Long-distance races have historically been fraught with danger, so it’s no wonder there is a romantic mystique of adventure and risk surrounding them that appeals to filmmakers.
Top 5: Endurance racing films
Perhaps the most thrilling race start ever depicted on celluloid: the almost dead silence, giving way to a heartbeat while the camera alternates between the eyes of the drivers and fans, all waiting for the French tricolour to drop and the race to begin. And begin it does: the 24-hour Grand Prix race in Le Mans, France, starts with a rupture of sound. Steve McQueen plays a Porsche racer in this 1971 film, a man plagued by the memory of a fatal car accident the year before. There's no love story except between a man and his 917, and what a love it is.
A Man and a Woman
Le Mans features in Un Homme et une Femme (1966) as well, but in a supporting role. The handsome Jean-Louis Trintignant is a Le Mans racer and test driver who falls in love with a beautiful, young widow played by Anouk Aimée. Trintignant races back to Paris to Aimée hours after winning the Monte Carlo rally. Will he be able to stay awake? Does she still love him? The cars are fast, the falling in love slow. Perhaps the best kiss on film, beautifully shot and hauntingly scored.
The Great Race
Tony Curtis's and Natalie Wood's characters fight so much they're destined to fall in love in this undeservedly unloved 1965 film by Blake Edwards (the late director who also gave us the Pink Panther series). The hilarious movie depicts a New York-to-Paris race across the US and Eurasia in the early part of the 1900s, when Model Ts were new and daredevils barnstormed North America. It also starred Jack Lemmon, Peter Falk and Keenan Wynn. Curtis later starred in a cross-Europe car race called Monte Carlo or Bust.
There were three films in the Cannonball series. The one that started them, 1976's Cannonball!, starred David Carradine and no one else worth mentioning. It's the second film, Cannonball Run in 1981, that really took off. Imagine Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Farrah Fawcett, Dom Deluise, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr as eccentrics in an illegal cross-country road race. The laughs were such that Cannonball Run II came out three years later. There was a similar film in 1976 called Gumball Rally.
Death Race 2000
There was nothing hilarious about this 1975 film, except perhaps the bad script and the way people 35 years ago thought we'd be living now. In Le Mans, McQueen's character says racing isn't a thousand-to-one shot, "it's a blood sport". In Death Race 2000, which starred Sylvester Stallone (one year before he became Rocky) and David Carradine (one year before 1976's Cannonball!), "blood sport" is taken literally: in this film drivers get points for people injured or killed during the race. Don't get any ideas.