Hollywood Goes Racing
Since at least the 1930s, Hollywood has used auto racing as the main theme of motion pictures featuring big-name stars. Those films have all had several common elements:
As a big auto racing fan since I was at least 12 years old, Hollywood's racing films have always been among my favorite reasons for going to the movies. So, here's a quick look at some of the most important auto racing films that have come out of Hollywood.
The Auto Racing Films
The Crowd Roars
Warner Brothers (1932 - BW/70 min.)
Plot: Exciting racing driver tale with Cagney in typically cocky role, familiar plot devices, but well done. -- Leonard Maltin, 1998 Movie & Video Guide.
Comments: I've never seen this one, but it's the earliest racing film to which I can find reference. It was remade a few years later as Indianapolis Speedway with Pat O'Brien in the starring role.
Warner Brothers (1939 - BW/82 min.) **
Plot: National racing champion Joe Greer (Pat O'Brien) comes home to find that his younger brother Eddie (John Payne) is beginning to build a racing career for himself. But Joe wants his brother to make a better life for himself by going to college. When Eddie continues his racing, Joe becomes more aggressive in his attempts to make Eddie stop, resulting in the fiery death of a long-time family friend and fellow driver Spud O'Connor (Frank McHugh). After giving up racing for a time, Joe comes back to help Eddie win the Indianapolis 500.
Comments: The film starts out with the Greer brothers competing in dirt track races on the West Coast and eventually focuses in on the Indianapolis 500. Considering the movie-making technology of the time, the racing scenes are good -- though unspectacular by today's standards. The standouts are the scenes taken from an actual 1930s Indianapolis race. A big portion of the film is taken up with the personal relationship between the two brothers and with their respective lady friends. Note that Frank McHugh also appeared in the 1932 original The Crowd Roars
The Big Wheel
United Artists (1949 - BW/92 min.) **
Plot: Billy Coy (Mickey Rooney) comes to California to follow in the footsteps of his father, who was killed during an Indianapolis 500 race. The elder Coy's former team mate and friend (Thomas Mitchell) takes Bill under his wing and soon has him winning sprint car races along the West Coast. But when Billy is blamed for the accidental death of his racing team mate and is rejected by the other local drivers, he takes off for the Mid-West, where he eventually finds himself in contention to win the Indianapolis 500.
Comments: The racing scenes are better produced than in the 1939 Indianapolis Speedway. The sprint races aren't a blur of blown dust (as in the previous film), giving a better view of the action, but the Indianapolis 500 footage is again the highlight. The plot has a few twists from the two earlier films, but the basic plot elements are all there. Again, the interpersonal relationships take up the major portion of the film.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1950 - BW/91 min.) ***
Plot: Mike Brannan (Clark Gable) is a former Indy 500 driver and World War Two hero who is trying to rebuild his interrupted racing career on the tough northeastern midget circuit. Regina Forbes (Barbara Stanwyck) is an aggressive and successful national newspaper columnist who becomes interested in Brannan because the former war hero's rough driving has made him into a dirt track villain. Forbes' attack on Brannan results in his being blacklisted from midget racing and forces him to take a job as a stunt driver in Joie Chitwood's Thrill Show. But, Forbes' fascination with Brannan turns to love and she attempts to reform him when he switches to racing "Big Cars". The finale takes place at the 1950 Indy 500.
Comments: Clark Gable loved auto racing so much that he later said that he would have done this film for free! His enthusiasm shows in the racing scenes which were shot at Carroll Speedway in Los Angeles (Midgets), on the one mile fairgrounds dirt track at Del Mar, California ("Big Cars") and during the running of the 1950 Indy 500. The finale at Indy features a terrific battle between Brannan and three-time Indy 500 champion Mauri Rose (played by himself). Racing scenes and special effects are very good for the era. Gable and Stanwyck really sizzle in this surprisingly contemporary story about love and ethics. To Please A Lady is available on video through MGM/UA Home Video, 2500 Broadway, Santa Monica, CA 90404-3061. [Contributed by Robby McHenry]
20th Century Fox (1955 - Color/112 min.) ***
Plot: Gino Borgesa (Kirk Douglas) is a driver for a small independent team that's trying to make it in the big-time European race circuit. When he gets a break and the chance to drive for an established team, his agressiveness soon results in his winning the world driving championship, but also lands in him trouble with both of is team mates (Gilbert Roland and Cesar Romero) and his lady friend (Bella Darvi). But when Dell'Oro (Roland) suffers a serious accident, Gino stops while leading a big race to help his friend.
