You can’t beat a good race – and here are, for my money, the six best that have been committed to celluloid…
It’s A Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
This is an epic movie that combined some of the best actors available at the time with truly amazing stunts and fantastic dialogue.
A group of unconnected people attend the roadside death of a man who, with his dying breath, points them to a fortune buried on the other side of America. They race to get there first using whatever means at their disposal.
The personal highlight for me is when Buddy Hackett and Mickey Rooney get on aircraft owned by alcoholic Jim Backus. He leaves them to fly the plane while he goes to make cocktails in the rear cabin. Buddy Hackett askes, “What if something happens?”, and Backus replies, “What could happen to an Old Fashioned?”
They don’t make movies as cool as this because they couldn’t get this many ‘stars’ to appear in a film together these days.
The Great Race (1965)
A work of complete genius. Blake Edwards made this just after completing the second Clouseau outing A Shot In The Dark. In it he recombined Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon from Some Like It Hot in an entirely off-the-wall road race movie where Curtis, as The Great Leslie, must defeat Lemmon’s moustache-twirling Professor Fate. Into the mix they threw Natalie Wood, as the emancipated woman determined to win, and Peter Falk was Fate’s stupid sidekick Max.
The Great Race was the inspiration for Wacky Races, along with other things, and I don’t think it’s ever got the kudos it well deserves.
Lemmon as Fate has all the best lines, the most memorable is when he’s unleashed Max to sabotage all the other cars in the race. He lists how each will fail in sequence until they get to car No.5, which he’s tinkered so the engine will fall out. They laugh in evil expectation until Fate realizes that they’re driving No.5.
Push the button, Max!
Grand Prix (1966)
Probably the greatest motor racing movie ever. It also represents James Garner’s best attempt (along with The Great Escape) to become established in motion pictures, which never really happened. Ah, well, if it had we’d never have got Jim Rockford, would we?
What it has going for it is the fantastic direction of John Frankenheimer who took the audience inside the world of Formula One, as it was then, and showed what a dangerous and amazing sport it was. To underline that, of the 32 drivers shown in the race footage, five would be dead within another two years and another five within a decade. In the 60s, death and racing went together like Sonny & Cher.
The best story about this movie is that John Frankenheimer got very annoyed with the people employed to be extras in the big final scene where Garner is driving a burning car in an attempt to win the championship. With his star genuinely risking his life, he decided to orchestrate a bigger crowd reaction, by waiting til a minute before the 4pm tea break before using explosives to blow up the tea-wagon.
Therefore, the reaction you see in the movie is people distraught they wouldn’t be getting a cuppa, and not worried that Garner might burn.
Le Mans (1971)
For hardcore racers this is the movie to end all racing movies. The tagline for the movie is as follows “Steve McQueen takes you for a drive in the country. The country is France. The drive is at 200 MPH!”
If McQueen and all the automotive works of art in here aren’t enough, then you’re not remotely a person who can be called a petrol-head. As a film, this has a distinctly documentary feel which is reinforced by there being no audible dialogue for the first 37 minutes.
Other infamous things about Le Mans is that the original director, John Sturges, walked because McQueen’s interference; a stunt driver lost a leg in one crash sequence they filmed, and some of the footage used is actually from the real 1970 race along with much more they shot two months later. All the Ferraris seen in the movie were also borrowed, because the company refused to cooperate once they discovered that in the movie a Porsche wins the race. Maybe it’s not the greatest movie, but it is automotive porn.
The Cannonball Run (1981)
Okay, I accept this is a very silly movie, but it’s very entertaining. The entire premise of the production seemed to be to get plenty of very famous people together with some amazing cars, have some fun, and accidentally make a movie.
It’s really a Burt Reynolds and Dom DeLuise vehicle, but they managed to get Farrah Fawcett, Sammy Davis Jr., Dean Martin, Roger Moore, Jack Elam, Jackie Chan, Peter Fonda and a zillion other people to come along for the ride.
This was famously filmed in just 36 days, which shows in places. But it’s a ton of fun and is actually based on a series of real races across America that Brock Yates of Car & Driver magazine organised in the Seventies. Those who suffer with risk aversion should be made to watch this movie repeatedly.
Monte Carlo Or Bust (1969)
Having covered flying machines four years earlier in Those Magnificent Men In Their Flying Machines Or How I Flew From London To Paris In 25 Hours 11 Minutes, director Ken Annakin and writer Jack Davies returned with a classic period road race comedy that effectively used the same formula.
The reason I’ve included it here is twofold – Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. Their contributions of Major Digby Dawlish and his ever helpful Lt. Kit Barrington are worth the 1969 ticket price alone. But when you add the wonderfully snide Terry-Thomas and his blackmailed sidekick played by Eric Sykes, this becomes something of a parade of the best British comedy actors of the period.
My favorite scene is where Pete and Dud’s car becomes airborne after being launched off a Swiss mountain, and Digby Dawlish points to a distant ground location with the simple instruction for Barrington to “land there”.
Considered but not included: Cars Talladega Nights Gumball Rally Speed Racer The Love Bug (and every other Herbie movie) The Fast And The Furious Death Race 2000
Not seen: Redline Stroker Ace Heart Like a Wheel
Wish I’d never seen: Silver Dream Racer Days Of Thunder Rat Race Driven