There is a popular image dating from the Second World War of Italians as untrustworthy allies and unworthy adversaries. Hollywood promoted these themes in war propaganda then, and in popular movies since.
The classic tale carrying these themes was Breaking Away, the 1979 fictional story of Dave, a teenager growing up in Indiana, who is infatuated with the professional Italian cyclists of Team Cinzano. The Italians are scheduled to visit his hometown for an exhibition race. Dave, in preparation to join the race, totally immerses himself in Italian culture to the annoyance of his Anglo family. He becomes one with italianita`– singing opera, feasting on la cucina, and anticipating Team Cinzano as the coming messiah. But Hollywood does not disappoint. Not only are his heroes unappreciative but they cheat, nearly killing him to win the race.
Times change and Hollywood has mellowed a bit.
Last week, I viewed the 2019 movie Ford vs. Ferrari. It dramatizes the real-life quest by Ford to unseat six-time winner Ferrari (1960-1965) at France’s Le Mans endurance race in 1966. Ford’s then-VP Lee Iaccoca coaxed legendary Carroll Shelby into designing Ford’s first entry vehicle. The film is the typical race car genre on steroids, thanks to superb film editing – indeed, it won an Oscar for editing. Although he wasn’t in charge of Ford’s race operations, Iacocca was portrayed (by a non-Italic actor, of course) as the glue that keeps the mission on-track amid competing personalities. Enzo Ferrari was played by Italian actor Remo Girone, better known for his role as a banker/mafioso in the Italian TV series La Piovra (“The Octopus”) – a high class version of The Sopranos. Interestingly, Girone was born to Italian colonists in Eritrea, Africa, shortly after the war.
Like Breaking Away, Ford vs. Ferrari begins as an homage to Italian genius. Lee Iacocca wants his boss Henry Ford II to acquire Ferrari which has fallen on hard times, as a means to enter the racing circuit. Negotiations soon reveal that Enzo Ferrari and his team are less than sincere, using the Ford offer to leverage a better offer from FIAT. The wily Italians have taken unannounced photographs of the Ford negotiators, fibbing that they were for company archives, to deliver immediately to FIAT’s Giovanni Agnelli as proof of a counter offer. Of course, what is unstated is that the Italians may have had patriotic motives to keep Ferrari in Italian hands.
However, it is not the double-dealing that offends Henry Ford – corporations around the world do it all the time – rather, it was the degrading words uttered by Enzo himself that Henry II was not the man Henry senior was. Insulted by the “greasy wop,” Henry wants his revenge at Le Mans.
We come to appreciate the technical prowess of Ferrari and Italian engineering the more we learn of Le Mans, a grueling 24-hour race that strains men and machines. That Ferraris won six-in-a-row of these 5,000-mile endurance tests with some speeds over 200-miles per hour was an amazing feat. How many people appreciate the engineering skills of the Italic people from building Roman cities to Italian aviation of the 20th Century or today’s robotics. Of Italian automotive skills, Henry Ford senior famously said, “When I see an Alfa Romeo go by, I tip my hat.”
During the movie’s race scenes, we see the Ferrari team in two lights: humorous and menacing. After a Ferrari pit-stop, Shelby walks over to drop a lug nut on the Italian tarmac. When the Italian pit boss sees the nut he panics, thinking his crew has messed up a wheel replacement and endangered the driver’s life. Arms wave wildly, confused shouting erupts, and Hollywood has its zany Italians. Some prank!
Later, as the Ford and Ferrari go neck and neck, we see a smug Italian driver reminiscent of an old World War II close-up of a haughty Japanese pilot just before fate overtakes him. In this case, the camera wants you to see an menacing competitor, but I thought, “finally, a serious Italian!”
In all, Fords have won Le Mans only 4 times, each in the 1960s. Last year, Ford was disqualified on a technicality. In contrast, Ferraris have won 36 times, the most recent was in 2019. Forza Italia! -JLM