Grand Prix – Cars in Cinema
Joshua Hull examines the continuing appeal of the automobile film.
Driving is one of the most mundane and routine tasks in our everyday lives. And yet, whether it be through high-octane street chases, theatrical wheel-to-wheel racing, or simply, the sheer beauty of the vehicle, movies about cars possess an undeniable allure for a universal audience. Where we are constrained by speed limits, seat belts, and motorways, cinema removes that discipline. The result is nearly always a profit for movie studios and memorable, escapist experiences for the movie-goers.
The histories of cars and films are intertwined from their very origins; as the rise of the mass-market automobile began in the early 20th century, Hollywood and the movie industry also ascended its way into the common consciousness. The First Auto (1927) is a perfectly apt title for a film which was the first to feature a car-based plot, the basic premise about a town’s transition from horses to the automobile as their primary mode of transport. Interestingly, the movie also included motor-racing as a prominent story point, with the son of a champion horse-racer deciding to drive cars competitively. Though the film’s execution varies greatly from modern approaches – speech is conveyed in text format and the stunts are practical – it laid the foundations for the automobile genre as we know it. The camera is placed close to the ground so the viewers can really feel the danger, suspense, and utter lunacy of the racing scenes. It is like a thrill ride in itself.
Historic car films resonate because they act as a portal to these different eras of manufacturing and design style, tapping into the audience’s personal feelings of nostalgia.
Of course, what exactly a ‘car film’ is can be open for interpretation. Some movies depict real-life events. Le Mans ’66 (or Ford vs Ferrari), directed by James Mangold, races into cinemas this month as the latest entry in this category. The film portrays how Ford Motor Company built and won with their famous 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans car, in spite of Enzo Ferrari’s dominance. Rush (2013), the story of Niki Lauda and James Hunt’s incredible Formula 1 rivalry, is another recent example of history coming to life on screen. Racing, at its core, is an unscripted drama. These films, therefore, do not need to conjure contrived storylines. Simply, they can offer audiences a unique insight and a fresh perspective on iconic sporting moments that already exist. Even then, the need for a new take on the past is not always essential to the audience’s enjoyment. As with all technologies and machines, the car has been interpreted in so many different ways over time. Thus, historic car films resonate because they act as a portal to these different eras of manufacturing and design style, tapping into the audience’s personal feelings of nostalgia. Rush, in particular, is powerful in this respect; the opportunity to re-live or witness for the first time, Lauda’s Ferrari go toe-to-toe with Hunt’s McLaren is bound to stoke up an emotional response from viewers.
Some films are far more fanatical and outlandish, similar to The First Auto, they rely on bending reality for the audience and putting them in the driver’s seat. The Fast & Furious franchise, which began in 2001 and has since sprung seven sequels and a spin-off, certainly fits into this mould. Arguably, these films lack the stakes and substance of something like Rush (with the understandable exception of Paul Walker’s closing scene in Furious 7), but the set-pieces and improbable aerobatics are just as capable of inducing excitement and enjoyment. Yes, it may seem superficial and ridiculous to see turbo-charged, ‘NOS’-boosted muscle cars performing wheelies and flips – and some car aficionados might be disturbed by the lack of realism. However, cinema has always stressed the importance of escapism. Suspend disbelief for a moment and these movies become the drive you’ve always dreamed of taking, but never can. The longevity of the series suggests the need for this type of entertainment will not go away. Fast & Furious films deliver on exactly what they promise: a world free from limitations, where possibility is endless. But, mainly, they’re fun.
Thankfully, filmmakers see it as more than just a duty; cars can be a great tool for them, both artistically and cinematically.
The iconic status of James Bond’s car indicates that movies do not even necessarily need to be about cars, per se, for the vehicles to make a mark on popular culture. No Time To Die is the next Bond picture to release in 2020 and fans have already gone feverish about which Aston Martin model(s) will be driven by the titular figure. The car is so synonymous with his suave, sophisticated identity and lavish lifestyle that it becomes impossible for the audience to not be enamoured by it. Similarly, in the case of Back To The Future (1985), the DeLorean car is a cult favourite of movie fans and motor enthusiasts alike. At its launch, the vehicle was seen as a clunky and unfashionable creation. The movie transformed this perception entirely. Suddenly, with its new function as a time machine in the film, the car had become futuristic and dynamic. Its unique aesthetic was now a cause for mass interest. More significantly, the symbiotic relationship between movies and cars was cemented. Each industry needs the other – and the audience clearly embraces that.
With the omnipresence of cars in Western society, the movie industry has a duty to represent them on screen in a variety of different ways. Thankfully, filmmakers see it as more than just a duty; cars can be a great tool for them, both artistically and cinematically. Movies can utilise cars to symbolise a theme, to stage an action scene, or to create an intimate setting for dialogue between characters. Equally, people can derive pleasure from a car’s on-screen visuals, its performance, or its historical significance. But, the overriding notion, is that cars and cinema are inherently linked together. The continuing success of the ‘car film’ exists as a celebration of that fact.