Comments: Color comes to auto racing films in a big way. Despite the age of this film, it has great action sequences of both sports car and grand prix races in such exotic racing locales as Monaco (Monte Carlo), Nurburgring (Germany), Spa (Belgium), Reims (France), and the Mille Miglia (Italy). The in-cockpit closeups of the drivers are obviously superimposed on projected background images, but the photography of the cars on the track is excellent and an interesting study of European road racing during the 1950s. The interpersonal relationships are there, of course, but they don't overwhelm the racing action.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1966 - Color/171 min.) ****
Plot: Pete Aron (James Garner) is an American grand prix driver with a reputation for hard luck and causing accidents. When his team mate (Brian Bedford) is critically injured in an accident involving Pete, he's fired from the team. However, Pete soon finds himself driving and winning for a new Japanese team that's trying to make it in the grand prix scene. Along the way, Pete has a fling with his former team mate's wife (Jessica Walters), and another driver (Yves Montand), who's ready to retire and settle down with his lover (Eva Marie Saint), doesn't survive his last race.
Comments: Grand Prix set a new standard that all future racing films would have to live up to. Although the interpersonal relationships take up an unnecessarily large portion of the film (in my view), the racing action is superb. Action sequences from actual grand prix races in such places as Monaco (Monte Carlo), Spa (Belgium), Zandvoort (Netherlands), Brands Hatch (United Kingdom), and Monza (Italy) are seamlessly matched to staged sequences at those same locations in which many of the actual race drivers -- and James Garner himself -- did the driving. The "driver's view" scenes were filmed by a camera mounted to the nose of a Ford GT-40 sports race car for added realism. By the way, race fans will recognize that the helmet colors worn by the four main characters are the colors actually worn by: (Chris Amon aka Pete Aron, John Surtees aka Jean-Pierre Sarte, Jackie Stewart aka Scott Stoddard, and Lorenzo Bandini aka Nino Barlini). Other grand prix drivers of the time, including Dan Gurney and his Eagle, Phil Hill, Graham Hill, Richie Ginther, Bob Bondurant, Jochen Rindt, Jo Bonnier, Mike Spence, and Jim Clark (in cockpit only) also make cameo appearances. Grand Prix was originally filmed in Cinerama (a superwide screen format) and must have been spectacular to see on the BIG screen (unfortunately I never had that opportunity). However, even on video on a 25" TV screen its a sight to see. True racing fans will fast forward through the "interludes" between races to get to the good stuff!
Universal (1969 - Color/123 min.) ***
Plot: After winning a Can-Am sports car race, Frank Capua (Paul Newman) meets and soon marries a young woman (Joanne Woodward), and begins to develop family ties with her and her teenaged son (Richard Thomas). But when Frank's wife has an affair with racing rival Lou Erding (Robert Wagner), the rivalry takes on a more personal note that carries into their attempts to win the Indianapolis 500.
Comments: Almost half the film is gone before we see the main racing event, the Indy 500. Before that, there are a few short scenes of the opening Can-Am race and two stock car road races (at Riverside and Elkhart Lake). Although the Indianapolis footage has a few discrepancies (like intercutting scenes from the 1966, 1967, and 1968 races) it's a special treat for me because the cars driven by Paul Newman and Robert Wagner are Dan Gurney Eagles. In fact the red No. 3 driven by Paul Newman's character was the one actually driven by Bobby Unser to an Indianapolis 500 victory in 1968 and the blue No. 42 driven by Robert Wagner's character was actually driven by Jerry Grant and Dennis Hulme (in different years). Incidentally, Paul Newman, soon after the making of this film, began a second career as a very successful race driver, winning several national sports car championships. He later became involved in Indy Car racing as part owner of the team for which Indy Car legends Mario and Michael Andretti drove for many years.
