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Sun, Jul 13, 2014
The LACar Editorial Staff
Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski (Bill Brayne)
Weekend of a Champion
BRETT RATNER presents in association with RATPAC DOCUMENTARY FILMS
a ROMAN POLANSKI PRODUCTION in association with MARK STEWART PRODUCTION
Review by Doug Stokes
A long time ago in a tiny principality by the sea, a famous movie director decided to follow a famous Formula One driver around with a camera crew at a famous European weekend racing event. This DVD is the fruit of that labor.
The original film was shot in 1971 at and around the Grand Prix of Monaco. The driver was the ever-camera ready Jackie Stewart (he was not yet a knight) and the director (who was actually the producer for this one) was the (not yet in)famous Roman Polanski.
Why this documentary was never widely distributed at the time that it was made some 40 years ago has never been satisfactorily explained for me. My suspicion is that the success of the recent Senna documentary might well have been why this film has been (re?) released at this time.
I must tell you that it is no “Senna”.
For me this DVD works best as a technical time capsule. An opportunity to see what were then the most advanced race cars on the face of the earth up close, and to marvel at their utter simplicity. Armco and hay bales delineate some of the course, in other places the walls that had been there for a hundred years or more, do just fine.
Every aspect of the F1 show from the miniscule shop space to the tiny number of crew members and the (almost) crude pit areas is glaring in relationship to today’s 20-man plus pit stops, 30-person “mission control” computer banks, and trackside pit accommodations that are bigger (and better equipped) than the full factory race shops of days of 1971.
And the driving: all arms and elbows at times. These are 3-liter, non-turbocharged, low down-force race cars with lurid slides part of the deal. These are cars that actually appear to have working suspensions, with a hand-operated shifter and an actual, round steering wheel that’s simply a steering wheel rather than a million-gigabyte electronic control center.
The story is simple, if sort of stilted. Stewart is aware of the camera and the camera is aware of him. He’s racing at Monaco, it rains during practice, they work on set-up (Stewart actually seems to be handling a shock absorber in one shot—he asks someone off-camera “What compound are we on?”), he talks about the weather with team owner Ken Tyrell, he squints, he scowls, he petulantly gives autographs on the run and studiously avoids any eye contact, he finds his second set of fire-proof underwear, he runs the race, he wins the race, and he gets to meet Grace Kelly and her husband on their front porch right after the event.
Virtually all of the people (mostly Stewart and Polanski) in this one are shot in extreme close-up. There are tons of very close faces. The racing footage is good, stirring actually, seeing the cars of this era being manhandled around is great fun and, for me, the best part of the DVD. The running in the rain at Monaco with people standing on the kerbs a foot off the racing line alone is worth fighting one’s way though this film for.
There’s something else about this one. Sadly, too many of the drivers that we see or meet in this one are gone; and most by the sword that they lived by. To name a few them that flash by: Graham Hill, Francois Cevert, Pedro Rodriguez, Dennis Hulme, Ronnie Peterson, Reine Wisell, Peter Gethin, Henri Pescarolo, Clay Reggazoni, and Chris Amon. (Three of those heroes—Reine Wisell, Henri Pescarolo, and Chris Amon—are still among us. - DS). The cars are Ferraris, Surtees’, Marchs, BRMs, Tyrells, Brabhams, Lotuses, and McLarens, the pit signals are all hand-held and given whilst standing right on the edge of the racing surface.
The sharp-eyed viewer will recognize celebs like Joan Collins and Ringo Starr in the crowd shots. In one of the victory banquet scenes I think I even caught a view of legendary BRM chieftain Raymond Mays.
The preceding decade had been deadly in Formula 1, and the late sixties and early seventies were not a whole lot better. Stewart was one of the leaders of the new awareness about racer safety. His personal commitment is evident in the scenes just before the start of the Monaco GP. He already has a set of thermal long johns on and he’s in a tizzy looking for his helmet bag. Doctor Frank Falkner finally brings him the bag; Stewart reaches in, grabs a second set of flame-proof underwear and puts it on over his first set . He zips up his driving suit, pulls up an enormous cowl and buckles in.
If I don’t sound too very excited about the film the main reason for my sourness is the annoying sound track that underscores the racing scenes. Acting like a Greek chorus, the unseen, but very clearly heard, track announcer is all-knowing about Jackie and way, way too amazingly accurate (almost clairvoyant) about what’s going on. I suspect that producers thought they could somehow fool the viewers, I found it quite irritating and (although some might not even notice it) a solid, dead-nuts knock off of the same stilted, story-mover-alonger, in the 1966 movie “Grand Prix”. Sorry, but, watching for a second time, the cloying hand-holding by the fake “track announcer” made this true documentary seem much more like a made-up movie story.
In the overly-long coda to this mid-May weekend in Monaco brings Stewart and Polanski back together (a rather big deal is that it’s the very room he stayed in back in 1971) to talk ( a lot) about a lot of banal stuff including the long sideburns (really muttonchops) that he and Emerson Fittipaldi sported in the day, the fact that Stewart never found out that he was dyslexic until he was already a well-known racing driver, and how dangerous the driving was, and some other things that we already knew thanks very much. The 1967 footage of Lorenzo Bandini burning to death at Monaco (to illustrate racing dangers) is brief, but as unnecessary as this entire end piece. For this viewer, this extended bull-session adds sweet nothing to the film, and somehow undoes what racing magic the original (1972) documentary that precedes it was able to weave in the first place. – DSWeekend of a Champion (Bill Brayne)
To purchase or rent “Weekend of a Champion” through Amazon, click hereWEEKEND OF A CHAMPION
Roman Polanski (uncredited)
Submarine Deluxe (USA)
22 June 1972 (Berlin International Film Festival)
23 May 2013 (Cannes Film Festival)
22 November 2013 (United States: limited)
93 minutes (re-release with postscript)
English and French