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Why movie Ford v Ferrari black-flags three Kiwi racing heroes

A new Hollywood film about a legendary car race won by a couple of New Zealand greats barely features them. Russell Baillie asks its director why, and how accurate his movie is.

When New Zealand drivers Bruce McLaren and Chris Amon won and Denny Hulme came second in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966, it wasn’t just another triumph during a golden age for Kiwi drivers in international motorsport.

It was, as the new movie Ford v Ferrari likes to point out, a victory for an American corporation that had gone to war in Europe. Ford wanted to show that, when it came to sports-car endurance racing, it could beat the Ferrari team and its beautiful red cars that had come to dominate the event and others like it through much of the 1950s and 1960s.

It also wanted to make Ferrari pay. This was a battle of the auto tycoons – Henry Ford II (the grandson of the company’s founder) against Enzo Ferrari, who, after negotiating with the Detroit giant to buy his struggling marque, sold instead to Fiat.

An incensed Henry Ford II agreed to a money-is-no-object race programme that, in its second year, came 1-2-3 in the 1966 event with its classic British-designed, American-engineered, mostly Kiwi-driven Ford GT40s.

Ken Miles in action during the race. Photo/Getty Images

The movie offers its own version of how that 1966 finish was a stage-managed triumph for the company and what the cost of that photo opportunity was to the participants – though McLaren, Amos and team-mate Hulme barely feature on screen. Occasionally, you’ll see McLaren’s kiwi emblem on the side windows of his and Amon’s black and silver car as it flashes past.

The film, directed by James Mangold, whose best-known previous films include two X-Men spin-offs (The Wolverine and Logan) and the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, focuses mainly on an odd couple played by Matt Damon and Christian Bale.

The former is Carroll Shelby, the ex-driver, good ol’ boy team boss of the Ford-backed company Shelby American, who, in real life, had McLaren, Amon and Hulme on contract. But in the film, he  doesn’t appear to ever encounter them.

The latter plays US-resident Englishman Ken Miles, a Shelby American test driver who was coming to the end of his racing career when he came second at Le Mans in 1966 with Hulme as his co-driver. Miles had been McLaren’s co-driver the previous year, when not one of the six hastily assembled new Ford GT40s finished the race.

Actors Matt Damon and Christian Bale in a scene from the movie. Photo/Supplied

The film makes Miles the forgotten hero of the Ford campaign, a doting dad and dutiful husband whose zen search for the perfect lap, mechanical genius and driving skills allowed him to remain in Shelby’s employ despite his irascible nature and seeming inability to toe the Ford company line.

Ahead of Le Mans, Miles had already won the two big endurance races of the year – 24 Hours of Daytona and 12 Hours of Sebring. If he had won at Le Mans, he would have been the first man to win all three.

But as the Le Mans clock ticked down, Shelby, under pressure from Ford management, told Miles to slow down so they could have a dead-heat photo opportunity at the checkered flag, only for McLaren-Amon to be ruled the winners by race officials thanks to more distance covered – the Kiwi duo had been further back in the famous sprint-to-the-car start.

Miles died two months after Le Mans on a US test track. The movie effectively says he won the race in spirit, though there is a view he and Hulme were only ahead of team-mates McLaren and Amon because Miles wasn’t following orders to keep his speed down to preserve the car in what is an endurance event. There is another, which has the taint of conspiracy theory, that the Miles-Hulme car was somehow docked a lap.

James Mangold: “We did our very best to be close to history.” Photo/Getty Images
In the aftermath of Le Mans, the supposedly outspoken Miles said very little about the result. According to the award-winning 2016 book Ford GT: How Ford Silenced the Critics, Humbled Ferrari and Conquered Le Mans by American motorsport journalist Preston Lerner, Miles talked about the result in a US radio interview a month later.

He said that he and McLaren had done their best to be dead-even at the finishing line timing strip and accepted the race officials’ ruling. As for Ford wanting to stage-manage the finish: “It’s up to them … It’s up to them to make a decision and nobody will make it for them. They’re running the cars; it’s their money. They’re paying the piper. They can call the tune.”

The late Hulme, whose career would be closely tied to McLaren’s in the following years and who was never comfortable in the media spotlight, never spoke much about the result. “We wuz robbed,” he reportedly told engineer John Horsman shortly afterwards.

For a man who drove more or less 12 hours in the same car as Miles, the movie depiction of Hulme is slight – two or three lines in a dubious Kiwi accent, one to tell Miles as they swap driving duties that the car is running hot.

The Ferrari 330 P3 of Lorenzo Bandini and Jean Guichet leads the Ford GT40 of Denny Hulme and  Miles during the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966. Photo/Getty Images

When the Listener tells Mangold that you feel a bit sorry for the actor portraying the man who, the following year, would become New Zealand’s first and only Formula 1 champion, he takes it in good humour.

“Well, that’s the way it goes … I think you’re doomed if you’re going to look at it in such a nationalistic way. The reality is that we were focused on two characters. I couldn’t focus the movie on six characters.”

