Film Review: Ford v. Ferrari (2019)

Well, this film “Ford v. Ferrari” is a very surprising hit that I
never expected. It never crossed my mind that the subject matter would
be of the slightest interest to most of the movie-going population. But
it was the number one grossing film following its weekend debut and
Rotten Tomatoes gave it a very healthy 92% with an audience approval
rating of 98%. So I guess it rates a review by me.
Now, I must tell you before you start that there is no way to review
this film without recalling how the history proceeds, avoiding
recounting the drama that’s most of the film. My version concentrates
on history and that might be a bit lengthy. So find a quiet time when
you’re not doing much else to absorb this review. I think you’ll
find it interesting even if you don’t know a Ferrari from a fuzz-ball.
The film recounts a lot of history between Henry Ford II of Detroit and
Enzo Ferrari in Modena, Italy. Ford’s acolytes, including Lee Iacocca
were looking to expand the brand and got interested in buying Ferrari as
a sports car portion of their brand. Enzo Ferrari had been racing with
Alfa Romero in the 1920s, eventually to start his own car construction
company around 1933, named after him and flying the iconic black
prancing horse, borrowed from an Italian WW I fighter planes’ nose
cone. Enzo Ferrari’s strong personality and controversial management
style became notorious. He poured all of his passion (and money) into
racing, very successfully, especially in the 60s. Only a few Americans
had ever driven for Ferrari, Phil Hill, the only American Ferrari driver
to win the Formula 1 championship in 1961. Mario Andretti was born in
Italy.
However, Ferrari’s business went bankrupt, as the income from his road
cars could not sustain the flood of money into racing for virtually
every category. A 12 cylinder Ferrari 275 would sell for about US$6000
in 1965. They’re worth millions if you can find one now. Henry Ford
figured he could pick up Ferrari for pennies on the dollar and so sent
Iacocca to Italy to make a lowball offer. The old man then went to Fiat,
showed them the Ford offer and negotiated a much better deal including
Ferrari’s continuance in their racing efforts. Ferrari then went out
of his way to insult the entire Ford team, especially Henry II and
Americans in general.
This prompted a furious Henry to get even and he figured the best plan
was to outrun Ferrari in one of the most famous races in the world, the
24 hours of Le Mans, where Ferrari had been dominant for years and
Americans had never put forth much effort. Carroll Shelby, a very
successful American car builder (Cobra cars) became involved and along
with mechanic/driver Ken Miles, designed and constructed a GT racing car
to compete with the very Successful Ferrari 330P at Le Mans in the
mid-60s.
In 1964, Ferrari won Le Mans first, second and third (one of the drivers
Lorenzo Bandini, I’ll discuss later). However, a Shelby Cobra was in
the game, winning 4th place, arriving at the flag before two other
Ferraris. In 1965, the Ferrari contenders all blew head gaskets and
didn’t finish. Porsche took most of the places. In 1966, however and
where most of the film takes place, the American Shelby GT cars took
1,2,3 all arriving at the flag together. The Ferraris blew engines
trying to keep up with the Fords. This was the highlight of the Ford
effort. In 1969, the Ford GT took 1,3,5 but in 1970, Porsche wiped the
field. The American effort essentially fizzled at this point due to the
incredible amounts of money spent that, like Ferrari, threatened to
bankrupt Ford.
Le Mans is the most famous race in the world. It’s the third leg of
the “Triple Crown” (Indianapolis 500, Le Mans and the Monaco Formula
1 Grand Prix). Unlike Formula 1, it’s an endurance race on a mix of
closed public roads and dedicated sections of racing track, in which
racing teams must balance the demands of speed with the cars’ ability to
run for 24 hours without mechanical failure. Of the 60 cars that
qualified for the 2018 race, 41 cars lasted the full duration. There are
many varieties of non-GP cars actually racing at the same time,
including, interestingly, the Austin Healy “Bugeye” Sprite (42
horsepower). The course is 8.5 miles long and in 24 hours, the cars will
