The world is still flying high with Top Gun: Maverick, the definition of a great summer blockbuster that pleases all classes. The verisimilitude of the flying scenes provides a large slice of credibility, not least because they appear real in a way that few action movies can match. But it’s not the only example of cinema striving for super-charged reality; 1966’s Grand Prix went above and beyond to capture the intense drama of motor-racing, and the results still look smart today.
Brevity isn’t part of the package; John Frankenheimer’s epic comes in at a cumbersome 176 minutes, but if you can manage the length, there’s plenty of rewards for patient viewers. Making full use of widescreen and split-screen formats, Frankenheimer creates an impressive sense of realism about the sports action, with James Garner as Peter Aron, who has to balance his feelings of guilt about another driver’s injury with his drive to win at all costs.
The international cast features Yves Montand, Toshiro Mifune and a somewhat damp squib of a romantic interest in Eva Marie Saint, and some of the off-track chicanery has dated badly. Grand Prix used to be a tv staple, but broadcasters were forced to toggle between pan and scan for the human drama and widescreen for the action, only deepening the divide between on-track slickness and some tedious human narratives.
But who cares when the racing sequences are so thrilling, brilliantly filmed and exciting? That’s particularly because the technology of the actual cars appears so primitive by today’s standards; Grand Prix racing looks pretty dangerous on this evidence, and its no surprise to learn that many of the drivers involved in filming were no longer with us within years of the film’s release.