From fantasy cinema to that of romantic comedies, moving from animated cartoons to thrillers, and ending with police investigations, motor cars have often accompanied the protagonists of films in the cinema, earning themselves, on occasions, the nomination for best supporting actor!
There are a large number of films which have been nourished by the soul of a motor car which has given a more profound meaning to the plot, or which has represented a historic moment as an emblem of a reality which mirrors itself in an unmistakable status symbol. As much as the arrangement of the settings, as much as the costumes, as much as the scenario and the direction, the presence of a motor car can make all the difference in a film. It has a heart and a soul, and sometimes a thinking brain that provokes actions and reactions. We are faced with a true character who has their role to play and who lives it to the full.
Ever since the early years following the Second World War, cars have appeared on the big screen to recount life in an Italy which was beginning to experience profound and revolutionary changes. This is not to mention the history of American cinema which has risen to become an undisputed symbol of entire generations, as told, thanks to surviving cars from the era, even today, by films strongly linked to those mythical times. There are many scenes which come easily to mind and we find many others when we take the trouble to study more distant cinematography. It is difficult to choose one film rather than another, given that each one of them corresponds to a fascinating urgency to recount how magnificently these acting non-actors performed.
Let us attempt to do so using examples which, we are sure, you too will remember!
The film Bonnie & Clyde came out in 1967, telling the story of the activities of Bonnie Elisabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow, that historic criminal couple of the 1930s. After having been accused of murder, Clyde decides to run away and, together with Bonnie, they start a life on the run made up of robberies, hostage-taking and pursuits which ends with their tragic ambush where they are killed in their Ford V8 Flathead riddled with bullet holes and in which are discovered fifteen different number plates. Chases and gunfights all happen in the pathos of a gangster movie lived out equally through the motor cars, which show they have their own personality and a specific role to play.
A few years later, on 14th October 1994, another gangster movie hits the screens, which was destined to remain one of the most popular films of all time in the history of the cinema. Winning an Oscar for the best screenplay, Pulp Fiction by Quentin Tarantino becomes an icon of its time, consecrating its director as one of the most lauded of the moment, whose style becomes a specific genre in every respect. This is an interplay of storylines which fail to follow any chronological order, in a visionary interpretation on the part of the director. The car driven by Vincent Vega, the leading role played by John Travolta, was an exclusive 1964 Chevelle Malibu which belonged to the director himself and which was in fact stolen during the film’s shooting. Another masterpiece from Tarantino is Kill Bill in which the director features on film motor cars with a true eschatological significance such as the De Tomaso Mangusta (the mongoose – mangusta – is the only animal capable of killing a cobra). Bill’s car, on the other hand, was a Jeep BAW BJ212. This film was also honoured during the last Rome Film Festival in which Mazda was the official partner. They set up a circular background, covered by 64 film cameras, which recreated a sequence taken from the film and, in the centre of these screening arrangements, placed a Mazda MX-5. Visitors were able to re-live that moment, taking the places of the leading actors, and dressing up in their costumes so that they could be filmed in a video to immortalise their moment of stardom.
Many of the cinema’s most famous pursuits appear in the series of films featuring Agent 007, James Bond. The fight for good against evil and the reassuring superiority of man compared with the diabolic aspects of technology ensure that this character and his adventures are always successful, not least thanks to his image of a man who is perfect, handsome and fascinating, who knows martial arts and speaks several languages. The phrase with which he introduces himself - “My name is Bond, James Bond”- is now part of history and is associated by most people with the appeal of fascination and seduction. The car which best identifies him out of them all is the splendid Aston Martin DB5, equipped with machine guns, smoke-screen mechanism, nail dispenser, rear anti-projectile screen, armour-plated bodywork and interchangeable number plates. The DB5 appears for the first time next to Bond in the 1964 film Goldfinger, of which we also recall the excellent soundtrack. The Jaguar XKRs from the 2002 film Die Another Day were equipped with machine guns in the luggage racks, side-mounted missiles and rear rocket-propelled bombs. In the 1987 film The Living Daylights we see the appearance of the ever more incomparable Aston Martin V8 Vantage, the true star of the film with retractable skis, radio scanner, rocket-jet boosters, anti-projectile crystals, wheels with retractable nail systems and a timer-based self-destruct facility. However, the list of historic Aston Martin, BMW, Ferrari, Chevrolet, Alfa Romeo and Lotus cars which we get to meet on screen alongside Bond is extremely long and they are actually the spy’s true accomplices. This is perhaps one of the most emblematic cases where the car tells the story as much as the leading actor. These are cars built to do battle, not just to be driven fast; they are not representative vehicles but help to contribute to the attainment of a perfect climax of excitement and suspense.
