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Weekend of a Champion (9/10)

by Tony Medley

Runtime 93 minutes.

OK for Children

Roman Polanski had extraordinary access to race driver Jackie Stewart as he prepared to drive in the Monaco Grand Prix in 1971. The resulting film made its debut at the 1972 International Film Festival where it won a “Special Recognition Award,” and then became a lost film, re-emerging at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It’s a treat for movie-goers because this could be the best auto racing movie ever made. Stewart had won the Monaco Grand Prix in 1966 and was world champion in 1969.

Produced by Polanski and directed by Frank Simon, Stewart was filmed throughout his four days in Monaco during which he explains the inner workings of the racing game. I’m not going to tell everything in the movie, but among the insights Stewart relays to Polanski are, for instance,   explaining to Polanski how the front and rear brakes have to work together on one of the curves or he will spin out.

With a camera in the car, Stewart drives slowly around the city roads over which the race will take place explaining how he downshifts, what gear he goes in, and when he does what at various milestones, like a manhole cover in the street.

He explains how his seat belts work and why they are “fantastic,” over breakfast with Polanski in his hotel room (Stewart is dressed only in his jockey shorts while sharing breakfast with Polanski), telling Polanski, “As a racing driver, you’re a very good film director.”

Later on in the film, Stewart explains to Polanski how the neck muscles get very tired in Monaco because you’re starting and stopping all the time, so he describes at what points in the race he will rest his neck. One year, he says, the “whole car changed” when the headband for his goggles started to stick.

This is a fascinating film. The photography is exceptional. The editing is superb. While Ron Howard’s racing film earlier this year, Rush, was an outstanding piece of work replicating what auto racing can be like, this is the real thing, including some graphic scenes of fatal accidents.

There are also a few shots of a relatively youthful and very beautiful Princess Grace (she would have been 41 in 1971) and her husband, Prince Ranier. The film ends with Stewart and Polanski as they are today discussing the changes Stewart forced on the racing world that saved lives. Unfortunately, the link provided to me by the production company malfunctioned with about 15 minutes left in the film, so I didn’t see the end of it which apparently includes reminiscences by both men about their lives and careers. But, regardless of what is in the last 15 minutes, this is a don’t-miss film, even if you’re not an auto racing aficionado, which I’m not.  Opens November 29 for an exclusive run at the Crest Theater in Westwood.

November 29, 2013