“Le Mans 66” and Other Motorsport Movies

To coincide with the opening of the exposition at the 24 Hours Museum (through 23 February 2020) and the release of the film “Le Mans 66” earlier this month, the new installment in this series takes a look at several motorsport stories on the big screen, dating back to…1966, of course.

In 1966, as Ford won the first of its four consecutive victories at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the American marque also figured heavily in film, and that same year, a U.S. blockbuster revolutionized the way motorsport is portrayed on the silver screen.

1966: Phil Hill and Grand Prix

The movie Grand Prix was filmed during the 1966 Formula 1 season. Director John Frankenheimer hired as an advisor Phil Hill, three-time winner of the 24 Hours and F1 World Champion. Hill was very active in the shoot, namely as he was tasked to drive a Ford GT40 transformed into a camera car. Grand Prix also included on-board camera scenes filmed at real speeds during actual F1 races. In addition to Hill, six other previous Le Mans winners appeared in the movie: Lorenzo Bandini, Graham Hill, Dan Gurney, Jochen Rindt, as well as Chris Amon and Bruce McLaren who won the 1966 24 Hours. Phil Hill and Graham Hill were part of the cast in the roles of drivers Tim Randolph and Bob Turner. The stars of the film came from all over the world and included American actor James Garner (wearing a helmet in Chris Amon’s colours), French legend Yves Montand and Japanese star Toshiro Mifune.

1966: The Ford Mustang, a darling of the cinema

Alongside the Ford/Ferrari duel at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, Le Mans 66 covers the launch of the Ford Mustang in 1964. Aimed at modernising the American manufacturer’s image, the car proved popular on the silver screen as well. In 1966, in A Man and a Woman, actor Jean-Louis Trintignant (the nephew of 1954 Le Mans winner Maurice Trintignant) plays a racing driver at the wheel of a Mustang at the Monte Carlo Rally. Directed by Claude Lelouch, the film was an international triumph, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1966 and the Oscar for Best Foreign Film the following year.

1968: Ferrari and Ford according to Steve McQueen

 In 1968, Steve McQueen solidified his superstar status even further with two films in which racing cars have more than a bit part. In Norman Jewison’s The Thomas Crown Affair, McQueen plays a disillusioned millionaire who organises a bold robbery, appearing at the wheel of a Ferrari 275 GTB Spider NART he later purchased for his private collection. In Peter Yates’ Bullitt, with McQueen serving as producer for the first time via his company Solar, his detective character drives a Mustang Shelby, the car at the heart of one of the most famous chase sequences (in the streets of San Francisco) in the history of movie-making.

1968: Paul Newman, motorsport from the big screen to the track

In James Goldstone’s Winning, Paul Newman plays driver Frank Capua with race scenes filmed during the 1968 Indianapolis 500. Forty-three at the time, the actor immediately developed a passion for motorsport, becoming a competitive driver himself and even taking the start in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1979. For his only participation in the race, he finished second overall and won his class at the wheel of a Porsche 935 shared with Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen. Then, as a team co-owner, Newman won eight titles in the American single-seaters series CART and Champ Car with Mario then Michael Andretti, Nigel Mansell, Cristiano da Matta and Le Mans native Sébastien Bourdais (a winner four seasons in a row from 2004 to 2007).

1969-1970: Steve McQueen and Le Mans 

In April of 1969, Steve McQueen headed to Le Mans to meet with Gonzague Mordret, the General Manager of the ACO at the time, then to do some location scouting during the race in June. McQueen was looking not only to produce a feature film about the 24 Hours of Le Mans, but to participate in the actual race at the wheel of a Porsche 917 with Jackie Stewart as teammate. His insurance providers nixed that idea, but he did make the movie, and it was anything but easy. Filming at Le Mans drew out over five months, from early June to the beginning of November in 1970, going from race shots to choreographed sequences at the circuit to scenes with the actors. After director John Sturges left in the middle of the shoot (he had already directed McQueen in The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape), Lee H. Katzin finished Le Mans and released it in theaters in 1971.

PHOTO (Copyright – 20th Century Fox)