Since all of us have seen the movie or read reviews, what's the use of another write-up? Well, most reviews were relatively superficial — space constraints? Non-motor head reviewer? Little, if any, Le Mans research (the books are out there)? No interview with Shelby or Miles (now, that would be difficult)?
And another thing, there may not be another popular movie about such an automotive historical milestone with an equally compelling story line in the rest of my (our) lifetime(s). Oh, sure, there have been other movies about racing, but most have not had broad cultural appeal, were very stylized, and human relationships were superficial or professional. Compared to the others, how did this movie do the seemingly impossible — delve deeply into racing history, provide a feeling about the racer's mind-set at speed, include significant track time, and still be grounded in two human story lines — Ken Miles's family and his relationship with Carroll Shelby?
From a carload of interviews, articles by automotive historians, and stories from actual team members (regarding Le Mans and the movie), many fascinating back stories help to explain how the movie came together — not so much as a documentary, but more as a historical drama. And, given a drama, how much liberty was taken with the characters, events, cars, and history? We will touch on these. Disclaimer: Whole books have been written on this subject, so don't expect to find all the answers here (some of the books will be listed at the end).
First, let's look at the main characters that made the story so intriguing: mechanic and race driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bales); his better (personality) half, Mollie (Caitriona Balfe); and the man who made Ford's international racing reputation, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon); with a supporting role from the Miles's son, Peter (Noah Jupe); and brief apparitions of Enzo and Henry look-a-likes.
Bales's acting (playing Miles) has resulted in broad acclaim as a portrayal of the atypical Brit with American can-do determination, a motor-head passion for speed and occasional temper, and deep family bonds. And he even looks a bit like the lanky Miles and superbly carries out the role. Balfe creates an outstanding complementary figure — equally determined, savvy, quirky, keeping the family grounded, while thinking outside the box to get Miles on track (her jaw dropping driving scene) and letting the boys fight it out, while pulling up a lawn chair versus interfering. Jupe is a wonderful family adhesive force that follows the challenges of his father's racing career (how common is that — Andretti, Hill, and so many others).
Meanwhile, playing the part of Shelby is a challenge that perhaps no actor could carry off (as the smooth talking, Texas ex-chicken farmer, Le Mans winner/Aston Martin/1959, entrepreneur, his face on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1957). But Matt Damon's cool-headed portrayal, acting skills, and popularity as an actor get the job done. His scenes make you feel like you were there — maneuvering Henry (Ford II), combatting his bureaucrats, deepening the friendship as well as respect between him and Miles, and making history for Ford.
Thanks to the director, Jim Mangold, the plot also has character. The movie opens with Miles in his own shop in CA and our attention is immediately drawn to Mollie's creative approach to getting his attention, which establishes the importance of their relationship throughout the movie. Miles not only "wrenches" but races, and his success comes to the attention of Shelby, who needs his skills and makes him an offer that he accepts, but not without the help of Mollie's input while exhibiting her own back road driving skills (Denise McCluggage style). The offer signifies the start of one of the greatest racing collaborations and stories ever — a relatively small amount of Ford money allows Shelby to hire some California hot-rodders and Miles to begin work on the Cobra.
Meanwhile, back at Ford, a Princeton-trained engineer turned salesman, Lee Iacocca, is pressing Henry Ford to get on board with increasing its market and name recognition through expanding its racing reputation internationally, especially in Europe. As he also proved later at Chrysler, Iacocca was a big thinker and his pesky persistence finally convinced Henry to get his company in gear (over the conservatism of Ford bean counters). But they needed a lot of race car development expertise (in addition to Ford engineering) to compete on a stage like Le Mans with a machine beyond the Cobra. Shelby, Miles, and their devoted, indispensable crew members are up to the challenge (all of their roles are huge in terms of racing development, including Remington and Agapiou).
