FILM REVIEW: Le Mans ’66 (+ analysis by Josh Wood)

Josh’s review (+ analysis): ★★

The excitement I felt ahead of seeing Le Mans ’66 was comparable to the excitement I usually feel before watching a race for real by the side of a race track. Unfortunately, aside from a few evocative shots and some impressively faithful use of engine noises, this film is too historically inaccurate to come close to being enjoyable for a motor racing fan. This is a particular shame as the original source material has the potential to be gripping if left untampered with, and treated with the same respect to the era shown by Rush (2016).

Comparisons with previous motor racing films is of course inevitable. As a diehard petrolhead with a particular interest in historic motor racing, I had high hopes that this film would be one of the few motorsport pictures I’d feel comfortable recommending to fellow enthusiasts and those with no interest in the sport alike.

It’s a hard balance to strike, admittedly, and a quick view of previous attempts shows precious few success stories. Grand Prix (1966) and Le Mans (1970) cater purely to anoraks, whilst Days of Thunder (1990) and Driven (2001) are Hollywood abominations likely to turn any racing fan an angry shade of Ferrari red, and the Herbie franchise offers a series of feel-good family films but without anything to really draw a racing fan away from the latest edition of The Autosport Podcast.

The best racing films have largely come in recent years. Documentary Senna (2010) and dramatisation Rush both led to scores of people telling me they could finally understand why I was enthusiastic about motorsport, and even led many to start following Formula 1 and other categories, too. Alas, anyone whose interest is sparked by Le Mans 66 will find the more interested in the sport they become, the less they can enjoy the movie.

A still from Ron Howard’s ‘Rush’.

Rush worked so successfully because it set out to make a film which was ‘80% accurate’ according to Niki Lauda, and which limited creative license to telling its story as it was reported on in-period, without using any fresh information which had come to light since. Le Mans ’66 instead is loosely based on a source material which is quickly discarded if it inconveniently contravenes the classic biopic, buddy-movie, or underdog-hothead-versus-the-corporate-suits tropes the film insists on shoehorning itself into.

To begin with, whilst Ken Miles was always known as a difficult man to get along with who had very set ideas of how to engineer a car, he was also known as a gentlemanly racer who earned the nickname ‘The Stirling Moss of the West Coast’. Why the film should insist on showing him driving his competitors off the road or violently lashing out is beyond me, especially when I can’t find any record of such behaviour. Other blatant inaccuracies include Miles criticising the new Mustang before joining Shelby’s programme to develop the GT40, when in fact Miles was one of the development drivers for both cars.

This is before we address the film showing Shelby agreeing to ‘put together a car that’ll beat Ferrari in 90 days’, when Shelby himself was only recruited in to the GT40 programme when it was already two years old, these first two years of development largely being done in England before any work was conducted on American soil. The film shows Miles being cut from the team before the 1965 running of Le Mans before having to race his way back in to be allowed to take part in ’66.

In actual fact Miles was on the team in both years, and certainly wasn’t tweaking a GT40 left behind in Shelby’s garage in the US whilst listening to the race over the radio as the film shows.The film gets only two major facts correct about the development of the GT40, that it was inspired by Ford’s failed attempt to buy Ferrari in 1963, and the level of detail Shelby put into testing and developing the GT40 before it took on Le Mans which included full scale test runs and even attempts to replicate every last gear change that would likely take place over 24 hours.

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Ford’s visit to the Ferrari factory early in the film began to raise a few red flags for me. The attempts to replicate the famous Maranello start off well with excellent exterior shots and a nice recreation of how the hand-built production line likely operated, but by the time the film gets to the race bays the film is making some basic errors. Three types of Ferrari are lined up which the Ford executives gush over before beginning negotiations.

The road-legal Ferrari GT cars look like excellent replicas, but the Le Mans prototype (The 330 P3 and P4 model) centrepiece shown in this ‘scene from 1963’ famously wasn’t released until a couple of seasons later (when the GT40 would go up against it). Furthermore the Formula One cars on display are from the 1950s, and certainly wouldn’t have been in the factory where Enzo famously only kept contemporary cars on display.

By this stage in his life Ferrari was known for leaving his factory very rarely, and was only ever trackside for Practice of the Italian Grand Prix each year. Why the film pretends he was watching from the pits in Le Mans is baffling, and creates a confusing story in which characters who would have never met each other forcibly interact. Whilst a few cars are well represented during the racing scenes, many famous machines which were common in the professional and amateur events alike during the 60s don’t appear at all, which detracts from the variety of the era.

The film also does little to explain the details of endurance racing to the casual fan, such as how the key races made up the world championship, the different categories of car all sharing the track at the same time (and the challenges brought about by each class racing at vastly different speeds), and there’s pretty much no mention of Miles’s co-drivers at all beyond a token shot or two of driver swaps in the pitlane.

Le Mans ’66 picks up some praise because of how well it recreates the Le Mans, Daytona, and Willow Springs tracks as they were in era, and I enjoyed the film making an effort to show Shelby’s time as a driver back in the late 1950s before his move into team ownership.

The real Ken Miles.

Sadly, the blatant use of green screens ruins the sense of speed, aside from a couple of impressive crash scenes which stand out against others with too many special effects and fanciful explosions which write-off car after car which then disappear from the same corner on the next lap as if by magic.

The accidents are interspersed with drivers locking eyes whilst overtaking (yeah, right…), putting on and taking off sunglasses when entering or exiting the pits (but apparently not bothering with the half-face balaclavas common in the era), and far too many gear changes and needless throttle applications that turn this film into a glorified Fast and Furious entry that happens to include old cars.

The extended build up to the epic Le Mans race is also largely overlooked, save for the marching band on race day morning, and there’s no inclusion of the big test days weeks before the race, the night-time practice sessions or Miles qualifying in second place behind a rival GT40.

Whilst Rush told an excellent story away from the race track and filmed on-track scenes for real using professional drivers in camera cars, Le Mans ’66 looks and feels too Hollywoodised to be anything but an insult to Miles’ memory. Comparisons to Ron Howard’s masterpiece might be inevitable, but in the race to be called the best movie of its type Le Mans ’66 doesn’t even belong on the same starting grid.

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