My favorite James Garner role was that of Pete Aron, the American Formula One driver in the 1966 movie “Grand Prix.” His was a perfect, understated, cool and confident portrayal befitting a top driver in the deadly world of Formula One in the 1960s. Here is your spoiler alert, as if the same is needed for a movie almost 50 years old.
Garner’s Pete Aron character starts the movie terribly under the gun after having a massive crash on the city street course in Monaco which is shown in all its tremendous stunt-driving glory. This crash also sweeps up fellow teammate Scott Stoddard, played by Brian Bedford, who is seriously injured. Caddishly, Aron later takes-up with Stoddard’s wife, Pat, played by Jessica Walter, who is, for all practical purposes, up for grabs after her husbands wreck and injury. Seems she is tired of putting up with the stressed out Stoddard who has sleepless nights before races. So, naturally, she goes for another race driver. Aron is totally nonplussed by this whole turn of events and the deepest feeling he seems to have about the propriety of the whole sordid affair is taking a deep drag off his cigarette. Talk about cool. Garner’s Aron definitely had it. I guess there were greater worries at hand since he lost his ride as a result of the wreck and was biding his time as a television announcer. It probably helps that Pat was on the cray, cray, side of crazy, anyway. Not “Play Misty for Me” crazy, but this woman was definitely adrift with her own issues and Aron just happened to toss a life preserver her way. Back over his shoulder and without even looking. (By the way, has there ever been a crazier woman on film than Jessica Walter’s “Play Misty for Me” character? I’ll answer that for you. NO! She even had Dirty Harry feeling squeamish. Scary crazy.)
Garner’s Aron also had the benefit of some real life similarities that were exploited in Grand Prix. First of all, he was wearing practically the same helmet design as Chris Amon, the New Zealander, who was a Formula One driver at the time and participated in the movie. Then Aron gets his break to get back in F1 that season from none other than Mr. Izo Yamura of Yamura Motors of Japan, played by Toshiro Mifune. Any F1 freak knows that the Yamura car was a beautiful white, rising sun, stand-in for Honda’s 1960’s foray into Formula One as a factory team.
Between races we get to enjoy Aron blasting through the European countryside in a British Racing Green Ford Mustang which I think might have been a Shelby GT350. Totally boss. All the while Miss Priss is at his side, and no doubt at his beck and call, when he cares for it, between cigs, in the passenger seat, tittering away, hair flowing in the breeze.
Meanwhile, in stark contrast, Stoddard is struggling to climb the stairs of the Stoddard family estate, a manor house in Scotland, where he has returned to mend his injuries. He pauses to look at racing paintings and trophies of the past glorifying the exploits of his deceased champion race driver brother, Roger. His flighty wife now a receding, if painful, memory, there are other matters at hand such as getting back in the game. I can say with all honesty that the scenes of Stoddard at the manor house, attempting to climb the stairs, looking at the paintings and trophies through a haze of pain and drugs, his mother and team manager gazing upon him with palpable pity, knowing the entire background of his wreck, his injuries, his philandering wife, and his brother’s death, are some of the most poignant scenes I have ever seen in a movie only to be topped off by what comes next. After convalescing at the manor house, barely able to walk, but determined to drive, Stoddard and his team manager wheel out Roger’s old car, a 1950s era Formula One beast, which has been kept at the estate as a lasting memento of his career. Stoddard painfully wedges himself into the cockpit and the massive monster fires to life, not yet ready to be confined to a museum. With his mother cowering in the background, Stoddard roars off out of sight down the tight, twisty, tree-lined roads of the estate, the first step of his torturous comeback now underfoot. Stirring stuff. Stirring stuff, indeed. If you see this and do not feel a deep twinge in your heart, and a tear in the eye, well, I feel sorry for you and may the pox of Jessica Walter’s most disturbing characters be upon you. Brian Bedford’s performance as Scott Stoddard is one of the most sympathetic characterizations ever put on screen.