Director Mangold has the challenge of making choices about how much of the intricate history to cover (Ford had another group working in the UK) and succeeds by keeping the story on track. In a short time, the Cobra, GT40, and Mustang are born. Ironically, it was the insistence of the son of Italian immigrants (Iacocca) who leads America into an uphill battle to defeat Ferrari, Italy's legendary Le Mans winner (for example, 1960-1965).
The movie's tension is palpable. Not surprisingly, it was a rough start for Ford. At Le Mans, the Fords/Cobras were defeated chiefly due to mechanical failures, with 1,2,3 Ferrari finishes in both 1964 and 1965. (For you history buffs, these Fords were winning races in the USA.) Meanwhile, with Ford marketing types preventing him from racing at Le Mans (as he does not meet their corporate character criteria), the movie shows Miles simmering while listening to the race coverage on the radio with his family. As you might expect, after these losses at Le Mans, Shelby should be on Henry's hot seat, but a pivotal scene shows Damon out-witting (convincing) Henry to give Le Mans another go — he had Enzo's ego in horsepower hell with the Ford 427s and implies there were just some bugs to work out. Had it not been for Ford's own ego to continue, racing history may have been much different.
That extra year made the difference for Shelby's team. Finally, all their persistence paid off with a 1,2,3 finish in 1966. There is not enough room here for more about the twists and turns in the plot that kept the drama rpms near red line. A sampling: How did Miles get to drive at Le Mans? How did the 1,2,3 abreast finish come about (no headsets then)? Was it Shelby's idea? With Miles far ahead in the lead on the last lap, why did his GT40 end up in second place? Where were the Ferraris? After Le Mans, what happened to Shelby, Miles, and his family?
In order that I don't leave out a crucial undercurrent until the end, let's put aside the racing plot for a moment. On an equally important level, this is a movie about following your passion and living your dream. Shelby never quits his mojo for leading a team to develop a world-class race car and defeating Ferrari (who had offered him a position but not enough money). Even his Cobras are legendary and appear often in the movie. Miles loves racing because of his passion for speed and becoming "one" with the race car. He ignores Ford's instructions to reduce rpms when victory is almost in hand, not because he is stubborn or to avenge the Ford bureaucrats, but to feed his need for speed — that is his personal high, his mountain top. Mollie never stops believing in Miles and her ability to keep the family together. Iacocca risks his job at Ford. Even Henry took a big chance both financially and in terms of company reputation.
Racing historian Michael Schoen put it this way in his famous book, The Cobra-Ferrari Wars:
"So the Cobra-Ferrari struggle was a backdrop for the personal growth of the participants and for many observers as well, even today. Seen in this light, the Cobra-Ferrari wars were a big victory. It doesn't matter who won. The important thing was that both sides gave it everything they had." (Postscript to the 2nd edition, 2005.)
Although there is obviously plenty of drama in the real events, a few liberties may have been taken in the movie. A few examples: Did the friendly fight between Miles and Shelby really take place, or was it an opportunity to showcase Mollie's response? Did Enzo, famous for not attending major races, actually show up at the 1966 Le Mans? (Enzo's biographer, Dal Monte, implies he did not.) Did Shelby try to make peace (of mind) with Mollie at the end? Lee Iacocca may not have gone to the meeting in Italy of Ford's representatives with Enzo (Dal Monte).
But some of the movie script lines were priceless: An obvious fav — Miles, smiling while accelerating the GT40 with the bigger (427) motor, says: "I'll have a bit more of that". Another from Miles, comparing the GT40 to the Ferrari 330 — "If this were a beauty contest, we just lost". But in that scene and many others, the audience rarely got a good stare at the cars' stunning "architectures". I have to tip my hat to the film reviewer (Anthony Lane) who correctly pointed out that the movie failed to realize its potential to dramatize the designs and art forms of the purposeful, angular GT40 and passionate, sculpted curves of the 330 P3s. After all, this was a story not only of men and machines, but also two cultures whose ideas of form and displacement (4 vs 7 liters) were so different.
