Once upon a time, Henry Ford II decided to buy up a little Italian car company called Ferrari. You know, to add a bit of racing cred to his family-car image. I mean, Ferrari’s meticulously hand-crafted sports cars offered a lot of panache, but selling them at their required price point, even in the early 1960s, wasn’t easy. Ferrari was losing money hand over fist. Ford at that time, however, had plenty of cash. So it seemed to be a match made in motoring heaven.
Until it wasn’t.
Seemingly on the verge of a deal, Ferrari founder Enzo Ferrari veers into a different lane (thanks to a 12th-hour lifeline from Fiat). That gives the proud Italian the freedom to speak his mind … bluntly. Ford makes “ugly little cars,” Enzo sneers, “in big ugly factories.”
Henry Ford is furious. And a man like Henry Ford II is not one to be trifled with. So he decides to beat Ferrari at its own game, on its own turf: the fabled 24 Hours of LeMans, where Ferrari’s race cars reign supreme.
Henry Ford II will bring in the brightest. He’ll bring in the best. And he’ll build his own Ford racer. In fact, he’ll build the best racing car in the world, and it will bury Ferrari at Le Mans, he fumes.
To make that all happen, Ford taps one Carroll Shelby.
Shelby had been known as one of America’s most incredible racers back in the late ’50s. But after he figuratively hit the wall with some unexpected heart problems, things had to change. Now, in the early 1960s, he’s parlaying his past fame and his car-designing know-how into selling sports cars baring his name.
Or perhaps, it would be more accurate to say Shelby was selling a sports car: the Shelby Cobra 427. Things are tight, and he only has a single car to sell right at the moment … which he does. Repeatedly. But when Ford, one of the biggest car manufacturers in the world, comes a-callin’, Shelby quickly signs up for the endeavor.
Shelby tells Ford that the only guy good enough to drive the car he’s going to make is Ken Miles, an irascible Brit with motor oil in his veins. “And how long did you tell them you needed? Two, three hundred years?” Miles asks when told of the car-building proposal. “Ninety days,” Shelby retorts amid his friend’s gails of laughter.
So now, the hard work begins. With a blank check, a racing car frame from England, and all the racing tech that money can buy, the men set to the task. They can imagine this wonder car, smell it, taste it, feel it in their bones.
And there’s really only one thing standing in their way: a little thing called … physics.
In spite of their iron-sharpens-iron type of relationship—or maybe iron beats iron, as they’ve got a tendency to solve disagreements with their fists—it’s clear that Ken Miles and Carroll Shelby have a great deal of respect, and even affection, for one another. That comes through loud and clear in key scenes where Shelby takes a stand and pushes back against Ford executives on his friend’s behalf, and when Miles reins in his own self-focused tendencies in turn.
Even though Ken Miles has a short fuse and tends to rage over small slights, the film’s tenderest moments are also his. On a couple occasions he takes time to talk about racing and life with his son, Peter. And even when there are other important things happening, Miles repeatedly notices Peter standing on the sidelines and takes time to include the boy in the creative experience. It’s evident that Peter adores him for it and looks up to his father.
Ken and his wife Molly also have a very supportive and loving relationship, and he tends to rely on her for wisdom and understanding that she readily gives.
Together, Ken and Carroll fight—sometimes against each other, sometimes against their corporate handlers, sometimes against Ferrari’s henchmen-like racers—to give Mr. Ford the victory he so desperately covets.
An angry Henry Ford II talks of his grandfather calling him “Henry By-God Ford!”
Ken and his wife, Molly, embrace and kiss several times. In one scene, Ken playfully asks his wife what kind of woman she is, and she replies in a seductive tone, “The kind that likes wet gasoline and burnt rubber.” Ken gasps, “Are you some kind of deviant?”
During a Ford planning meeting, an executive talks about soldiers getting home after the war and immediately having sex, producing the Baby Boom that’s fueling Ford’s surging sales.
Another exec, wanting to change Ford’s image, suggests that James Bond does not drive a Ford. “That’s ’cause he’s a degenerate,” someone answers.
Auto racing is obviously a dangerous sport when you consider that it’s all about men pushing their vehicles as hard as possible and trying to keep a couple thousand pounds of metal on a track while traveling at speeds that push past 200 miles per hour. That life-or-death tension, mixed with well-executed cinematography here, keeps viewers of this film always expecting something terrible to take place as cars careen and weave in front of each other. And of course, when things go wrong, that terrible expectation is fulfilled.