Mangold says it was his decision to angle the film on Miles and Shelby in successive rewrites of its screenplay, “because they were so dramatically tied to one another. Carroll Shelby went to his death regretting asking Ken Miles to slow down. So that was extremely dramatic to me”.

“The way that Miles ruffled feathers of the Ford characters, the specific Miles story in terms of being in his forties and kind of at the end of the road as a driver … The fact that Shelby was a race-car driver himself whose heart condition ended his career and he found such a particular relationship with Ken. All of that was very interesting.”

Yet books such as Lerner’s suggest that Miles was more a loyal servant than black sheep of the Ford family. Given that Miles isn’t here to speak for himself and didn’t get much chance to reflect on his career, isn’t Mangold making assumptions about him? “Umm, well, I mean, I have to make assumptions when I make a dramatic film about everyone’s reasons …

Ken Miles, left, and Bruce McLaren at the 1965 12 Hours of Sebring. Photo/Getty Images

“I mean, the truth is that no one goes to the movies to unpack a kind of actual historical excavation on all the different ways one might interpret the facts. You’re going to the wrong medium. That would be like listening to an opera to understand, you know, history. And the reality is that’s not what the medium is really for. I think we did our very best to be close to history. Is there something you’re taking issue with?”

Well, when three of the top four drivers in that race are New Zealanders and they’re relegated to the status of peripheral characters that barely register, maybe the question isn’t out of nationalism but wondering why and where the movie switches lanes between history and fiction.

But Mangold says the film is also about something else. He sees it as one of those moments when the brands behind sport exerted control.

“It hurt everybody. It tainted McLaren’s victory. It certainly tainted Ken Miles, because it certainly felt like he gave up the victory. That’s part of what the movie is about – the pernicious effect of promotion and marketing and corporate influence on sports.

“In fact, in some ways you could say the movie is about the moment racing, like so many sports in the 60s, became more in the grips of sponsors and corporate control.”

Arguably, motorsport had been under the influence of car companies long before 1966, and drivers such as Shelby, who had become a car-maker himself, were already their own brands, as McLaren was to become, too.

Drivers run to their cars in Ford v Ferrari. Photo/Supplied

When it’s not whizzing around the track, the movie focuses on Henry Ford II, who took over the company at the end of World War II after his father, Edsel, had died in 1943 and his grandfather resumed the company presidency. Founder Henry Ford was a prominent anti-Semite who did business with Nazi Germany and was awarded an Order of the German Eagle, an honour instituted by Adolf Hitler for esteemed foreign sympathisers. Before the US entered the war – which he opposed – and it was separated from the US company, Ford-Werke in Germany used slave labour in munitions manufacturing.

So, when in the film Henry Ford II makes a speech about the company assembly lines turning out USAAF bombers (which they did) and wanting his car team to go to war in Europe as he had done before (he was in the navy in World War II), it might be seen as both a bit rich and a nice rewrite of corporate history.

Mangold says the movie “didn’t really” have a relationship with the Ford company.

“Not really. I mean, they offered us some help, but they were leery, as was Ferrari. Everyone was leery of the film. Ford was very nervous about the way we were depicting Henry Ford II. Well, frankly, I think we went soft on him.

“You know, publicity departments and corporations don’t want anything but the positive and the rosy, so it was impossible to tell the story and do that.”

(Shortly after this interview with Mangold, the film’s NZ marketing company called the Listener, asking what the angle of the story would be.)

Bale as  Ken Miles. Photo/Supplied
This car-race movie might not be running true but, care of the era it depicts and the design of the cars, it sure does look a treat.

“It’s such a beautiful period in racing, an innocent period of racing,” says Mangold. It’s also a reminder of a dangerous era before roll cages and in-car radios.

“They were essentially riding in an overgrown go-kart, just these sheet-metal bubbles with monstrous engines under the hood. It was not rational. And in the case of the GT40, they had built a car that was so powerful that they really didn’t know how to slow it, stop it or turn it. That was really their problem.”

The average speed of the winning car at Le Mans in 1966 was 201.8km/h. The highest average in the 53 years since was 225.2km/h, in 2010. Not that they got up to those kind of speeds, but Bale’s previous driving experience in the Batmobile and Damon’s as Jason Bourne both came in handy in Ford v Ferrari.“ They both are pretty damn good drivers,” says Mangold.

There is an amusing scene in which Damon’s Shelby takes Henry Ford II for a burn in one of the cars and the boss ends up in tears. It happened to Mangold, too.

“I wasn’t quite moved to bawling, but I did find myself with my fingernails firmly implanted in the arm rest. My fingers were buried in the vinyl. It’s terrifying. It’s not really speed that scares you, it’s the g-forces of the turn. It is just experiencing that kind of glued-to-the road feeling and feeling the turns in your body the way you do.

“It’s extremely unpleasant getting into those cars. They are very, very small cabs. Their windshield is right on top of you. You feel like you’re in a flying coffin.”

Ford v Ferrari is in cinemas now.

This article was first published in the November 23, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.