La Course en Tête and The Greatest Show on Earth are two of World Cycling Productions' historical cycling films, now presented on one DVD. Both films focus on the career of Belgian cycling champion Eddy Merckx: La Course en Tête in a general sense, showing a slice of Merckx's life, and The Greatest Show on Earth in a more focused sense, following the course of the 1974 Giro d'Italia.
The first of the two films on this DVD, La Course en Tête, is an odd film that has interest, but most definitely only for seasoned racing fans. Basically, it's a 105-minute montage of footage of Eddy Merckx, with no particular sequence or story guiding it; we see Merckx racing, Merckx winning, Merckx training, Merckx at home with his family, but there's nothing to make the whole piece fit together. Unlike the other WCP films such as The Greatest Show on Earth, there's no voiceover talking about the events on-screen. Occasionally there are snippets of various people speaking, such as Merckx's wife; occasionally (but not consistently) these snippets are subtitled. But by and large, it's basically racing and behind-the-scenes footage of Merckx.
If you're already familiar with bicycle racing and the professional cycling scene in the 1970s, then you'll find elements of interest, such as spotting stars like Gimondi and Fuente in the pack, or analyzing Merckx's position on the bicycle during the scenes that show him racing. My favorite part of the film was seeing Merckx's chubby-faced baby son Axel, who is currently a full-grown professional cyclist in his own right. However, La Course en Tête is emphatically not recommended for someone who has just developed an interest in cycling, or who knows a little bit and wants to know more. For that, you should watch WCP's other historical DVDs (especially Stars and Watercarriers), and only then take a look at La Course en Tête.
It's a shame that there isn't a well-done narrative voiceover for La Course en Tête, because a commentary could make all the difference in the world, informing the viewer about the highly interesting career of Eddy Merckx, one of cycling's true legends. It does look like WCP has added a few captions indicating where the footage is taking place (such as at the World Championships or at the Giro d'Italia), but while this is certainly helpful, it doesn't take the place of commentary.
The companion piece The Greatest Show on Earth is much more entertaining. This 75-minute film covers the 1974 Giro d'Italia, which was an exciting edition of an exciting race. The contenders included Belgian champion Merckx, the reigning world champion Gimondi, and the Columbian climber Fuente, locked together in a race for victory that went neck-and-neck to the end. In making the combination DVD with La Course en Tête, World Cycling Productions has made a sensible decision, since many of the same "characters" appear in both films.
While The Greatest Show on Earth tends to be a little too heavy-handed with the montages of images set to music, it does have a reasonably good narrator as well, who provides insight into what's going on strategically in the race. Overall, this film has a much more polished feel to it than La Course en Tête, and while it's the shorter of the two pieces on this DVD, I would consider it to be the main reason to pick up this disc.
Both of the films on this DVD consist mainly of images from broadcast television and home-movie footage; considering this, the image quality is decent. They're presented in the original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.
La Course en Tête is the more worn-looking of the two films, with colors somewhat faded along with a general lack of sharpness and the occasional picture flaw. The main problem with this film is that it suffers from poor cropping of the image; the result is that a fair amount of the edge of the image falls outside the visible portion of the television screen. I watched the DVD on a well-tuned TV with minimal overscan, and it was quite noticeable, particularly in the title sequence.
The image quality for The Greatest Show on Earth is quite a bit better. As with the other film, the image is not particularly sharp, and there are a few picture flaws that crop up periodically. However, the contrast is good, and the colors are brighter and reasonably natural-looking.
Both La Course en Tête and The Greatest Show on Earth are presented in Dolby 2.0 sound. It's tough to award a rating for audio quality for this DVD, though, because I'd give distinctly different ratings for the films considered separately. The audio for La Course en Tête has to get low marks. The sound itself is somewhat muffled, but the main problem is simply the lack of a narrative commentary, which detracts substantially from the overall quality of the film.
On the other, and more positive, hand, the soundtrack for The Greatest Show on Earth is pretty much everything you could ask for in a straightforward narrative piece like this one. The sound is clear and clean; the narrator come across clearly without any distortion or background noise. The ambient sounds, such as the cyclists passing by or the fans cheering, are well-balanced with the voiceover narration. I'd award The Greatest Show on Earth four stars for audio quality, if it were being rated by itself.
There are no special features on this DVD, but I'm not complaining; it's special enough to get two separate films nicely packaged in one DVD.
The menu is very straightforward and easy to use, but there's no "scene selection" option, because there's only one chapter per film.
This is a DVD that should be considered for serious cycling fans only. There's some good material here, but it's not presented in a way that's accessible to the more casual viewer. Of the two films, I'd say that The Greatest Show on Earth is the stronger of the two; if you saw Stars and Watercarriers and really enjoyed it, then it's probably worth picking up this DVD just for The Greatest Show on Earth, and considering La Course en Tête as more of an extra feature.