The film does a good job of keeping that destruction as palatable as possible. We never see anyone die in a crashing vehicle on screen or fall out of a car, for instance. But we do see a number of cars smash into each other, collide with walls and disintegrate into tumbling, flaming chunks. Two vehicles crash and explode just off screen. We see someone pulled from a flaming wreck, flames leaping off the back of his fire-retardant racing suit. And it’s implied that in another horrendous wreck, the exploding vehicle killed its driver.
During a pit stop, fuel is accidentally poured on a hot engine compartment and the car and its driver are both temporarily set on fire. Overly abused brakes literally melt down to slag in one case, leaving a driver in a hurtling vehicle without means of stopping.
Ken’s not the only aggressive driver in his family, though. At one point, his angry wife drives very recklessly to get his attention. She risks killing both of them just to get him to talk.
As noted above, the volatile relationship between Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles explodes in another way on a couple of occasions, too. In one situation, an angry Miles screams at Shelby and throws a wrench, barely missing Shelby and smashing a nearby windshield. And in another, the two men fall into a punching and wrestling brawl, throwing each other around and battering one another with everything from groceries to a trash can lid.
One f-word and more than 25 s-words join multiple uses each of “d–n,” “b–ch,” b–tard” “h—” and “a–hole.” God’s name is paired with “d–n” seven times. There are some 15 exclamations of the British crudity “bloody,” often used in combination with some other profanity. We also hear single uses of the words “b–locks,” “pr-ck” and “whore.”
Being the 1960s, we see men smoking in business meetings. Henry Ford II and other execs toss back glasses of booze on occasion, too, in meetings and during a Ford press event.
Alcohol flows freely in other settings as well. Ken and Molly drink hard liquor and beer on a couple different occasions. Shelby drinks beer on the nights before races and with the pit crew after. And we see him drag himself up one morning with empty beer bottles scattered about his trailer.
Shelby also has pills prescribed for his heart condition that he tends to pop on a regular basis. In stressful situations, he’ll dump several in his mouth at a time.
The IRS confiscates Ken and Molly Miles’ garage for failure to pay back taxes. Ken also plays the “pull my finger” game with his son, to expected results. Henry Ford II uses a derogatory term for Italians. And in turn, he’s called “fat and pigheaded.”
At Le Mans and in the middle of the race, Carroll steals all of the Ferrari team’s stopwatches; he also drops a lug nut near their pit area, a subterfuge he hopes will prompt the panicked team to tell a car to pit in order to check the wheels. (The ploy, played for humor, doesn’t yield Shelby’s desired result.)
To get Henry Ford II to agree to let Ken Miles drive the race car he’s producing, Shelby tricks the Ford president into going for a ride with him. Shelby pushes the car to the limit, terrifying Ford, who ultimately acquiesces to Shelby’s demands.
One of Ford’s particularly nasty lackeys seeks to undermine Ken Miles at every possible moment.
If you’re watching a racing movie, it’s generally the cars and the blazing speed that gets your blood pumping. Ironically, the drivers usually take a backseat.
Not so here.
Sure, this is the tale of the Ford Motor Company’s audacious dream of besting the perfection-driven Ferrari team at the prestigious 24 hours of Le Mans. And, yeah, we get a burning rubber, brake-melting, scorched-corner look at all it took to craft Ford’s iconic GT40. But what keeps us strapped in tight behind the wheel of this film is its high-octane leads.
Stars Christian Bale and Matt Damon so fully embody the temperamental Ken Miles and the quick-cornering Carroll Shelby—all their flaws and strengths, on and off the racetrack—that it’s hard to look away as this 2.5-hour drama zips by. You care about the men. You care about their dream. In Miles’ case, you care about his family. And win-or-lose, you care about seeing this hammer and tongs struggle through to its completion.
In that sense, this movie is as well-crafted as any of the exotic racecars depicted.
That said, I wouldn’t want to, uh, steer the family audience wrong. This is an engaging film, but one that also comes with some content speed bumps. We witness some incredibly realistic race crashes, as well as angry men blowing an occasional gasket. Then there’s the steady stream of British and American crudities to contend with—some blowing as hot as any steam-hissing radiator.
And all that’s enough to at least raise a yellow flag, especially for younger racing fans.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.