Cinema Center Films (1971 - Color/106 min.) *****
Plot: Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) returns to the 24-hour sports car endurance race at Le Mans, France after being involved in an accident the prior year that killed racing rival Belgetti. Delaney meets Belgetti's widow, Lisa (Elga Andersen), and (it is implied) begins to develop a relationship with her. Meanwhile, the 24-hour race turns into a fierce battle between the Gulf Porsche and Ferrari teams.
Comments: Without question, for the race fan, Le Mans is the unquestioned King! Steve McQueen, who before his death had a personal passion for auto racing, was painstakingly detailed in overseeing the production of this film -- and it shows. Less than 15 minutes of the film takes place off the race track, and the photography is exquisite in its detail and realism. Watching Le Mans is as close as you'll get to being at a Le Mans race without flying to France in mid-June! The "driver's view" sequences in the driving rain give you a clear understanding of the courage (or stupidity, some might say) of the drivers who do this for a living. Another highlight is McQueen's Porsche 917 tearing itself apart against the guard rails in excruciatingly detailed slow motion. Some of the real-life drivers who participated in the making of Le Mans included past winners of the 24-Hours of Le Mans, such as Derek Bell, Jackie Ickx, and Masten Gregory. If you're a racing fan and want just one racing film for your collection, this is it!
Heart Like a Wheel
20th Century Fox (1983 - Color/113 min.) ****
Plot: True biographical story of Shirley Muldowney's struggle to break into the "man's only" world of professional drag racing. Muldowney (played by Bonnie Bedelia) ran her first professional race in 1966, and by 1977 had become the first woman to win the NHRA World Championship in the Top Fuel class (the premiere drag racing category). She won a second World Championship in 1980 and followed with a third in 1982. Muldowney's rise to fame wasn't without its setbacks, however, including a stormy romance with fellow drag racer Connie Kalitta (played by Beau Bridges) and a fiery engine explosion in 1973 that almost ended her career. In 1998, Shirley Muldowney was still a competitor and winner in Top Fuel drag racing.
Comments: Unlike all of the other racing films discussed here, this is the only one that's based on the real-life story of a race driver. Despite a lot of non-racing scenes, Shirley Muldowney's rise through the ranks of drag racing's elite is an interesting and emotional one, and the well done, if short, racing sequences add to the realism and drama.
Days of Thunder
Paramount (1990 - Color/107 min.) **
Plot: NASCAR stock car racing team owner Tim Deland (Randy Quaid) convinces Harry Hogge (Robert Duvall) to come out of retirement to manage his new team. Hogge takes the hot shot sprint car driver Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) under his wing and teaches him the ropes in NASCAR racing. But when Cole tangles with super aggressive competitor Rowdy Burks (Michael Rooker), the results are a lot of twisted race cars and a violent crash that puts both Cole and Rowdy in the hospital. There, Cole meets and begins to fall for the pretty Doctor Claire Lewicki (Nicole Kidman) and begins physical therapy that eventually returns him to the race track. Rowdy isn't so lucky, however, and Cole has trouble getting the guilt for Rowdy's injuries from his mind. Of course, he eventually does and goes on to win the Daytona 500.
Comments: Despite the big-name actors and fast-paced stock car racing sequences, I found this film to be the most disappointing of the ones discussed here. The main reason is that Days of Thunder comes off as "Top Gun on Wheels," with little realism in the overly aggressive and downright dangerous antics of the featured drivers and the complete lack of disciplinary sanctions being imposed by NASCAR. Although NASCAR racing is known and loved for it's fender-to-fender and bumper-to-bumper close racing, what this film presents verges on "science fiction" in my opinion. The main characters -- Cole Trickle, Rowdy Burks, and Russ Wheeler -- would all have been either dead or permanently banned from NASCAR (and perhaps all) racing if real life stock car racing was this wild. I would have preferred a more realistic portrayal of NASCAR racing without all the "slam bang" goings on.
