The Facts of Rivalry: Ford V Ferrari Review - Muscle Car

The Facts of Rivalry: Ford V Ferrari Review

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Written by Elise

7th December 2020

The Facts of Rivalry: Ford V Ferrari Review
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The Facts of Rivalry: Ford V Ferrari Review

By Niamh Smith

Things I look for in a film: thrilling action that leaves me strapped into the driver’s seat, loveable characters that make me want to have a beer with them, and as a history buff I like a bit of historical context as well. 

As a classic racing nerd, match those features with a storyline based on the true rivalry between Ford and Ferrari in the 60s and you’ve got a film that has me lining up for tickets in the foyer of a cinema, and that’s exactly what I did when Ford V Ferrari was released late last year (or Le Mans 66 as it was marketed in the UK). 

The first thing my boyfriend and I said after we came out of the screen was “that was a car film for car people”, but to be honest I would imagine most people would get on with it even if they aren’t classic car geeks. It’s a crowd-pleaser to be sure, but it does it well.

What happens in Ford V Ferrari? Warning: Spoiler Alerts!

Throughout history there have been many famous rivalries; Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, Tom and Jerry, Noel and Liam Gallagher. Directed by James Mangold and featuring A-listers Matt Damon and Christian Bale, Ford V Ferrari tells the true story of the rivalry between Henry Ford II and Enzo Ferrari.

It all started back in the early sixties. In the background of GM and Chrysler’s growing popularity, Ford Motor Company was edging out of its sales slump brought along by failed products like the Edsel. Henry Ford II (Hank the Deuce as he was known) needed an answer to this problem and Lee Iacocca, one of his top executives who features prominently in Ford V Ferrari, decided that Ford needed to produce a sports car to appeal to the new generation of baby boomers.

As there were no current plans to build a sports car for Ford (Iacocca’s legendary Mustang was a few years away yet), the idea was to buy Ferrari, an Italian car maker primarily focused on racing that sold street-legal cars only to fund their track time. After months of negotiation, the deal with Enzo was coming to a conclusion.

At the last minute, shown in the tense yet humorous scene, Ferrari backed out of the deal because of a clause in the contract that said that Ford would control the budget, and Fiat bought out Ferrari instead. However, what is not shown in Ford V Ferrari, is that historically there are suspicions that Ferrari were never serious about merging with Ford in the first place, only negotiating with them to put pressure on Fiat to close the deal. 

This sudden U-turn, paired with Enzo’s personal insults designed to unfavourably compare Henry Ford II to his predecessor, sparked a bitter anger in the Deuce, deciding he needed to dominate Ferrari in the thing they held closest to their hearts: the 24 Hours of Le Mans. 

Lee Iacocca approaches the legendary driver and car builder Carroll Shelby, who won Le Mans in 1959 and enlists his best friend to drive for them, the hot-headed English driver Ken Miles (whose car is officially the most expensive Mustang in the world). Together, Shelby and Miles test and finesse the fresh-off-the-plane Ford GT40 MK1 prototype and start planning to defeat Ferrari.

Note: historically, this car wasn’t strictly a prototype: Ford V Ferrari glossed over the fact that the Ford GT had been competing on the European circuits for some time, including the legendary Le Mans track. After a string of the GT40s having to drop out of races due to engine issues or crashing, this is when Ford decided to enlist the help of Carroll Shelby. 

Ford V Ferrari follows the development of the Ford GT40 by a team of British and American engineers as it trasnforms into the Ferrari eating machine that (spoiler!) wins the 1966 24 Hour of Le Mans for Ford, and the Deuce giving Enzo the proverbial two fingers. 

For me, however, the development story is not even the best part of this film. Rather, it’s the celebration of Ken Miles. Anyone can read an article on the history of the GT40, but unlike Carroll Shelby and Bruce McLaren (who raced for Ford alongside Miles, and yep, you guessed it, went on to create McLaren) Ken Miles seems to have been ungraciously kicked to the curb by history. 

Thankfully, this film celebrates Miles’ life and has given him the recognition he deserves. In Ford V Ferrari you can’t help but love the cup-o-tea loving, foul mouthed Brummy – despite the several cheesy, stereotypical ‘corr blimeys’ and ‘blaady ‘ells’ thrown in for good measure by the American director… y’know, just in case we didn’t realise that Miles was English!

