Christian Bale remembers hunkering down in front of a television set with his father to watch Formula 1 races, back in the glory days of Alain Prost, Jacques Laffite and Nelson Piquet, the two even went to Brands Hatch when the British Grand Prix was hosted at the venue near Kent, England.
So the actor who’s been behind the wheel of the Batmobile read a script about the infamous 1966 showdown between Ford and Ferrari at Le Mans, the racing aficionado jumped onboard. And when Matt Damon learned that Bale was already circling the project, the actor — no stranger to high-speed car chases from his Jason Bourne films — likewise jumped at the opportunity.
The result is “Ford v Ferrari,” a film that comes out later this year focusing not only on the American manufacturers’ unlikely upset of the Italian juggernaut but on those who made it happen.
Bale portrays Ken Miles, an engineer and driver, and Damon plays Carroll Shelby, one of the most famous American car builders in history. Together, they took the financial backing of Ford and created the GT40, a car that not only conquered Le Mans but swept the 1966 podium.
“Racing is not just about oil and gasoline. It’s about blood and sweat as well as the people inside those cars as well, and that’s what makes it so thrilling,” Bale said Saturday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where he will join Damon in waving the green flag for the Indy 500.
“Ken Miles was a purist,” Bale said. “He’s someone that would try to win every single battle but often lose the war, and he’d shoot himself in the foot again and again and again. And it wasn’t until Shelby came along and gave him an opportunity that he finally made it on the world stage.”
While Miles was the British-born driver with the sardonic sense of humor, Shelby was essentially his foil: a down-to-earth Texan who had a successful driving career of his own before reaching iconic status as the creator of the Shelby Cobra, a series of Ford muscle cars and, yes, the GT40.
His relationship with Miles serves as the centerpiece of Ford’s dogged pursuit of Ferrari.
“He was a really, kind of a bigger-than-life guy,” said Damon, “but I didn’t know this story about their friendship, and that’s why I wanted to do the movie. It’s such a great underdog story.”
The story, the subject of a 2016 documentary entitled “The 24 Hour War,” began in the early 1960s, when Enzo Ferrari expressed interest in selling his company. Henry Ford II spent considerable resources doing background work on a potential deal, only for Ferrari to suddenly shut down negotiations.
That chapped Ford, who ordered his racing division to build a car to beat Ferrari, the Italian sports car company that had come to dominate endurance racing.
But despite pumping untold sums of money into its program, Ford kept running into problems with its project. So it ultimately turned it over to Shelby, who in turn sought out Miles, and together they not only got the program on track but also got it to victory lane in their first try at Le Mans.
“There’s that relationship, right? And the friction in that relationship. They’re opposites in so many ways,” Damon said. “But they have the qualities the other needs. Carroll was great about politics and diplomacy. He could sell you anything. He understand that was a big part of putting a winning team on the grid, was the politics of it. Whereas Miles was horrible at that stuff.”
The film, directed by James Mangold, went through several rewrites before Bale and Damon signed onto the project. It was filmed primarily in California, but Bale said the group went to Le Mans for some of the local scenes, and he even took a course at Bob Bondurant’s racing school.
Walt Disney Studios is due to release it Nov. 15 under the 20th Century Fox banner.
Meanwhile, its leading men are preparing to wave the green flag over the 103rd running of the Indy 500 on Sunday. Other famous actors have had the honor, including Jack Nicholson, who famously refused to come down from the flag stand and wound up watching more than 30 laps up there.
It’s the first time either of them will witness the pageantry of the Indy 500 in person.
“I’ve heard about it. Read about it. Watched it on TV,” Damon said. “This is bigger than anything we do in the country sports-wise, and we’re going to be right in the thick of it.”