It all then comes down to Monza, the final race of the film. The cars are negotiating the main road course at Monza and blasting around the high-banked oval. The high banking can barely contain them. The long Monza straights give the drivers time to reflect. Nino Barlini, played by Antonio Sabato, drives for the Ferrari works effort. His girlfriend, played by French singer, Francoise Hardy, has taken-up with some sea diver or something on some Mediterranean shore somewhere and they are looking for sponges or shells or something salty. Oh well, Nino blows her off and she is fine with that. Jean-Pierre Sarti, another tremendously sympathetic character, played by Yves Montand, is trapped in a loveless Italian marriage for business purposes, and had previously taken-up with American journalist, Louise Fredrickson, played by Eva Marie Saint. Desperately unhappy and worn out, Jean-Pierre wants to retire from both racing, and his marriage, and live happily ever after with Louise. Weary beyond belief, he gamely gives it his best only to fly off the high-banked oval at top speed in his Ferrari and explode in flames. Thus end Jean-Pierre’s problems. The announcer says, “Sarti morta,” and Ferrari hangs out the black flag. Barlini is forced to abandon the race and is absolutely crestfallen to hear the fate of his older teammate, the veteran Sarti. This dismal and heartbreaking turn of events is brought to its gory conclusion by Louise shoving aside Sarti’s ice-cold wife to get to a bloody Sarti in the ambulance, and hysterically shouting and waving her blood-smeared hands at the drooling Italian paparazzi.
Finally, the white flag signals the last lap and Aron and Stoddard come screaming down the front straight at Monza after a long slipstreaming battle. Aron drafts Stoddard and barely clips him at the finish line. The checkered flag waves and Aron wins. Aron is World Champion. The Japanese team is ecstatic. On the victor’s podium, a redeemed, but tired, Aron waves the exhausted Stoddard up to join him and puts his arm around his shoulder. Stoddard manages the wan smile of the vanquished. He gave it a great battle, but he lost. They drink the winner’s champagne. The moment is then overshadowed as Aron and Stoddard cast wary eyes at the black smoke boiling into the sky behind them. Aron is not a man of steel, after all. It is another sad moment. They acknowledge to one another the loss of Sarti. Aron has won. He is champion. But at what cost? It is a pyrrhic victory, indeed.
But why recount all this? Because it is a 170 mile per hour soap opera. Did all that really happen? It did, and there was even more. I saw this movie seven times in the theater. I was vaguely aware of all the romance and affairs at the time. Over the years, as I have seen it further times and thought about it, it has become apparent what a pot-boiler it is. There is a lot of taking-up going on in this movie. It also seems very real to me, as if “Grand Prix” was a whole separate season of Formula One with its own teams and drivers. Way back when it came out, I was enthralled with it. Enthralled with the racing. Nothing like it had ever been filmed before. No other racing movie approached it at the time. I was just drop-jawed at the sight of formula cars being driven in anger around legendary places like Monaco, Spa, and Monza, and being filmed from a drivers point of view from inside the cockpit, from the side, behind, and in front of by an equally fast Ford GT40 camera car driven by World Champion Phil Hill, and from director John Frankenheimer’s helicopters dropping down so close at Spa’s Eau Rouge you could smell the exhaust fumes. Yes, you can see Eau Rouge as it was in the mid-1960s. This historical aspect is great. There is use of actual F1 race footage from the season preceding the making of the film. It takes you to places and times lost to history. Zandvoort is no longer on the F1 schedule, but you saw it right, those are sand dunes on the shores of the Netherlands they are rampaging past. And the long straights of Spa and Monza are a memory, too, casualties of safety concerns. The racing, drivers, and historic venues were what I always loved about “Grand Prix.” But the true scope and effect of the soap opera side took me longer to realize and appreciate. Helmets off to screenwriter, Robert Alan Arthur. What a wild story.
The end of the film provides another emotional moment as a very calm and collected Pete Aron, looking very dapper and matinee idol handsome, stands on the finish line of the empty front straight at Monza. The stands are empty, the race is over, and the crowd has gone home. Loose paper blows down the track. Aron is all by himself. The season is over now. The Maurice Jarre orchestral soundtrack, fantastic in and of itself, wells up and, as Aron looks down the track, the ghostly sound of highly-tuned F1 engines firing and blipping their throttles comes on. Aron survived. Aron won. Aron is World Champion. As I said, stirring stuff. Stirring stuff, indeed.