Grand Prix
Le Mans

Classic Racing Dramas Come to Blu-ray

By Jim Bray
May 18, 2011

If you're into car racing, the two greatest films ever made about the sport are, arguably, Grand Prix and Le Mans. Both focus on European races, giving them loving coverage in which accuracy was even more important than the drama.

And now both films are available on Blu-ray, giving racing fans a home theater experience that almost makes it feel as if you were there.

As for the comparative lack of drama compared with many films, there was enough drama on the tracks those days that the need for an overarching dramatic narrative was minimal – for race fans, at least. Yet Grand Prix manages to tell a compelling tale that, in its admittedly Hollywoodized way, takes you behind the scenes of Formula 1 and gives you a feel for the lives of the drivers and those around them.

Le Mans is the newer of the two films, and arguably the weaker. It's also the worse of the two Blu-rays so far as picture and sound quality, and extras, are concerned. But it's still a very cool film that's well worth the car nut's eye.

Even though he didn't direct the film, Steve McQueen's star power undoubtedly helped get the financing for this unusual racing film, a movie that probably wouldn't have been made otherwise.

Le Mans isn't so much a drama interspersed with racing footage as it is a movie about the 24 Hours of Le Mans race itself – with some story tacked on to break up the racing action and humanize the characters a bit.

McQueen isn't really needed, though he's welcome. His role wouldn't be a stretch for most actors (he doesn't even have a line until well into the movie) and could have been played by many journeyman performers. But he was a well known car nut who undoubtedly signed on so he could do his own driving, and he probably had had an awful lot of fun doing it.

Anyway, McQueen plays Michael Delaney, an American race driver rebounding after an accident at the previous year's Le Mans killed a compatriot. He's driving for Porsche in a grudge match against Ferrari in the top class of the race, guiding a classic 917 around the eight mile circuit.

But, in an unusual move for a big name star, he's put out of the race early, thanks to a lapse in concentration as he passes by an accident scene, and it looks as if he's going to watch the rest of the race from pit row. Will he get a chance to redeem his accidents and bring Porsche the victory it wants so desperately?

You may be quite surprised at the outcome.

There's a lot to like about Le Mans. The film gives you a decent feel for the race, with shots from the driver's perspective, and with from beside the cars that really impart the feeling of speed. There are even shots of the carnival atmosphere that surrounds the race, with midway rides and fast food outlets. It's almost like a documentary, except that it isn't a documentary.

The 40th anniversary Blu-ray is presented in 1080p widescreen, and though there's lots of grain at times, the picture quality is very good overall. There isn't a lot of depth, but the detail is good, as are the colors and the black level.

Speaking of looking good, car buffs will love the hardware on display here, and there are enough classic Porsche 911's to keep fans of that iconic vehicle happy.

Well, nearly enough…

They've even done a decent job with the audio, which has been remastered into dts-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround. There isn't a lot of surround, which is a shame, but better a front centric soundtrack than something that sounds fake and tacked on. But the highlight, the screaming of cars by and around the camera, is accompanied on many occasions by delicious pans from right to left channel as cars pass.

The Blu-ray even includes some extras, including an interesting documentary "Filming at Speed," which shows the attention to detail the producers brought to the task. Hosted by McQueen's son, Chad, we learn that they actually shot the race before starting principal photography, then did their own reenactments and the like afterward.

You also get the trailer.

Paramount's  Blu-ray isn't the best I've seen, and it pales in comparison to the Grand Prix Blu-ray, but it's the best video version yet and a fascinating look at a fascinating race that continues to this day.

Grand Prize

John Frankenheimer's Grand Prix, on the other hand, is the granddaddy of racing films. Shot originally in Cinerama for presentation in the best theaters of its day, it predates Le Mans by a few years and really is the standard by which all racing films should be judged.

Fortunately, Warner Home Video has done an excellent job on the Blu-ray. The 1080p presentation, at an aspect ratio of 2.20:1, looks spectacular, almost as if it were shot just yesterday, with modern equipment. There's incredible detail, excellent depth and rich color.

Likewise, the dts-HD Master Audio soundtrack is a 5.1 mix that sounds better than it has any right to. As with Le Mans, it's mostly front centered, but there are some delicious times – for example, when you're on board one of the cars as it goes through a tunnel at the Grand Prix de Monaco – when all channels leap to life and envelop you in the echoing roar of the cars. It's glorious, and a fitting transfer of the film's Oscar-winning sound!