traverse over 3100 miles. The infamous Mulsanne Straight was 3.7 miles
in length and in the old days, before it was shortened in the 90s. The
only speed limit for the GT cars was how many RPM they could reach
without the engine blowing up. 240 MPH was not unusual.
In the original race, drivers stood opposite their cars on the opposite
side of the track. When the flag dropped, the drivers ran to their cars,
jumped in, started them up and proceeded onto the track in a big crowd.
Any of you have Porsches; you’ll notice that the key/ignition is on
the left side of the steering wheel (most are on the right). This is
because Porsche figured out a driver could jump in the car and turn the
ignition with the left hand while simultaneously shifting into gear with
the right, conserving a second or two on the start. All Porsches still
have left hand ignition.
In the film and in real life, there was a very angry and pitched
competition between the Fords and Ferraris. In the film, there are a few
cuts of the Ferrari drivers seated in their cars as they fought for
place in the race. The Ferrari drivers appeared very elegant, with
barely a smirk as they passed the Fords. (Who are these posers??). I
suspect these Ferrari drivers are remembrances of Lorenzo Bandini who
Won Le Mans in 1963 and was driving a Ferrari in 1964 when Ford arrived.
He was a very smooth, unflappable driver. Of note, Bandini helped
director John Frankenheimer with his movie ”Grand Prix” (1966) by
recommending an interesting location, the Harbor Chicanes at Monaco, for
a crash scene. This spot would be the site of Bandini’s death in the
Formula 1 race one year later.
The film is very well done, the actors are suburb and the racing scenes
are really exciting, well photographed. There is a real plot to the
film, unlike Steve McQueen’s version in 1971. Those not particularly
interested in the cars would enjoy the progress of the plot. One of the
interesting characterizations was a thought expressed by Carroll Shelby
(Matt Damon), and I paraphrase here, it would be sad if a person never
found meaning in their lives and it was very admirable if a person found
a calling that satisfied them. But some find an overwhelming passion
that saturates everything they do and those persons “must” satisfy
this passion. There is no other option. It saturates their life
completely.
Such a person was driver/mechanic Ken Miles (Christian Bale) who
“became” part of the car they were building, understanding the
smallest minutia of the car, driving and improving every part of it for
hours and days at a time. Ken was directly responsible for the success
of the car and was one of the winning driver team at Le Mans in 1966. He
was killed testing a car at Riverside in August of 1966. The steel roll
cage in the Mk IV mandated as a direct result of Miles’s death probably
saved the life of Mario Andretti, who crashed during the 1967 24 Hours
of Le Mans but escaped injury because of the added structural
protection.
An interesting aside: Keep your eye on the two (consecutive)
wristwatches Matt Damon is wearing. In the early part of the movie,
it’s a white face with two black sub-dials. Later in the movie, it’s
a white face with three black sub-dials. There was some discussion
about this and the preponderance of opinion seems to be that these
timepieces are the Heuer 3647 Carrera white/two black dials (value now
about $3500). Heuer Carrera panda three dial chronograph ($5500) Heuer
didn’t become TAG Heuer untill 1985 (see photos).
So if you’re still with me, I definitely agree with Rotten Tomatoes,
this is an interesting film on every level. They’ve played fast and
loose with real history, but it isn’t really noticeable and most of
the history is accurate. I’ve tried to augment the drama with
historical context.
I give it easily four 7000 RPMs out of five.
Here’s what it looks like to go 220 miles per hour in a Mazda GT (Yes,
Mazda- they did well in these races). It’s fascinating. Probably
1989, pre-shortening of the Mulsanne. Wait a bit till he enters the
Mulsanne to get the proper feel for it. You’ll know when he’s there.

Published by gonzo66

I am a neurosurgical critical care physician and full professor at a major Eastern University Medical Center.

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