mature, ambitious stories while racing movies in the ’60s often reflected a jet-set glamour that most of the public only knew from what they saw in glossy magazines. With the ’70s came the counter culture and a questioning of everything before the glossy hyperbole of the ’80s (just compare and contrast the ambitions of, say, Le Mans and Days of Thunder…). As we reached the end of the century, documentary techniques – and documentaries – would become prevalent, and the past became a regular source for stories. Sometimes utilising old footage (Senna) sometimes making glossy reimaginings (Rush). But the lure of capturing speed on film continues to inspire each generation of film-makers.

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