Another car which is perfect for this purpose is the Batmobile, a saloon car in the service of justice. It is surprising to learn that it was not simply the result of special effects, but a truly functional car (or at least, so they say!) with a working engine, machine guns, retractable canopy, voice recognition system, radar and police spotlight. It was a true ally for Batman and Robin which, in the 2005 film Batman Begins, is a splendid Lamborghini Murcielago Roadster.
In the 2001 film Lara Croft: Tomb Raider we see the appearance of an extraordinary Defender which was purpose-built by Land Rover.
As an animated version and with a decidedly more tender heart than its above-mentioned companions, in 1969 the big screen sees the arrival of Herbie, the Love Bug. This is a Volkswagen Beetle which thinks, feels emotions and suffers like a human being. Its owner quickly adapts to this strange and special relationship with his car, and together they overcome many a challenge. Well-liked by everyone, Tje Love Bug is one of Walt Disney’s most famous comic adventure films. This major success ensured that Herbie’s adventures became a saga, with the result that in 1977 Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo hits the screens followed in 1980 by Herbie Goes Bananas.
Herbie’s races, however, are hardly comparable to those featured in the Fast and Furious saga. This was a record series of cars which have made history: they produced exemplary demonstrations of power, and became a true competition within a competition. From the Aston Martin DB-9 to the BMW 3 Series, the Maserati Ghibli, Ferrari 458 Italia, Audi R8, Jeep Wrangler Unlimited, right up to the Mercedes Benz G Class.
Another wicked and powerful performance was that of the famous Toyota Tundra T3 Special Edition which appears alongside Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 3. The version built for the film was destroyed on the set, but following the release of the film, a special edition of the car was produced of which 200 models were sold. In Terminator 2, in contrast, the actor drives a two-wheel Honda XR.
And we cannot avoid mentioning one fantastic vehicle when people talk about “the most famous ever time machine”. Recently once again celebrated in the cinema, on the date which transported into the future the two protagonists, the 21 st October 2015, the legendary DeLorean from Back to the Future remains, since 1985 the car par excellence. Built only between 1981 and 1983, the DeLorean featured gull-winged doors which reminded viewers of the wings of a seagull and unpainted stainless steel bodywork.
Staying between fantasy and reality, we cannot help but spare a thought for the little cars from Pixar’s animated film Cars which in 2006 paints onto the big screen a number of historic cars such as the Chevrolet, the Cadillac, the Corvette, or the Fiat 500 all in wonderful colours and behaving in an extremely lively fashion.
In Vanilla Sky, in a dream from which he has still not awoken, Tom Cruise leaves his house to find himself in a deserted Manhatten on board the Italian Ferrari 250 GTO: this is the fascination of a motor car in the form of an incomparable icon and which is used as a device to give more substance to the plot.
The American cinema has also produced films in which the leading player is linked romantically to a car, perhaps to represent a moment of social redemption, a desire for emancipation and revenge. In 1990, perhaps the most romantic ever film appears on the screens - Pretty Woman. This is a really beautiful love story between a prostitute and a millionaire, a fable in which the conclusion provides something of an upset since, as the leading players say, at the end of the day it is she who saves him. The film also features one of the most famous quotes by Vivian, Julia Roberts, who, at the wheel of a Lotus Esprit, says: “it corners like it’s on rails”.
