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At last Hollywood goes big on Carroll Shelby

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Shelby in ’66. Painting by Wallace A. Wyss.

[Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from Wallace A. Wyss, artist and author of Shelby’s Wildlife: The Cobras, Mustangs and Dodges and Shelby: The Man. The Cars. The LegendHe can be reached at photojournalistpro2@gmail.com.]

There have been Hollywood films about automakers, say Preston Tucker. And there have been Hollywood films about race-car builders.

It is now confirmed that Hollywood is going to combine the two genres in a feature film about Carroll Shelby, being filmed as you read this.

Don’t expect it to start with Shelby’s life as a lad in a small Texas town outside Dallas, or to dwell too much on his short-lived career as a failed chicken farmer. Or even to contain much about his winning the 24 Heures du Mans.

No, this one is built around the famous four-year period when a Detroit automaker took up the challenge of building a race car that could unseat Ferrari at LeMans. It likely won’t have much on the Cobra, either, since Ford’s focus was on winning at the Circuit de la Sarthe, and even the 170-mph Cobra Daytona Coupe wasn’t fast enough to catch the Ferrari prototypes there.

What exactly pushed Henry Ford II from sponsoring the Cobras into creating an endurance car might be revealed if they do this correctly. Some say it was a wisecrack by “The Deuce’s” Italian wife, who pointed at the Ferraris during an earlier LeMans event, maybe 1963, and said something to the effect of, “Ford could never build a car that will beat those red cars.”

Other historians say what pushed HF II over the edge was having the door at Maranello slammed in his face. He thought he had a deal to buy out Ferrari in ’63, at least the road-car side of the operation, but Ferrari abruptly cancelled negotiations. That’s when HF II summoned his aides and told them Ford would make their own damn endurance racer. It took them two years of trying—1964 and 1965—before they had a car that could beat Ferrari to the finish line. That happened in ’66, with the legendary three-abreast finish.

Proof that this 20th Century Fox project has been green-lighted came when the State of California promised the film producers $17 million in tax credits if they would film the majority of the film in-state. Filming has already begun at California’s Willow Springs Raceway, and will include several more tracks and locations in the Golden State, some indoor shooting in New Orleans, and more outdoor scenes at a track in Savannah, Georgia. Nothing can double for France, so there’s a second unit there, and they may “recreate” Italy and Great Britain (since the GT40s started out being built in GB).

As far as the cars you’ll see on-screen, one California replica maker has supplied several GT40 Mk I and Mk II coupes, but it is unknown what the producers are going to do about the 1964 car (which differed in appearance) or the J-car, the flatback prototype that driver Ken Miles was killed in while testing. It is also unknown if the script will include the ’67 24 Hours of Le Mans, where Ford earned its second victory. The ’68 and ’69 Ford GT40 victories at LeMans were by the Gulf Oil-sponsored team, with minimal support from Ford. (One Ford official told me “We sent them an engine, that’s the one they used to win the race.”)

Gulf GT40, original artwork by Wallace A. Wyss.

The movie stars one of the biggest box-office celebrities available—Matt Damon—playing Shelby, and Christian Bale playing his test driver/race driver, British-born Ken Miles.

The project has been slow to get rolling. Studio 20th Century Fox bought the rights to Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans by A.J. Baime more than a year ago. The working title for the film is “Ford vs. Ferrari” but that’s not going to be the final title on release; they’re being coy about that decision until closer to the release date. Oddly, 20th Century sold the rights to Baime’s book to a TV production firm, Legendary Entertainment, who are reportedly making a 10-part TV series based upon it, but there’s been no announcement of when filming will begin.

Jon Bernthal of The Punisher series on Netflix and previously in The Walking Dead was being looked at to portray HF’s right-hand man Lee Iacocca (who later went on to “save” Chrysler). Caitriona Balfe from Outlander has the role of Ken Miles’ wife. There’s even a young actor cast as their son, which gives you a clue there is going to be some family drama in addition to racetrack action.

Director James Mangold scored big with Logan, 3:10 to Yuma, and Walk the Line, so there’s high hopes among Shelby fans that he can turn a racing story into a compelling drama (especially after the public reaction to Rush, another racing drama, wasn’t ideal). The screenwriting team consists of two brothers, Jez and John-Henry Butterworth, who are credited with previously writing the Tom Cruise sci-fi flick Edge of Tomorrow, while Jez had a screenplay by credit on the James Bond movie Spectre. They’re located in England, so hopefully they’ll run across veteran mechanics and such who can give them more insight into the behind-the-scenes of racing.