The Racing and The Cars
With a reported 100 million dollar budget, the movie used some real cars, as well as replicas of Ferrari 330 P3s and GT40s with LS3-V8 engines (6.2L Chevy small blocks). Bucks also went to some real drivers, for example Derek Hill (Phil Hill's racing son), so that near Le Mans speeds (over 150 mph) could be attained with the race cars and a special vehicle (with movie camera) in close proximity. A Motor Trend magazine article indicated that original style tires made it challenging even for the professionals to do some shots in the rain, and the stunt with the 275 GTB (look-a-like) was not a digital creation. Director Mangold sought realism as Derek Hill had to dodge track debris and actor Bales went to the Bondurant racing school. The site of the grandstands was Agua Dulce airport in CA and rural roads in Georgia were used in place of the Mulsanne straight (the Le Mans track course has changed since 1966). Serious attention also was given to period attire (gloves, clothing, and helmets).
The Trailer That Wasn't
Since movie (especially documentary) trailers are commonplace and there is so much more to the Ford/Ferrari duel, a trailer opportunity was missed and could have included much of the following.
No doubt about the monumental accomplishments of Ford, Shelby, Miles, and the GT40, which went on to win Le Mans in 1967, '68, and '69. Not only that, but the AC Cobra won many GT class races, the Mustang took the overall win in the FIA World Touring Car class (>1600cc) in '65, and the GT40 was World Sports Car champ in '66 and '68, and won Daytona in '66 (see The International Motor Racing Guide , by P. Higham; warning: 912 pages).
But Ferrari had its revenge and then a change in strategy. Not that many months after the 1966 Le Mans, at the race at Daytona, Florida (with Le Mans-like notoriety in the USA), Ferrari took 1,2,3 in their own photo finish, shocking the mighty Ford empire whose GT40s vastly out-numbered the three 330 Ferraris, one fielded by New England's Luigi Chinetti and his NART team, the 3rd place finisher, a 412P). For some additional perspective, at the 1966 Le Mans (portrayed in the movie), Ford brought 14 GT40s (8 Mark IIs) and about 100 personnel, while Ferrari had only 3 of its newest race cars (11 of 14 Fords failed to finish). It was well known that, in 24 hour events, attrition was a big factor.
Some Speculation and Summary
Enzo also must have taken into consideration the following: His 4 liter cars were running against Ford 7 liter engines* and an almost bottomless bank roll (while Ferrari needed financial support; hence the Ford offer). In the mid '60s, Ford made about 1,000,000 vehicles per year (about 500,000 Mustangs in its first year of production) while Ferrari made somewhat over 500 per year. In the late 1960s, Enzo pulled back from Le Mans to focus on Formula 1, in which Ford and the Brits became formidable competition. After Ford, Porsche became dominant at Le Mans.
In summary, for sports car enthusiasts, this is definitely a (family) movie worth seeing and for the ages. It is a story of American ingenuity and perseverance, identifiable characters, drama, and ample twists and turns, especially at the end. As an admirer of both makes, I give it a big thumbs up, while wondering how it will play in Europe, especially Italy — this is a movie made in the USA and it is impossible not to "get" that. That aside, it may make you find your own version of (Miles's) driving "zone" after your oil reaches temperature.
Note: This review involved a bit of research to compare the movie to the real events and provide you, the readers, with some back-story info versus just a rehash of the movie. If any is in error, I welcome your comments and mea culpa.
For more on this exciting subject and some of the sources for this write-up, see below:
Go Like Hell, AJ Baime
* Not sufficient space here to address the fact that Ford's high performance 4.7 liter (289ci) engines were not deemed sufficient to win Le Mans vs 4.0 liter Ferrari 330s.
[Tom would be happy to get any additional historical info, shedding light on the movie and to share with AONE members. You can reach him at email@example.com.]