Winner of an Oscar for best screenplay is the 1991 film directed by Ridley Scott and with the leads played by Susan Sarandon and Geena Devis, Thelma and Louise: these are two friends who leave on board a Ford Thunderbird for a weekend in the mountains where they encounter a series of events which will shatter the lives of the two women. This was a truly epic feminine “on the road” tale which disconcerted the orthodox thinkers of the time by raising the question of criminal feminism.
Another Oscar, for best director, would also be given to Mike Nichols for his film led by the then unknown actor Dustin Hoffman, The Graduate. The most powerful scene in the film sees Hoffmann chasing to the church on board an Alfa Romeo Duetto to stop the wedding of the woman he loves. It is worth noting that the Duetto remains the longest lasting car by Alfa Romeo, and was just recently celebrated at the Geneva Motor Show.
In 2008 Clint Eastwood pays homage to a car by dedicating to the 1972 Ford Gran Torino the title of one of his cinematic masterpieces: Gran Torino. This is a story which discusses the awareness of a father’s responsibility towards his children, by settling accounts with death. The 1955 film Rebel Without A Cause consecrated actor James Dean as a screen icon. In this film he was driving a Chevrolet Special De Luxe and on 30th September of that same year he died just as he was on his way, in his Porsche 550 Spyder, to a motor car race at Salinas. 1974 sees the release of the film The Blues Brothers in which the Dodge Monaco is a police car capable of all sorts of stunts, and in 1968 Steve McQueen is Frank Bullit, a very wily and cautious murder squad lieutenant who uses a green Ford Mustang GT390 for his work.
The icon of the motor car is also a feature of the Italian cinema and Il Sorpasso (The Easy Life) by Dino Risi brings to the big screen the Lancia Aurelia built in Italy from 1950 to 1958, its spider version being considered one of the most beautiful cars ever built in the world, with its clear references to the United States such as its panoramic windscreen with chrome surrounds. The film represents a precise and clinical slice of Italy during the boom years in which Gassman, directed in masterly fashion by Risi, embodies all the defects of the men of that time – artificial joy, presumptuousness, irresponsibility, underlying emptiness. Yet, on the other hand, he also has the merits of being generous and ready to help. Meanwhile the extremely beautiful and elegant Aurelia, which perfectly encapsulates all the elements of the era, is very soon identified as the means whereby one’s own aggressivity can be broadcast to the world, with the musical braggadocio of the car horn being sounded by Gassman in many of the car racing sequences between the countryside and the town.
In La Dolce Vita (The Sweet Life), that unforgettable film by Federico Fellini which came to the cinema screens in 1960, a remarkable Marcello Mastroianni plays the role of Marcello Rubini, a handsome and well-loved but unhappy and dissatisfied journalist. It is a film which illustrates the unfettered excesses of society life, in a series of socio-economic social contradictions in Italy. It tells the story of the life of VIPs from Via Vittorio Veneto, in which the most important matters are the pleasures of an elegant but frivolous lifestyle. There are many different makes of car which help the director to represent the reality of those years, from the Alfa Romeo 1.9, to the Giulietta Spider, the various Fiat models, the Lancias which include notably an Appia and a 1963 Esadelta truck, as well as the foreign-made Cadillacs, Chevrolets and Triumphs. We must not forget either the Renault Floride, the car used by Brigitte Bardot and the “Gull Wing” Mercedes 300 SL. History been made by the memorable scene of the Trevi Fountain in which the beautiful Anita Ekberg bathes at night and calls to her Marcello.
This has been a journey which may not faithfully respect the chronology of events but which shines a light on the relationship between cars, motorbikes, engines and the cinema into which are mingled the smell of petrol and a taste of the lives played out on the big screen and which have influenced entire generations right up to the present day.