Ford V Ferrari’s Reception

Ford V Ferrari (or Le Mans ‘66) had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in August 2019, and hit the big screens 2 months later, making $225.5 million in the box office. It scores a very respectable 98% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 out of 5 stars on Empire, and an 8.1/10 rating on IMDb… not bad! 

All of my racing pals and non-racing pals alike said they really enjoyed it when they went to see it. “Finally a racing movie that’s actually about racing”; “this was the most badass movie I’ve ever seen”; “this movie is just fantastic..worth every dollar”

Ford V Ferrari received 4 nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards and took home the Oscars for Best Achievement in Film Editing and Best Achievement in Sound Editing. It received acclaim from critics who praised Bale and Damon’s performances, Mangold’s direction, and the editing and racing sequences. 

Despite all this positive press, it seems you can’t please everyone, with Peter Bradshaw in his critical review for The Guardian giving it only 2 stars; “ [it’s] crammed with unearned emotional moments and factory-built male characters whose dedication to their sport we are expected to find adorable and heroic”. 

They’re called critics for a reason,  but it’s hard to understand the raw emotion of being in a racing team or pit crew if you have never been in that position yourself. Meanwhile, I have, and it’s something I find at times equally rewarding and emotionally overwhelming!

Ford V Ferrari Film Review

As I said, this is a film about cars for car people, but it is cleverly balanced out with enough drama that it isn’t overbearing or confusing for someone who isn’t mechanically minded. Importantly, it isn’t taken over by a love interest like a lot of other historical films, ticking a big old box for me. Take Pearl Harbor or Titanic, for example: nearly 3 hours of romance distracting from the main historical event is my personal pet hate. 

The acting in the film is exemplary, with Matt Damon playing the ever-so-cool Carroll Shelby, complete with suave Southern drawl, although there isn’t much development of his character. 

Where we get to see into Ken Miles’ personal life, it would be nice to learn a bit more about Shelby, but then again, perhaps mystery is what keeps him cool. 

What’s particularly impressive is that Christian Bale did a week-long intensive driving course with Bob Bondurant (who raced for Shelby American in the 1964 24 Hours Le Mans and also happened to be close friends with Ken Miles). In the scenes where Miles comes screaming into the pits or pulls out into oncoming race traffic, that’s not a stunt double, that is Christian Bale.

With plenty of scenes that will make a classic car fan squeal with excitement, notably the high action racing sequences, there are equally scenes that leave my mechanical sympathy screaming, such as when Ken Miles beats the living daylights out of his boot lid with a hammer to comply with the rulebook for a race, observed by a jobsworth scrutineer. Thankfully, it’s done in such a way that it also left me chuckling to myself and thinking ‘you show ‘em, Ken!’.

Despite the Hollywood gloss and glamour, the storyline stays very close to what is thought to have actually happened: when trying to look for errors or goofs, they’re far and few between, and the few that there aren’t all relevant. Yes, the characters are dramatised, and things have been added for comical effect, such as Carroll Shelby dropping a nut into Ferrari’s pits to make them freak out, but have only the positive impact of making the film appeal to a wider audience.

However, all good stories need a good villain, and Leo Beebe’s character was demonised in this film, meaning Ford initially distanced themselves from Ford V Ferrari over this character assassination. In real life, people who knew Beebe said he wasn’t nearly as bad as they portrayed: “You ask a thousand people here about Leo Beebe, you’re going to get a thousand positive opinions,” said Ron Jaworski. This leaves us questioning, was his portrayal as a slimy, conniving executive entirely necessary to the plot?

Facts of Rivalry: Ford V Ferrari Review Summary

Even if you’re not a motorhead, chances are you’ll still find yourself gripped by this film depicting an epic, historic rivalry between the auto manufacturer magnates of the sixties. If you are a motorhead however, you’ll be drooling over the cars (especially because they really had GT40 replicas made complete with Ford 427ci motors), as well as all the racing action that puts you right in the pits – you can almost smell the rubber . 

What remains the best part for me is the celebration of Ken Miles’ genius, which had gone unrecognised practically since his untimely death.

Powered along by flawless acting, seamless CGI and epic racing scenes, director James Mangold makes this 2 and a half hour long film a pleasure to watch. 

Author: Niamh Smith

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