There’s some wreckage along the road to Hollywood left over from scuttled earlier projects aimed at capturing the Ford vs. Ferrari battle. Tom Cruise announced an effort in 2013 for a Shelby-themed project for release in 2015. Although Cruise couldn’t match Shelby’s 6-foot stature, he was pedal-to-the-metal on the project, pegging himself for the part of Carroll Shelby, but it came to naught. Some feel it was the inclusion of Brad Pitt in the plans that led to a canceling of the project, since both are “leading man” types.

The inclusion of Christian Bale as Miles is ironic because, back in 2015, Bale had signed on with Michael Mann to do a cinematic adaption on the book Enzo Ferrari: The Man, the Cars, the Races by famous Car & Driver writer Brock Yates. The story would have dealt with the fatal crash of Ferrari driver Alfonso de Portago at the 1957 Mille Miglia, where his co-driver, Edmont Nelson, and nine race spectators were also killed.

Mangold’s company, Chernin Entertainment, is producing Ford vs. Ferrari for 20th Century Fox, using other sources for historical content besides the Baime book.

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(Begging the readers’ indulgence, the author tells of his own role in pursuing this theme. )

A HISTORIAN LOOKS FROM THE OUTSIDE IN…

I thought it would be amusing for Hemmings readers if I told of my own efforts to get involved with a feature or TV series on this theme.

Way back in 1977, I wrote a book called Shelby’s Wildlife: the Cobras and the Mustangs. It was only the second book on Shelby available then (Shelby’s own book The Cobra Story was the first, but that was published before Ford won at LeMans). Shelby even wrote the forward for me.

Decades later, I wrote another, entitled SHELBY: The Man. The Cars. The Legend., which followed Shelby’s life after leaving Ford, including the replicas, the Olds fiasco, and other business wheelings and dealings. The revised edition was printed within days of Shelby’s death.

It was that one that I got a phone call on. Seems a Hollywood production company, in concert with a huge British production company, wanted to option the book. Not buy it, mind you, just pay $5,000 a year to be first in line to buy it, so to speak. But alas, they decided to do a TV series instead, one from a famous Philip K. Dick sci-fi novel. After three years and three checks, I never heard from them again…

And then, in June 2018, I read that Fox is going top speed on this feature. My radar was a little faulty and I found out a little late, as they announced it in January.

I read all I could find on the net and was alarmed that the storyline described in several articles has Shelby and Miles developing the GT40 from scratch. Anyone who has read my books knows Ford designed it in Dearborn, and built it in England, all without Shelby. And Ford fell flat on their face in the car’s inaugural ’64 season, sheepishly bringing it to Shelby in the winter of ’64 with a terse order: “Fix it.”

Another area of concern by purists is the character arc of Ken Miles. From advance publicity, it seems Fox wants to portray him not only as a race driver and test driver but as a key strategist, where in real life he was not involved with Ford’s high brass (Henry Ford II, Iacocca, etc.) and was more a wrench-turner and racer.

So I’ve tried to reach the producers, to let them know of my books and to say I’m the guy waving at their window offering my services as a consultant. (Heck, I’ll throw that in with the purchase of an option on any one of my books.) Hollywood is expert at erecting walls to keep out those with unwanted scripts, synopsis, etc. and if I send a letter, it comes back unopened with the added mystery of their address having been redacted, as if they didn’t want anybody to see their precise location as it comes back through the postal system.

But there is the net. I’ve published a couple stories on the progress of the Fox project. My latest idea is to send posters, using my Shelby art (I forgot to mention I’m a fine artist) with the names of the books and contact info discreetly added to the printed image. I figure the producer or one of his minions might be at the track talking to the manager about upcoming filming and he’ll look up, see my poster on the wall, and viola—the call comes.

Now some of my more cynical friends hear this and say: “That train has left the station, buddy.” And they are probably right, but as long as they are filming I’m going to try to reach them, because I don’t want to see a film or TV show that’s off-track history-wise….

I live in hope.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Producers, or those interested in purchasing artwork, can reach Wallace at photojournalistpro2@gmail.com.