By on April 8, 2013


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.

Ford GT40 camera car used in John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix

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

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8 Comments on “Racing Fans Look Forward to Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix Paul Newman’s Winning LeMans With Steve McQueen Ron Howard’s Rush...”

  • avatar

    As an engineer and space buff, Apollo 13 happens to be my favorite movie; it does a good job of capturing a very detailed event in just a couple hours, while delivering some artistic flair.

    I think Ron Howard is afraid of embarrassing himself by straying too far from the truth/spirit of a historical event, so your optimism for “Rush” is well-founded.

  • avatar

    Of the various tidbits I’ve read, I think the part I’ve been most impressed with was their use of the actual vintage cars for shooting the scenes instead of just building all replicas or relying on CGI (and apparently driven hard enough that one of the Ferraris was damaged in filming). Also the fact that at least some of the filming was truly done “on location”. Footage circulated around last year when the production crew was caught filming Lauda’s accident at the very spot on the Nurburgring where it happened.

  • avatar

    I’m impressed that they’ve avoided CGI, especially these days when even teddy bears and toasters have to be rendered in often fake looking CGI animation.

    I’m concerned that the camera cutting might be too quick for me, I can’t vouch for others but todays films often have so much cutting during the actions scenes its impossible to tell whats going on.

  • avatar

    I will be looking forward to this one. It’s a fine balance between creativity and reality that makes a good movie and this one looks to have it.

  • avatar

    What – no love for Ricky Bobbie?? C’mon, that movie bitch slapped the goons in charge of Nascar with all their silly “the official this or that of nascar” my favorite was Tampex – the official tampon of nascar!
    Since my intertest in that has waned, maybe Opie’s movie will give open wheel cars a bigger audience and TV time.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    The impressive part about the trio of movies mentioned, was that they were filmed with the huge and bulky 70 mm film cameras…those must weight well over 100 pounds…imagine what it does for the driving dynamics.

    As much as CGI has evolved, and it is really impressive nowdays, there is something in it that screams…fake. Again, the trio of movies above have this realistic quality to it. Well over 40 years later, they are still a treat to watch.

  • avatar
    Domestic Hearse

    Where’s the Days of Thunder props, Ronnie?

    Harry Hogge: All right. While we’re still under a caution, I want you to go back out on that track and hit the pace car.
    Cole Trickle: Hit the pace car?
    Harry Hogge: Hit the pace car.
    Cole Trickle: What for?
    Harry Hogge: Because you’ve hit every other goddamned thing out there, I want you to be perfect.

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