The movie takes just shy of three hours to unfold, including Overture and Entr'acte. That longer running time gives Frankenheimer time to let the story – which covers most of an entire F1 season rather than Le Mans' single endurance race – unfold gradually, allowing us to get to know the drivers and those around them better.

The story basically follows four F1 drivers. Pete Aron (James Garner) is the American veteran whose career may be on the downswing, depending on how he performs. And in the first race of the season, he's involved in a collision with his team mate Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) that threatens to end Stoddard's career. It may not have been his fault entirely, but it costs him his ride, so he gets a gig with the media while looking for another team. Eventually, he signs on with team Yamura, which looks an awful lot like Honda, to finish the season and, hopefully, give Mr. Yamura (played by Toshiro Mifune) his first F1 victory.

Meanwhile, the 800 pound gorilla of the series – then, as now – is Ferrari, whose two drivers (Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato) are the veteran champion and the brash up and comer.

That pretty well covers all the dramatic bases except for love interest, and we have that, too. Eva Marie Saint plays an American journalist assigned to cover the series for a fashion magazine and she falls in love with the lovelessly-married Jean-Pierre Sarti (Montand). Jessica Walter plays Pat Stoddard, who's married to Bedford's character. She hates racing and wants him to quit, but he won't – then, when he's injured, she leaves him and starts a dalliance with Pete Aron.

Sure, it sounds soap operaish, and perhaps it is a bit, but the script and the performances toe the dramatic line well and in fact their characters and actions give the audience a feel for what it must have been like to have faced the pressures of Formula 1 back then, when thoughts of violent death were never far from the minds of those involved and their loved ones.

Adding to the realism was a panoply of real F1 drivers of the age. We get to rub shoulders vicariously with legends such as Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Phil Hill (who also drove the camera car – a Ford GT40), Jim Clark, Bob Bondurant, Jack Brabham and others. It's great to see these guys, even if they're definitely not actors!

The photography is the stuff of racing dreams. There are in-car cameras, on-car cameras, near car cameras, you  name it – and we get to ride along in big screen glory as Frankenheimer takes us around such famous tracks as Monte Carlo, Brands Hatch and Monza. I've seen the film a few times and the racing scenes never fail to put me on the edge of my seat.

Take all that action, attention to detail, and superb filmmaking and put it in 1080p on the biggest home theater screen you can muster, and you'll be in automotive heaven.

The Blu-ray also has some terrific extras, though they're merely ported over from the 40th anniversary DVD. That doesn't mean they aren't worthwhile, though: it's a fascinating collection, all but one of which is presented with a clean widescreen picture.

"Pushing the Limit: the Making of Grand Prix" offers a great behind the scenes look at the painstaking process of bringing Formula 1 to the screen authentically. "Flat Out: Formula 1 in the Sixties" is an excellent look at the era – before safety and high technology were nearly as much of a consideration as they are now. Watch this, and read Jackie Stewart's autobiography "Winning is not Enough," and you'll get a feel for what it must have been like then, the excitement tempered with heartbreak as your friends and peers die before your eyes.

"The Style and Sound of Speed" is another "making of" feature that focuses on the attention to detail Frankenheimer and his team brought to the job, while "Brands Hatch: Behind the Checkered Flag" is a reasonably in-depth, curve by curve look at the famed British track.

The vintage feature "Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions" is a promo film from the sixties and looks at both the racing and the filming. The audio and video aren't nearly as good as the rest of the collection, however.

Grand Prix is definitely the better of these two films, and the better Blu-ray presentation, but together they make a wonderful pair of flicks that, if you have motor oil in your veins, should both find homes in your collection.

Le Mans, from Paramount Home Entertainment
108 min. 1080p widescreen, dts-HD Master Audio 7.1 surround
Starring Steven McQueen
Produced by Jack N. Reddish
Written by Harry Kleiner, directed by Lee H. Katzin

Grand Prix, from Warner Home Entertainment
176 min. 1080p widescreen, dts-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
Starring James Garner, Yves Montand, Eva Marie Saint, Toshira Mifune, Brian Bedford, Jessica Walter
Screenplay by Robert Alan Aurthur, directed by John Frankenheimer.

Copyright 2011 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available from the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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