What’s your favourite car film? Le Mans? Vanishing Point? The Cannonball Run? My confession is that I haven’t really got one. For anything to be a favourite of mine, I have to like it in the first place, otherwise it becomes like asking someone to name their favourite disease to catch. ‘Least unpleasant’ and ‘favourite’ are not synonymous. Not to me at least.
So why are all car films rubbish? And before you protest, they are rubbish. Le Mans has some incredible footage but to say that alone makes the film good is the same as hoping that getting the world’s finest ingredients and bunging them in the blender will make a Michelin starred meal. It won’t: it’ll make a mess. Vanishing Point is not just a mess but an unintelligible one at that while The Cannonball Run is the biggest mess of all, despite being written by Brock Yates, whose biography of Enzo Ferrari is perhaps the single most interesting car book I’ve ever read.
What is the problem here? Why can’t people make films about cars? I think they subdivide into two categories. First are the people who couldn’t care less about cars and just need them to fit the plot of whatever they are filming. These films will come across as lacking authenticity, passion and accuracy. But far worse are films made by people who do love cars, like Steve McQueen. They become so blinded by their love and the overwhelming desire to commit it to celluloid because they know it’ll probably be the only chance they get, that they forget they’re actually making a film, And by convention at least a film should have a beginning, an end and a thing called a plot in between.
I know it’s easy to criticise. If anyone were stupid enough to give me a budget to make a film, not only would be put together so badly I’d make Ed Wood look like David Lean, the cast list would feature every iteration of the Lola T70 and really very little else.
If there is an exception to the rule that all car films are rubbish, I guess John Frankenheimer’s ‘Grand Prix’ is it. I was going to include the original HB Halicki ‘Gone in 60 Seconds’ except that’s not a film either, but a car chase that got filmed, which is not the same thing at all. What’s good about Grand Prix is that the Frankenheimer was clearly into his cars but wasn’t so obsessed as to forget it needed a story. It’s not much of a story I grant, but at least there is a genuine narrative and even some decent acting by James Garner, Eve Maria Saint and Yves Montand. And the race scenes are genuinely beautifully shot.
But it’s still not a great film. A great film is one where you sit down at the beginning and are kept enthralled to the end. I cannot recall a single car movie I’ve watched at home without liberal use of the fast forward button to skip all the boring bits, i.e. those that don’t have cars in them.
The good news is this means it’s still out there, waiting to be made. In all seriousness, the story I’ve always thought screamed out to be filmed is a biopic of the lives of Mike Hawthorn and Peter Collins. It has it all: friendship, rivalry, much merriment, lots of Ferraris, interesting private lives and ultimately tragedy. But that’s just me. Given the chance, what car film would you make, and why?