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After the appalling murders on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood hills in 1969, director Roman Polanski soon threw himself back into work, turning out his superior version of Macbeth. Footlose in Europe, he visited friends and kept busy in the jet-set circuit. 1972 brought the little seen but worthwhile Polanski directing effort, What? It also marked the production of an all-but-forgotten documentary about Formula One car racing, in which Polanski appears and takes a producing credit. Shown mainly at film festivals, Weekend of a Champion disappeared until 2013, where it garnered more festival bookings. The credited director is Frank Simon but Polanski's input looks to have been just as important to the result.
Racing fans will go stark raving nuts over Weekend of a Champion, as it's an ultimate insider's view of the Monaco Grand Prix of 1971. Polanski's cameras accompany ace racing champ Jackie Stewart through the entire experience. We see Stewart prepare for qualifying heats and perform in the big race, all excellently covered by the docu cameras. What sets the show apart from other racing films is the access to Stewart's private thoughts and knowledge. He and Polanski were good friends and buddies, and Polanski accompanies him everywhere, asking questions. Jackie Stewart is articulate and expressive about his work and every detail of driving a Formula One car.
The classic Formula One movies are still John Frankenheimer's overblown Grand Prix and the Steve McQueen vehicle Le Mans. The distinctive Monaco course with its twisting switchbacks and seaside tunnel 'stars' in the first race in Grand Prix, but can also be seen about three years earlier in Roger Corman's colorful The Young Racers, which captures quite a lot of good racing action. Weekend of a Champion was filmed a few years later but the Monaco course is still the same treacherous-looking set of ordinary surface streets. The crash barriers and other 'safety' devices seem wholly inadequate, especially considering the crowds of observers that pack every inch of the course, practically begging to be hit by out-of-control racers. Jackie takes Roman through Monaco in an ordinary car, calling every spot on the course where he brakes and every place he changes gears. Stewart also points out the ordinary curbstones, which can be six inches tall. Just tap a wheel on one of those at 160 - 200 mph, and anything can happen.
In between qualifying heats Jackie walks part of the course with Roman, critiquing other drivers as they make a simple slalom turn. Jackie can tell exactly when they're braking and accelerating, and has strong opinions as to what they're doing wrong. He describes his own approach to racing Monaco as a concentration on road position and traction, not laying on the maximum speed at all times. He describes his passage through a lap as a smooth process. In a fairly hilarious exchange, Polanski says that he hears all this talk about fluid actions, but can't correlate it to the way he thinks Stewart drives. Roman then mimes a frantic Jackie yanking the wheel three times a second and attacking the gearshift like he was playing a pinball machine.
Polanski and his cameras follow Jackie in and out of the hotel (with a balcony right over a prime racing viewpoint) for a brief walk past autograph seekers and right into the pits, which are also shockingly exposed to danger should a driver lose control of his car. For the first two days of the qualifying runs, it rains almost constantly. Jackie Stewart has special rain tires but hates Monaco when it rains, as it makes attaining a good speed all but impossible -- the rain takes away his edge of experience on most of the other drivers. Jackie looks at the dark clouds and worries. It apparently almost never rains at the Monaco Grand Prix.
Accompanying Jackie Stewart at all times is his wife Helen, who indeed mans a clipboard with three stopwatches attached, just as racers' lady friends do in Grand Prix. There is media and a fan presence, but either good security or a sense of decorum allows Jackie and Helen to move in and around the hotel without being mobbed. Jackie's personal doctor is also on hand. Medical help for injured drivers at these races is not a given, and Jackie wants a dedicated medic there in case something goes wrong. The cameras follow the couple to parties, where they hobnob with various celebrities and movie stars but don't overdo anything. On the morning of the race he's already walking to the pits when he realizes that he's only put on one set of special long-john underwear. It's like back at the County Fair -- he has no choice but to step off to the side and re-dress himself. In the post-recorded narration, Jackie notes that he's tense over the weather, and that forgetting to dress properly is not a good sign. And he still has to greet Prince Ranier and Princess Grace before the race begins.
The beginning of the race is bright and sunny ... and then the clouds arrive. Before the Grand Prix is finished, it will be raining again. But when Jackie Stewart slips into his narrow place inside the car, his attitude changes. He's in his element, where all of his actions and judgments mesh into a perfect blend of car and machine.
Weekend of a Champion's excellent coverage of the racing conveys the speed and excitement just as strongly as do the big-budget feature films. It's actually more exciting because we amateurs have been listening to Jackie Stewart's ongoing comments and now understand much more of what's going on. We see cars hobbling into the pit because they've tapped a curb and blown a tire or damaged a wheel. The famous driver Graham Hill hits a wall and shatters a front axle; he quietly contemplates the wreck as it's taken off the course. As for Jackie, he starts in pole position and stays well ahead of the pack for a number of laps.
At about the eighty minute mark the original Weekend of a Champion comes to an end, and the 2013 edition jumps ahead forty years to see Jackie Stewart and Roman Polanski talk about the picture and Jackie's life. They laugh, looking at the old footage when they both were lean and unwrinkled, and wore bushy 1970s sideburns. A Scot, Jackie made a poor showing in his school career and fell into the racing game while a mechanic. Self-conscious about his education, he found out much later in his life that he is seriously dyslexic. Jackie was a strong advocate for more safety in racing, changing the courses and getting things like crash trucks and proper medical care set up for injured drivers. Badly injured in one wreck, he found that the racetrack had no dedicated medical personnel. He was just left on a stretcher for an hour, and then put into a truck that got lost on its way to the hospital. Jackie lost numerous close friends to terrible accidents (we see some of the wrecks) and applauds changes in car design that make survival more possible (we see some of those miracles as well). He explains that a driver that raced for more than five years, had a 66% chance of getting killed. The two men reminisce about their close friend and Stewart's teammate François Cevert, who died in a practice run.
Jackie Stewart comes off as a great fellow, and one much admired by Roman Polanski. In one amusing moment on the way to the pits, Jackie stops to talk to an Argentine sponsor. Even with the confusion of an interpreter, the language difference is no barrier to the driver's charm. The director shares scenes with Stewart away from the track but the racing sequences belong to the "Flying Scot" alone. Interestingly, he retired from racing only two years later.
MPI Media Group's DVD of Weekend of a Champion is a handsome encoding of this impressive docu. The enhanced widescreen image is bright, clean and colorful. The audio recording is excellent. Jackie Stewart's Scots accent is not strong, but the helpful English subtitles have been provided. The movie carries all natural sound, and there is no music score.
A trailer picks out some amusing highlights, as when the nervous Jackie cuts himself shaving and then tells Roman that it'll be good, because all Polanski movies have a lot of blood. Roman isn't amused.
In terms of viewer accessibility Polanski's film gives a better inside picture of Formula One racing than can be found in all of Hollywood's racetrack epics. It's a nostalgic look at racing at a time before technology and marketing took over... but also when the danger for drivers was much greater.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Weekend of a Champion DVD
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.