The people running the low key publicity campaign for director Ron Howard’s upcoming Formula One based film Rush have done their job well, at least as far as car enthusiasts are concerned. Howard’s an A-list and very bankable director with a string of critical and commercial successes so it will be interesting to see how general audiences, as opposed to racing fans, respond to the movie. Since plenty of folks who weren’t space buffs enjoyed Howard’s Apollo 13, I don’t think that will be a problem. If you’ve seen Apollo 13 then you know that Howard is a stickler for authenticity. Howard has made sure that car blogs and the like have been teased with tweeted cheesecake shots of umbrella girls and information about how realistic the racing footage will be in the movie, centered on the 1976 rivalry between playboy James Hunt and methodical Niki Lauda. The theatrical opening of Rush is scheduled for September but the film’s official trailer has now been released. You can’t tell a book by its cover nor a movie by its trailer but it does look promising. It also looks kind of familiar, there’s a sense of deja vu about it.
They didn’t have car blogs in 1966 when John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, starring James Garner, debuted. They did, however, have magazines and well before Grand Prix’s release date the car magazines and publications like Popular Mechanics had a number of articles about how Frankenheimer was filming the movie to achieve realism. An important part was the use of actual race cars, a Ford GT40 and a Cobra, as camera cars so shooting could be done at actual racing speeds. For additional realism, Grand Prix was filmed in Super Panavision 70 and the movie was shown at Cinerama theaters. Frankenheimer has a way with cars. He also directed Ronin, which is a usual pick for lists of the best movie car chase scenes of all times.
Three years later, another actor who, like Garner, got bitten by the racing bug after taking a role as a racer, Paul Newman, starred in Winning, centered around Newman’s character Frank Capua’s quest to win the Indianapolis 500, though there appears to be some CanAm type racing footage as well. Newman’s wife in the James Gladstone directed movie was played by his actual wife, Joanne Woodward. Some of Mr. & Mrs. Newman’s co-stars were Bobby Unser, Tony Hulman, Dan Gurney, and Roger McCluskey.
Then there is 1971’s LeMans. Just saying Steve McQueen gives the film credibility with car guys. McQueen was the quintessential car guy and the mere fact that a car, or motorcycle or even a racing suit has him in its provenance will drive its price up to silly levels. Unlike Garner and Newman who got into racing after playing the part in movies, McQueen had been racing for more than a decade when LeMans was made. As a matter of fact, after his LeMans Healey co-driven by toothpaste heir John Colgate led the 1962 Sebring 12 hour race for 7 hours, McQueen was offered a factory ride by BMC, which he declined because it would have conflicted with his acting career. “I’m not sure whether I’m an actor who races or a racer who acts,” McQueen was quoted as saying. LeMans was the movie McQueen wanted to make about racing, having earlier turned down the role in Grand Prix offered to Garner. Director Lee Katzin used actual race footage from the 24 hour race in 1970 along with staged action to give the film a documentary feel – perhaps too much so because the film was a relative flop and didn’t do nearly as well at the box office as Grand Prix did.
Grand Prix, Winning and LeMans are almost a trilogy about auto racing in the 1960s and early 1970s. All three of those movies were praised for their cinematography and documentary-like look at auto racing. All three were criticized for dramatic shortcomings as films, with the New York Times calling Grand Prix “Formula B” and LeMans “monotonous”, and the late Roger Ebert describing Winning as “drearily predictable”. All three have romantic subplots. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy wins race. Boy gets girl. Though not necessarily in that order. The movies appeal to the same audience, Amazon says that they are frequently bought together as a bundle. Though there have been racing movies made since then like Sylvester Stallone’s mediocre Indycar based Driven and Tom Cruise’s NASCAR movie, Days Of Thunder, none seem to have grabbed car enthusiasts’ affection like the Garner/Newman/McQueen racing trilogy.
The pre-release publicity and Ron Howards track record lead me to believe that Rush will at least equal the three racing “classics” in terms of racing cinema. The fact that it’s based on a true story, including Lauda’s horrific, life threatening burns and his near miraculous recovery and return to racing, bodes well for the film’s dramatic success. Howard showed in Apollo 13 that he has a fairly deft hand when portraying actual human drama.
Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS