Steven Griffin turns his gaze to the silver screen to comment on "Rush", the story of Hunt and Lauda.
Many older people remember where they were when JFK was shot. For my generation it is 1976 that was a landmark year. The long, hot summer, the brown fields, the water shortages and the dodgy fashions. For me, I was a skinny eighteen year old and had spent the summer doing manual labour and surfing. My life changed when I opened an envelope with my A level results. For reasons that I’m sure they regretted shortly afterwards I was offered a place at medical school. So started a life-long passion for me trying to work out how your hip bone is attached to your thigh bone and other great mysteries.
Of course 1976 was the first and last year that England had simultaneous world Formula One and Motorcycle 500cc champions. Mssrs Hunt and Sheene. Ron Howard’s film Rush doesn’t involve Sheene, it is the story of the relationship between James Hunt and his nemesis Niki Lauda. Ron Howard has come a long way since Happy Days. Apollo 13 remains one of my favourite films, I’m almost word perfect I have seen it so often. So I was ready to be bowled over by his latest offering. I wasn’t disappointed.
Some freedoms have been taken with the story but essentially it is a dramatised version of the events of that tumultuous summer, the disqualifications, the near death experience of Niki Lauda at the Nurburgring and the eventual dénouement under the threatening skies at Mount Fuji. The writer applies a plot device first used by Sophocles some 2,500 years ago. There is ‘nothing new under the sun’ (that isn’t Sophocles but some other writer from Stratford). To tell an action-packed story the ancients used a ‘chorus’ to help narrate the tale. Peter Morgan, who wrote the screenplay, uses Simon Taylor as a fictional Murray Walker character to tell the story. I think Mr Taylor has the largest speaking part in the film. The same device was used in the 1966 John Frankenheimer film Grand Prix when the circuit commentators miraculously spoke in English at every race and in every country but of course they chronicled the story.
The actors are uncannily similar in both look and voice to how we remember Hunt and Lauda. Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl both look and sound the part. The same is the case for Suzy Millar, Hunt’s (short) suffering wife and Marlene, Niki Lauda’s then spouse. Huge care has been taken in the film to make the bit-players in the action come to life. The actor playing Emerson Fittipaldi had the requisite mega side burns as did the man playing Graham Hill. Jody Scheckter had curly hair and Clay Regazonni had a moustache that Emiliano Zapata would have been proud of.
I understand that most of the cars used in the making of the film were real, the owners more than happy to lend their cars. Obviously nobody was willing to see their own piece of motor sport history trashed so I imagine the crash scenes used body doubles. The cars looked the part though. Perhaps a bit cleaner, less stone chipped and more nicely prepared than I remember them in period. I approved of the realistic badges and sponsors’ logos. Marlboro was as prominent in the film as it was at the time. I recall thinking at Silverstone in the seventies that if you stood still long enough someone would paint a red and white chevron on you. I hate it when we apply modern ethics to the past. If the Dambusters film was made now Guy Gibson’s black dog would be called ‘Digger’ not its original politically unacceptable name.
I’m sure the anoraks amongst us will find some fault with the portrayal of the cars but I found one only. Hunt’s DFV had Cosworth on the cam covers and it is my recollection that all Formula 1 DFVs had Ford written on them.
The film did not pull any punches with the injuries and mayhem that were commonplace at the time. The most shocking moment of the film was the shattered Tyrell of Francois Cevert at Watkins Glen. The dead driver lay decapitated in the cockpit. No wonder Jackie Stewart took one look at it, was disgusted and retired on the spot. Who wouldn’t? Many of us associate fast cars and danger with glamour. I’m as guilty of this as anyone but I have also seen what happens when there is a tragic combination of speed, over confidence and stationary objects. There is nothing glamorous about a broken, twisted and headless corpse.
Ron Howard left nothing to the imagination in his depiction of Niki Lauda’s time in hospital. The agony of the burns, the sheer hell of having a rigid tube jammed down his trachea to suck out the airways. Readers will be pleased to know that cardiothoracic surgeons like me now have flexible telescopes to do the same job but it still gets your attention. There were one or two medical errors: machines to drive syringes weren’t invented in those days and Niki Lauda seemed to grow eye lashes very quickly after his skin grafts to his eyelids.
There is plenty of human interest in the film, both Hunt and Lauda managed to get married during those wild times. There are some lovely visual metaphors of valves pumping in and out of a cylinder head for the sex scenes, I suppose it makes a nice change from a train going into a tunnel or waves crashing on the shore. The portrayal of the preposterous Lord Hesketh is well played. No wonder nobody took them seriously. I think he went on to be leader of the Tories in the House of Lords-oh dear….
The film managed to remind us that apart from the shagging, drug taking, drinking, smoking and general naughtiness of James Hunt he was a top rate driver. Few remember that he won the German Grand Prix after Lauda’s accident. He is the last man to win a Grand Prix on the fearsome Nordscheife. He won many races against Lauda when they were both present. How great could he have been had he actually tried harder and behaved himself?
As for Niki Lauda, well we all know he became World Champion three times, ran his own airline and is still a pithy and iconoclastic presence in the pit lane at most races. Rush is in many ways a testimony to Lauda’s humanity and bravery. The admission of fear from a position of strength is a privilege that few of us ever get. I loved the scene where they are discussing the possible cancellation of the race at the Nurburgring and Lauda is accused of cowardice. He reminds them that he was the current lap record holder and wasn’t impressed by his fellow drivers’ accusations.
James Hunt never really dealt with his demons though. Mrs Griffin thinks that men fall into two groups when it comes to vices. They either have substance abuse problems, in that they are weak when confronted by the temptations of drink and drugs (eg Keith Richards) and stay married for decades to the same woman, or they cannot help themselves when it comes to a pretty girl ( eg Mick Jagger) and they are serial but sober offenders. I’m not sure where I come into this lexicon of naughtiness, probably best not to ask. James Hunt was unusually doubly afflicted and sadly died young. There are many who think he lived more in his 45 years than the rest of us who might hope to live twice as long.
The paradox of facial burns and subsequent skin grafting is that the victims often age well. The fighter pilots who had their faces rebuilt by the great plastic surgeon McIndoe after the second world war aged astonishingly, their new skin failed to wrinkle unlike the rest of us. Niki Lauda is the same, sure he is a bit short of hair, ear and eye lids but his skin looks good and he has aged well. What might an elderly James Hunt look like? Sadly we will never know.
The story ends with the current Niki Lauda summing up the spirit of the times and admitting that James Hunt is the only man he has ever envied.
I loved the film but don’t take my word for it I suggest you go and watch it yourself.
More on this film will follow in the next "Parts Department". Though I have been told NOT to include this famous Snoopy Lauda cartoon. (TC)
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