Thank Frankel its Friday: Le Mans ’66 is the best racing film in decades
Earlier this week I was taken to screening room at 20th Century Fox Studios in Los Angeles, parked in a big seat and treated – with a few hundred other hacks – to a private viewing of Ford v Ferrari, better known in the UK as Le Mans ’66.
My host for the evening was none other than the Ford Motor Company and nothing very surprising about that you might think. Until you see the film. Then you might be very surprised indeed because FoMoCo doesn’t come out of it very well at all. Indeed the film might more accurately be called Ford v Shelby because Ferrari’s role is entirely peripheral and it really is really about the struggle Carroll Shelby faced persuading Ford to let him determine how best to beat the red cars. Ford’s executives are present as conniving bureaucrats, more interested in political chicanery than the spirit of racing.
And while some elements of the film are disputed – such as the role of Leo Beebe who was Ford’s link man to Shelby and who comes out of it very badly indeed – others are not open to interpretation. Carroll Shelby did not catch fire at Le Mans in 1959, Ken Miles was not left at home for Le Mans in 1965, Enzo Ferrari did not attend Le Mans in 1966, Fiat did not buy Ferrari in 1965, Lee Iacocca was not instrumental in getting Ford to Le Mans in 1966 and so on and on and on. (You can read the true Le Mans ‘66 story here.)
There’s also what the film doesn’t mention – the sins of omission if you will. These include Ford first dismal failure with the GT40 at Le Mans in 1964, and Carroll Shelby’s extremely complicated private life. I’ve admired Ol’ Shel as a driver and constructor all my adult life, but no one would pretend he was any kind of saint. Yet Matt Damon’s portrayal of him is decidedly wholesome.
In addition almost all the action either takes place far too slowly as cars track behind the camera or in a world clearly created on a computer. Despite the title of the film, not a minute of it was actually filmed at Le Mans.
So I hated it, right? Well actually quite the reverse and this is why. The people who will enjoy it most are those not intimately acquainted with the real story, which will be almost everyone who goes to see it. Also and despite clearly quite deliberate individual errors, what the film does achieve is the tension that existed between Ford and Shelby, the corporate environment of one of the Big Three in the 1960s, and just how bloody dangerous it was to be racing 200mph cars in that era.
And for the diehard petrolheads, it performs one invaluable service: it corrects an injustice that has existed for over half a century: for now the world knows about Ken Miles, who for all those years has been Britain’s greatest racing driver no-one has heard of. And while Christian Bale’s accent bears no relation to that of the man himself, his characterisation of this earthy, irascible man with his steely character and warm heart is exactly how I always imagined him to be. And it was indeed a scandal that he was robbed of victory at Le Mans that year: had he not accepted Ford’s request for a photo finish, he’d have won by miles (no pun intended) and become the first person ever to do the sports car triple by winning Daytona, Sebring and Le Mans all in the same year. The film paints Beebe as the villain of the piece, but there are plenty of people who’ll tell you it was the ACO who didn’t appreciate Ford trying to stage manage their event.
I don’t know either way. But I do know that for all its many and manifest flaws, this is the best racing film I’ve seen in decades. If I haven’t already ruined it for you with all my spoilers, I’d urge you to go and see it, and on as big a screen as you can find.