Reflections on "Le Mans '66 (Ford v Ferrari)"

Directed by James Mangold

Written by Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth and Jason Keller

Starring Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Jon Bernthal, Caitriona Balfe,

Tracy Letts and Josh Lucas

 

A video presentation of this material is available here.

 

Billed as the story of Ford's showdown with Ferrari at Le Mans in 1966, this film does, indeed, relate that tale but in the process, it says so much more. This is a study of the relationship and conflict between big business and those who passionately pursue auto racing perfection, the ingenuity, grit and determination of our heroes, and the essential importance of devoted friendship and family support in the face of adversity and setback. The story is recounted with no little humour, considerable excitement, and infectious and endearing positivity.

It is the early sixties and Ford sales are in decline. It is suggested Ford should enter the world of auto racing in order to pursue a different direction which might stimulate public interest and boost sales. The design and performance of cars produced by Enzo Ferrari are held up as the most impressive, desirable and potentially inspirational, and so a takeover of Ferrari is proposed by Ford but is rejected quite decisively by Ferrari who has used Ford's interest to gain a more advantageous and more lucrative deal from Fiat. Incensed at Ferrari's snub, Henry Ford 2nd announces he wishes to take on Ferrari at Le Mans, no matter the cost, and his staff are to assemble a team to produce the desired result.

Ford management, as depicted in the film, is clearly focused on the bigger picture. The management team consists of money men whose priorities are process and sales. They have built an image and reputation of solid, clean-cut reliability, and occupy (in their minds) an integral and revered place in American society. They have smugly concentrated on image, sales, loyalty and conformity rather than design and innovation and now, in something of a rut and faced with falling sales, they find themselves out of their depth in terms of design and performance that will appeal to the younger generation.

They must turn to someone who has a genuine interest in and understanding of the complexities involved in creating and producing the advanced and innovative technology and design which will allow them to produce a world-beating, or more precisely, a Ferrari-beating, vehicle. They must turn to someone driven by a passion not for making money but for developing a vehicle which enables the fusion of man and machine and a combination of speed and control.

They turn to Carroll Shelby, a former winner of Le Mans and designer and builder of sports cars, and he will turn to Ken Miles, a brilliant but demanding and difficult driver, to help him.

Shelby is devoted to and obsessed by the pursuit of automotive perfection, but he is also a businessman with his own small-scale production company and he is blessed with considerable personal charm and confidence. He is therefore considered the ideal candidate to carry forward Ford's ambition of developing a car to defeat Ferrari at Le Mans, but he cannot drive professionally for health reasons and so he seeks the participation of the best driver he knows, Ken Miles.

Miles runs a small garage but we quickly discover he has no head for business as his enterprise is seized by the IRS, leaving him without income or means to support his family. He is remarkably outspoken and does not shrink from expressing his thoughts and opinions, often causing offence and creating a negative impression. He is entirely independent and will not compromise, even at his own expense, and appears to have little self-discipline, socially speaking. He is also, however, an enormously gifted and knowledgeable driver and mechanic with considerable experience and daring and is driven by his desire to produce the perfect lap at Le Mans.

And so, we have what appears to be the perfect combination of figures who, together, should be able to achieve something outstanding. Passion and ability require funding to bring their ideas to fruition while businessmen constantly seek projects or concepts in which to invest. In theory, this is a match made in Heaven, but Shelby must astutely and cunningly find compromise and middle ground between Ken's obstinate but highly insightful input and driving skills, and Ford's resolute insistence on conformity to company image and marketing issues.

Unfortunately, in the end, Shelby and Ken's personal investment and obsession are sacrificed and subsumed into the ends of big business. Ford gains the marketing coup of their three cars crossing the finish line together but at the expense of the victory Ken Miles drove so hard to achieve. Although it was a moral victory for Shelby and Miles, the brand was the winner, with the efforts of those individuals who made it all happen passing into general oblivion, until now. It is interesting to note that Enzo Ferrari, who was also driven by a desire to create automotive perfection, seems to appreciate the talent and effort of Ken Miles at Le Mans more than his own employers as Ferrari tips his hat toward Miles after the race.

Underpinning their achievements are the constant and devoted support of Ken's wife and son, and the understated but absolutely essential friendship between Shelby and Ken Miles.

Mollie and Peter offer Ken emotional and social stability and strength, especially when the chips are down. They express their belief in him and clearly admire and love him, and this empowers Ken to undertake and complete his work, and he includes and involves them in many aspects of his working life. This underplayed but essential incorporation of family life offers moments of reflection, security and humour not just to Ken, but to the audience as well, and is a welcome contrast to the action and drama on and off the track.

Shelby and Ken trust one another and have confidence in one another. Their friendship goes a long way to explain the progress they made together on their project. Each knows the other's strengths and weaknesses and they complement one another. Each is willing to forgive and forget minor grievances, not just to benefit the project, but because they recognise pressures from outside and they genuinely care about and respect one another, though they would never openly express these feelings. They have a bond and an understanding forged by their common passions and obsessions but honed by common experience, mutual respect and admiration.

This could easily have been a dry tale of interest only to fans of motor sport but the script and direction broaden the characterisations and the themes to make this a relatively lightly told but highly effective and positive drama with exciting action and moments of humour. The performances of all involved are quite superb and totally engaging. In keeping with several of his other films, director James Mangold manages to combine heart-stopping action, tension, drama and humanity, and I have to say I found this film engrossing, gently thought-provoking and highly entertaining.

My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.

Stuart Fernie

I can be contacted at stuartfernie@yahoo.co.uk .

HOME

BLOG