Wednesday, May 02, 2007

[DVD] Grand Prix (1966)

Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!

In recent times, our shore was abuzz with concrete rumours of a Formula 1 street circuit being held in Singapore, and a night one at that. I was a Formula 1 spectator fan (from the television set of course) for some time, until Schumi came along, won almost everything with the Prancing Horse, and actually made it predictable, and boring for the most parts of each race circuit. Pole position, race day, 50 odd laps and podium finish.

While advancement in technology has made driving a car at 300kmph seem like an hour long arcade game, and safety standards have ensured that dangerous stunts and outcomes are reduced to a rare minimum, the sport somehow lacked that danger and edgy randomness in having things go wrong, and to see how drivers use their skill to react to them. Finding that balance between safety and spectacle, without unnecessary endangering the lives of the drivers, is a tough one. For many, watching the cars go through their paces round and round a circuit, may seem to be boring spectator sport, and just how a movie like this can engage, remains a challenge.

Clocking in close to 3 hours, it tells the story of 4 grand prix drivers, naturally of different nationalities - American Pete Aron (James Garner), French Jean-Pierre Sarti (Yves Montand), Brit Scott Stoddard (Brian Bedford) and Italian Nino Barlini (Antonio Sabato), with their allegiance sworn to the different manufacturers they drive for, which includes Ferrari. They come together on race day to outperform one another, and more often, the movie focuses on their love lives, with Sarti in a budding relationship with writer Louise (Eva Marie Saint), Scott having to deal with an accident caused by Pete, and facing the prospect of losing his model wife Pat (Jessica Walter) to that same man, and Nino just being the playboy he is with his latest squeeze Lisa (played by French singer Francoise Hardy). Rounding up the international cast is Toshiro Mifune, who plays the Japanese businessman whom Pete Aron drives for. When their love lives take a break from the screen, the story tries to explore why they do what they do, and what makes them tick during races, knowing well that it is a dangerous job.

But the length of the movie also is contributed by the extent in which the races are featured in the movie, from the various grand prix circuits. The thrill in watching this is not for the race scenes per se, but for a trip down memory lane on how F1 was done in the past. There are no paddle gears for shift changes, only those that comes with the stick, and plenty of mechanical parts compared to the computer on board for that "fly by wire" drive in today's cars. Engineering has come a long way, and this movie makes you appreciate that advancement. The tracks featured too are a sight to behold, with a mixture of existing and retired circuits seen.

And the strong technical aspect of the film is what makes it entertaining, with features like split screens (up to 6 at times), montages, and plenty of nifty camera angles that make you wonder how they did it back in the old days. The camera shifts perspective often enough, and my favourite would be the one that follows the road, like the Daytona game, sans dashboard.

Grand Prix might look dated in its treatment of the narrative, but it probably formed the basis and benchmark on how to film a racing spectator sport, for other race movies like Days of Thunder, Driven and even Pixar's Cars.

This Code 1 Two-Disc Special Edition DVD from Warner Brothers somehow had to split the close to 3 hour movie into 2 parts, each in one disc. The presentation comes with the standard scene selections to zoom into particular points of the movie, especially when you want to cut straight to the action. The visual transfer, considering it's a movie more than 40 years old, is great, and watching it on as wide a screen possible, gives you the grandeur spectacle it was meant to be. You're given 2 audio selections, in either English 5.1, or in French - you'll find your speakers maxed out to bring to you the roars of the F1 3 litre engine of those days. Subtitles are available in English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

Disc 1 only contains a 4 minute theatrical trailer, and Disc 2 contains all the other special features. They are:

Pushing the Limit: The Making of Grand Prix - 29 minutes
This is the Making Of of this monumental film, which come to think of it, I agree wholeheartedly that an F1 movie of this scale will probably never be made for an extremely long time, not because of the lack of skill, but rather the cost of it all will be exorbitant. TV rights alone cost obscene millions, and that's continued revenue for as long as audiences demand it. For a movie, it's like a one time golden goose to be slaughtered, and with the multitude of sponsors who probably want some money to be paid for their names to be on the marquee, well...

Anyway, the making of brings you some interesting insights into the entire production process, on how director John Frankenheimer's relentless pursuit (pardon the pun) for accuracy and realism. It's actually the actual 1966 grand prix being filmed, and had real actors in real cars shot before each actual race. The actors too had it tough, in having to go back to driving school to learn how to handle the F3 cars (made to look like F1s). You'll see how the cameras were rigged, in race cars, from helicopters etc, all to give the audience a feel of what it's like being inside one.

Containing recorded interviews with the late director about his thoughts of the film, as well as interviews both today and yesterday with cast and crew, the gems in this documentary was in an episode captured on how James Garner went ballistic with some shopkeepers who insisted on more money during the shoot, and you'll also learn first hand how the brand name synonymous with F1, Ferrari, came to be in the picture, and allowed access to their hallowed grounds, including the factory floor.

Certainly a special feature not to be missed.

Flat Out: Formula One in The Sixties - 17mins 25s
This is a walk down memory lane, retracing how the sport developed from the 1.5 litres to the 3 litres car. Containing a host of old photographs from those days, and interviews with historians, journalists and ex-drivers, they recount how dangerous the sport was back then. To the drivers, it was akin to sitting in a coffin surrounded by fuel bags, and how the sport is actually a test of endurance and the vehicle's sustainability. The development of safety measures after tragic accidents seem like a sad necessity, and brings to mind the consequences of random accidents and the short life span of drivers.

The Style and Sound of Speed - 11mins 40s
This feature is a tribute to visual consultant Saul Bass, who designed the trip-tech effects and the very graphic element of the opening credits, and sound recorder Gordon Daniel who recorded every minute of everything, down to the minute details of how the gear shifts sounded like, and the beautiful noise of the motor roaring at high speeds. In some ways it focussed more on Saul Bass's contribution to cover everything visually during racing, and how the split screens, montages were done, with the technical effort also put into featuring each grand prix circuit differently in the movie.

Brands Hatch: Behind the Checkered Flag - 10mins 35s
And speaking of circuits, this feature celebrates the British premier circuit at Brands Hatch. Containing interviews with drivers and former F1 champions, it's an appreciation of the circuit, broken down piece by piece, into the Paddock Hill Bend, Druids, Surtees, Hawthorn Bend, Westfield Bend and Clearways. It's much well liked by the drivers, and aesthetically, it sits in a bowl, is scenic, and the race can be seen for the most parts by spectators.

Grand Prix: Challenge of the Champions - 12min 45s
This is a vintage feature on the making of process, and it shows the coming of the stars of the movie, as well as the real stars of the F1 being involved in the production. Again you'll get a glimpse of how the movie was filmed with the Cinerama cameras from MGM, and the technical challenges in having to achieve a mix of actual race footage, which means no retakes given the one hour of filming time allowed prior to the commencement of the actual race, and then repeat for each grand prix location featured in the movie. If anything, this featurette containes too many dizzying quick cuts.

Lastly, Speed Channel is a 32 second advert advising to drive within speed limits.

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