Monday, October 01, 2007



“It's very eclectic, the way one chooses subjects in the movie business, especially in the commercial movie business. You need to develop material yourself or material is presented to you as an assignment to direct.”

John Frankenheimer

The beauty, or perhaps the curse, inherent in the Grand Prix circuit is that no two courses are alike. During the mid-60s, when the film Grand Prix was being prepared, the course at Spa in Belgium was considered amongst the most dangerous – not the least for its unpredictable weather conditions. True to form, Spa had another surprise in store for Frankenheimer’s cast and crew.

With cameraman John Stevens mounted inside his helicopter perch, the staged race necessary for capturing close ups of the stars driving their vehicles in excess of 150mph began in earnest. However, midway through the shoot cast and crew suddenly found themselves at the mercy of an unexpected torrential rain. The intensity of the storm proved such a concern that at one point Phil Hill’s camera car accidentally passed Dan Gurney’s racer. In a moments notice, other racers began to pile up along various points of the embankment.

F-1 racer cum stunt man, Jackie Stewart lost control of his vehicle, breaking his shoulder in a wreck along the route. Bob Bondurant missed a turn and became trapped beneath his car when it flipped upside down. Most of those who remained in the race did not make it past the third lap. Upon viewing these wrecks, spectacularly captured by Stevens in the helicopter, Frankenheimer was suddenly faced with an esthetic dilemma.
In editing the footage together, the rain storm seemed preempted by no dramatic signifier. It simply appeared out of nowhere. Quickly, Frankenheimer improvised a close up shot of his own hand holding a starter’s watch – dropping a few beads of water from above and off camera. Later, in post production, Frankenheimer and sound editor Gordon Daniels would add the audio of a thunder clasp to signify the beginning of the storm.

Production advanced to Brands Hatch in England where James Garner found himself the unwitting participant in a stunt sequence gone wrong. Originally, Garner’s racer had been rigged with butane to catch fire as his car rounded the final lap. At first, the effect seemed to go off without a hitch. As Garner came into camera view around the last hairpin turn, the leaking gas suddenly caught fire, blazing a trail behind him. What came next, however, was unexpected.

The sequence called for Garner to propel his racer to the sidelines and quickly disembark so that a waiting crew of men with fire extinguishers could put out the controlled blaze. However, as the car came to a halt, an unexpected breeze fanned the flames into frenzy. A fireball erupted, temporarily engulfing the car with Garner still inside. Frankenheimer chose to have the footage remain in the film, and although Garner emerged from this stunt relatively unscathed, a distinct burn mark can be seen on his neck in the close up that concludes the last shot in the film.

As principle photography wrapped up, Frankenheimer turned his attention to the daunting task of beginning post production. Designer Saul Bass was called in to begin the arduous process of editing the raw racing footage into an eclectic series of visceral montages. Noted for his unusual fast paced editing (most recently admired in the shower scene for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho 1960), his impressionistic main title sequences and a dizzying array of chopping together tri panel action into cinema art, Bass undertook a monumental risk in creating an intricate tapestry out of Formula-1 racing, for which the ultimate result would yield no two sequences being alike in their rhythm, pacing or tempo.

Composer Maurice Jarre, fresh from his collaborative work with director David Lean on Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Doctor Zhivago (1965) was hired by Frankenheimer to augment the action with an orchestral score. Jarre’s rousing ‘Grand Prix’ theme – part march/part ballad proved the ideal musical companion.

In point of fact, Jarre’s music was much more prominently showcased during the film’s lengthy overture and entr’acte than anywhere else during the action – the one exception being a beautifully staged sequence by Bass for the third race in which the multiplied images of cars tearing up the scenery is transformed in slow motion into almost ballet of automobiles with Jarre’s fairytale-like rendition of the march playing as the only sound on the soundtrack.

Meanwhile, sound effects editor, Gordon Daniels was busy combining the various real life sound elements captured from the actual races. Daniels had placed a sound recorder inside each vehicle prior to the race, documenting the distinct noise of each engine and subtle nuances of gears shifting, axels grinding and tires screeching. In the final sound mix, the full girth, depth and intensity of auto racing came to life as few could have imaged. Certainly, nothing like Grand Prix’s sound edit had ever been experienced in theaters before.

With its 100 foot wide curved Cinerama screen divided into various portioned observations by Bass, Grand Prix became a truly immersive film going experience. Conscious of the fact that all this graphic movement caught through the Cinerama lenses might prove too much for some, the road show engagement of Grand Prix came equipped with ‘barf bags’ attached to the back of each seat in the theater to accommodate those weak of stomach.


While many racing purists criticized and even denounced Grand Prix as sensationalizing the dangers of Formula-1 racing, the truth of the matter is that Frankenheimer had meticulously researched F-1’s history. The recreated wrecks in his movie were actually ripped from sports newspaper clippings, interviews and relayed accounts from the real drivers, some of whom had watched helplessly as their colleagues slipped into that margin of error and lost their lives.

As though to prove the point, on April 7, 1968, F-1 racing lost one of its most enigmatic personalities, Jim Clark in a horrific accident – ironically played out on an inferior F-2 course in Germany. Later attributed to mechanical error, Clark’s demise sent shockwaves throughout the sport. Considered an ‘untouchable’ with superior racing talent and at the pinnacle of his career, Clark’s death impacted F-1 racing considerably.

Most immediately, it forced engineers to redesign the tires of all racing vehicles. Until Clark’s time, tires were apt to fly off a car when pressed to service under extreme mechanical duress. After Clark’s death, all F-1 racers were required to have their tires bolted to their suspension.

In the wake of Clark’s loss, another driver, Jackie Stewart emerged as the unsung crusader for more advanced safety measures. In fact, Stewart made it his personal manifest to rid the sport of such unbearable calamities. Initially, he met with vehement opposition from fellow racers. Eventually, Stewart became successful in enforcing the sport to accept secure barriers and seatbelts as part of the accepted standard practice.

Today, Formula-1 racing is no longer the sport of a true adventurer attempting to beat another’s record, but the capitalized commercial hybrid of corporate ventures destined to flex their engineering muscle. The majors in automotive design have transformed those rickety amateur creations into supercharged, high tech advertisements.

In reflecting on the film Grand Prix today, only this obvious transformation of the sport into a high priced commodity event seems to peg Frankenheimer’s movie as a 60s time capsule. Otherwise, it remains as compelling, unhinged and exhilarating as ever. Undeniably, the skillful editing of Saul Bass; diverse performances from principle cast and Maurice Jarre’s melodious orchestral arrangements immensely contribute to Grand Prix’s timeless appeal.

Yet, at the heart of the film there is but one name to which almost all of the credit must remain ascribed, and it is Frankenheimer’s. In his committed detail to really getting down to the nuts and bolts of F-1 racing, his unforgiving focus that became misconstrued as belligerences along the route, Frankenheimer’s perseverance as a film maker have stamped the film with a hallmark of excellence that few movies – racing or otherwise – can lay claim.

In a sea of marginal copies depicting life behind the wheel, Frankenheimer’s is the one true testament to the greatness within the sport, and, as time goes by, there is little to suggest that another such celebration will come along to better his efforts.
“When I look back…” Frankenheimer mused years after the thunder and roar of racers had ceased to echo in his ears, “…I don’t know how the hell we ever did that film!”

Fifty one years later, racing enthusiasts and film fans alike remain eternally grateful that Frankenheimer dared to try. Gentlemen…start your engines.

Nick Zegarac 2007 (all rights reserved).