Warner Brothers (2001 - Color/127 min.) ***
Plot: Basically an "open wheel" version of Days of Thunder, this film is based on a hot rivalry in the CART Champ Car series, where team manager Carl Henry (Burt Reynolds) brings back retired racer Joe Tanto (Sylvester Stallone) to mentor young driver Jimmy Bly (Kip Pardue), who's losing his nerve on the race circuit. A hot rivalry ensues between Bly and German racer Beau Brandenburg (Til Schweiger) both on and off the track as a love interest gets involved. The near fatal crash of fellow driver Mimo Moreno (Cristian de la Fuente) gets the rivals to thinking about what's really important in life, and things end up pretty well for all concerned.
Comments: For all the criticism it received in the press, this film is actually more believable than Days of Thunder. Yes, there are spectacular (special effects enhanced) crashes, but here they're just part of the racing action, not outright caused by the over-agressive and reckless antics of the drivers. I do have some quibbles about the racing action because it detracts from its authenticity. First, no where is CART mentioned in the film. For non-racing fans, this could just have been part of the World Formula One Championship. In fact, the over-emphasis on the European element strengthens that belief. Second, as fancy as the special effect crashes were, they were clearly fake. In comparison, the crashes in both Grand Prix and Le Mans were much more believable and realistic. In this case, less computerized special effects would have made for an overall better movie.
Disney/Pixar (2006 - Color/114 min.) *****
Columbia Pictures (2006 - Color/110 min.) ***
Plot: Two NASCAR-based movies were released in 2006, and two films based on the same form of auto racing couldn't be more different from each other. Cars, a computer-animated movie starring Owen Wilson as the voice of rookie stock car Lightning McQueen is a rush of excitement and nostalgia as we follow Lightning's journey of discovery from the high-banked tracks of "Piston Cup" racing to a sleepy little town lost on the old Route 66 trail. The story-telling geniuses at Pixar Studio give us an entertaining tale about what cars might feel if they were alive, and they remind us that the trip is often more important than the destination. No less an automotive authority than Autoweek magazine called Cars perhaps the best movie about cars ever made.
On the other hand, there's Talladega Nights starring Will Ferrell as Ricky Bobby, a winning NASCAR driver who loses it completely after an end-over-end crash and struggles to regain his confidence as he battles an egocentric French Formula One driver who has come to America to conquer stock car racing. I know I'll probably get a lot of negative emails about this, but I'm just not a Will Ferrell fan. Maybe I'm just part of the wrong generation, but I didn't find him funny on Saturday Night Live and I don't find him funny in this film. The racing footage is great, but I wish there was a lot more of that and less of Will Ferrell's crazy antics. As for a blockbuster, realistic movie about NASCAR racing, I'm still waiting for the stock car equivalent of open-wheel racing's Grand Prix and sports car racing's Le Mans.
Exclusive Media/Universal Pictures (2013 - Color/123 min.) ****
Plot: Based on the true life stories of Formula 1 drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt during the 1976 championship season, "Rush" presents the bitter rivalry between these two drivers and how, after a near-fatal crash during the German Grand Prix at Nurburgring, Lauda came back from terrible burns to challenge Hunt for the championship. The behind-the-scenes rivalry and personal lives of the drivers are also portrayed in the film.
Here's a list of additional racing films, as contributed by Michael Keyser.
For More Information
The Racers, Grand Prix, Winning, Le Mans, and Days of Thunder are all available on video from:
The other films air from time to time shown on various cable TV networks, including American Movie Classics, Turner Classic Movies, and TNT Network, among others.
1996-2015 Arnold E.
van Beverhoudt, Jr.