More powerful than even the fear of death itself is the will to win…
That’s a quote from the new Ron Howard film Rush, which will open in about three weeks. IMDB describes the film: Set against the sexy, glamorous golden age of Formula 1 racing in the 1970s, the film is based on the true story of a great sporting rivalry between handsome English playboy James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), and his methodical, brilliant opponent, Austrian driver Niki Lauda ( Daniel Bruhl).
As you know, racing cars is as dangerous as it gets, one mistake and you could die.
With such a premise, racing has long been fascinating to men all over the world, and the movies have tried again and again to capture the experience for movie goers. Of course, they are also trying to sell movie tickets. But it should come as no surprise that some of the world’s best known and popular movie stars of the last half century have tried their hand in films about racing. Some of these films were very good, and others, not so good.
As a run up to Rush, let’s have a look at some of the film world’s biggest stars in racing films. This is a list based on top actors, not based on the quality of the film. I’ve not included films that had driving excellence like Bullitt, French Connection, etc, as they were not about racing or had a racing background. And I’m sure the list is far from complete. So this is not a Best Of List. You can add other films in the comments section if you like.
When you see the cars, you are amazed about how small and cramped they really are. They are built for speed, and speed. Not much else. As a character in Grand Prix described it:
Then I go into one of these, these cars: you sit in a box, a coffin, gasoline all around you. It is like being inside a bomb!
GRAND PRIX (1966) – James Garner, Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint, Toshiro Mifune, and Jessica Walter. Directed by John Frankenheimer.
After an accident in the Grand Prix of Monaco, Garner as Pete Aron, an American driver is talking to the winner of the race, Jean Pierre Sarti, played by Yves Montand.
Pete Aron: Jordan says I was blocking him. That I didn’t give him a signal to pass.
Jean Pierre Sarti : Did you?
Pete Aron: Of course I did. Gear box froze coming out of the tunnel, and I waved him through. I got on the brakes. They locked up. Threw me in front of him. Next thing I knew, I was in the middle of the Mediterranean.
Yes, racing is scary. In seconds, Aron went from leading the race, to having to be pulled out of the sea.
Pete Aron : There’s a lie that all drivers tell themselves: Death is something that happens to other people.
And yet they go back to it. They race again and again. They’re unable to resist the siren song of speed, adulation, fame, money, and of course, women. But how do they think of it?
Jean-Pierre Sarti: The danger? Well, of course. But you are missing a very important point. I think if any of us imagined – really imagined – what it would be like to go into a tree at 150 miles per hour we would probably never get into the cars at all, none of us. So it has always seemed to me that to do something very dangerous requires a certain absence of imagination.
Meaning, one must shut down the mind to everything except the cars in front and behind them. the speed, and navigating through the race. After the race, won by Sarti, he is talking to an American Journalist.
Jean-Pierre Sarti: Before you leave I want to tell you something. Not about the others, but about myself. I used to go to pieces. I’d see an accident like that and be so weak inside that I wanted to quit – stop the car and walk away. I could hardly make myself go past it. But I’m older now. When I see something really horrible, I put my foot down. Hard! Because I know that everyone else is lifting his.
Louise Frederickson (Played by Eva Marie saint): What a terrible way to win.
Jean-Pierre Sarti: No, there is no terrible way to win. There is only winning.
LE MANS (1971) – Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, and Elga Anderson
The 24 hours of Le Mans is a world-famous race set in Le Mans, France. The cars race around the environs and through the town of Le Mans, which is about an hour outside of Paris by TGV, the French high-speed train.
Michael Delaney (played by Steve McQueen): This isn’t just a thousand to one shot. This is a professional blood sport. And it can happen to you. And then it can happen to you again.
The film has mostly driving, and a lot of it. Directed by Lee H. Katzin, aside from race announcements, the first words of dialogue, don’t occur until 37 minutes into the film.
I remember watching the film, and being amazed at the experience of the high-speed action with cameras mounted in the cars. In this exchange below, the woman is the widow of a champion race driver who was killed while racing, yet she cannot walk away from the race.
Lisa Belgetti (played by Elga Anderson): When people risk their lives, shouldn’t it be for something very important?
Michael Delaney: Well, it better be.
Lisa Belgetti: But what is so important about driving faster than anyone else?
Michael Delaney: Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.
Many have said that while Le Mans was technically superb, it wasn’t that dramatic or good when people weren’t in motion.
WINNING (1969) – Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Robert Wagner.
Newman loved auto racing. He even drove in real races when he wasn’t acting or being a movie star. This particular film was about winning the Indy 500 and losing your wife in the process. I’ve not seen this film, and so I cannot comment on it.
Frank Capua (played by Paul Newman) : In this kind of game, where winning is everything, on that big 500 oval in Indianapolis, you can die any second.
From RUSH –
Suzy Miller (played by Olivia Wilde) : Why don’t they make it safer?
James Hunt (played by Chris Hemsworth) : The risk of death turns people on.
BOBBY DEERFIELD (1977) – Al Pacino and Marthe Keller starred in this film. The film has been described as: Bobby Deerfield, a famous American race car driver on the European circuit, falls in love with the enigmatic Lillian Morelli, who is terminally ill. And they call it a love story.
For Pacino, this film came after The Godfather, Serpico, and Dog Day Afternoon. But, despite the allure of having Pacino as the star, Bobby Deerfield was a critical and box office failure. Little of it was truly about racing. Rather it was about a race car driver looking for something, and someone to believe in.
Though this was a 1977 film release, the DVD did not come out until 2008. The trailer –
More from RUSH –
James Hunt: Don’t go to men who are willing to kill themselves, driving in circles, looking for normality …
We’d hear something similar in another film about driving, racing, and winning. And Hunt’s was right. This isn’t a sport for normal people.
DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) – Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, Randy Quaid, Cary Elwes, and John C Reilly.
Dr. Claire Lewicki (played by Nicole Kidman): Tell me what you love so much about racing.
Cole Trickle (played by Tom Cruise) : Speed. To be able to control it. To know that I can control something that’s out of control.
Dr. Claire Lewicki: Control is an illusion, you infantile egomaniac. Nobody knows what’s gonna happen next: not on a freeway, not in an airplane, not inside our own bodies and certainly not on a racetrack with 40 other infantile egomaniacs.
DRIVEN (2001) – Sylvester Stallone
Our last film is from Stallone. This film is little known and will never be named by anyone reeling off Stallone’s bests. There’s no hint of Rocky or Rambo here.
- Kip Pardue and Estella Warren from Driven
Carl Henry ( played by Burt Reynolds): What about the fear?
Joe Tanto (played by Sylvester Stallone) : It’s gone.
Carl Henry: The fear is never gone.
That’s it. This was fun. Despite all that speed, I’m still at my keyboard, and never left it. Watch for my review of Rush shortly after it opens.