Like many of the great cinematic treasures of our time, the latest action-packed, gut-wrenching Blockbuster flick to hit the big screen, Ford v Ferrari, is also based on a true story. But how closely does the race car drama adhere to the epic real-life events leading up to the 1966 Le Mans endurance race? Turns out, very much and not at all.
To wit: The basic premise of the story is very much factual. Back in the '60s, Ford and Ferrari were two of the preeminent car companies in the world, but a natural rivalry broke out following a series of unfortunate events: Ford Motor Company Vice President Lee Iacocca suggested to Henry Ford II that the company purchase Ferrari as a way to get in on the Le Mans race and hopefully boost sales. Enzo Ferrari refused. It's here that the filmmakers likely embellished a bit, suggesting that Ferrari actually called Ford “fat," causing Ford to all but declare war on the Italian carmaker.
In real life, there may have been a number of reasons why Ford decided to put so much focused time and attention into beating Ferrari at Le Mans. Perhaps it was jealousy in seeing the success of Ferrari’s race cars win year after year at the big automotive race. Or maybe Ford really did see dominating the racing world as a great marketing tool for his vehicles. It’s mainly important to note that most likely, it didn’t just boil down to a personal insult about somebody’s waistline.
Regardless of the motivation, though, the rest of the story plays out onscreen much as it did in real life: Iacocca (Jon Bernthal) and Ford (Tracy Letts) sought out Shelby Automobiles owner Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) to help helm a team of American engineers and designers to create a new car that could potentially defeat Ferrari at Le Mans. In turn, Shelby got in touch with Ken Miles (Christian Bale), an eccentric British racer and mechanic, and recruited him to help build the car that would eventually help them win the race.
Much of the movie’s narrative focuses on Miles as a mysterious protagonist of sorts; according to ESPN, there’s very little archival footage of the real Miles actually being interviewed, so Bale likely had to guess as to what the Englishman’s accent might have sounded like, or what his mannerisms might have been like, based on stories from those who knew him. For being the man who made the Ford GT40 race-ready, not much is known about Miles, who tended to be reclusive and taciturn. A testament to Bale’s successful portrayal, however, is that he was able to watch a pre-screening of the film with Miles’ son and granddaughter a few days prior to its wider screening at the Toronto International Film Festival (Noah Jupe plays a young Peter Miles).
One of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes also takes liberties to create a narrative arc for an event that, in real life, still remains very much a mystery: Miles’s death via a fatal car crash. In the film, Miles is testing the J-type (which would later become the Mk IV model) on a track in Riverside in preparation for the 1967 Le Mans when his car disappears around a fast curve and into a cloud of dust. The implication here is that user error led to his untimely death.
In real life, the test car barrel-rolled several times, and Miles was thrown out of it during the accident, so it’s possible that there were flaws in the design of the car that led to his death, and that there was nothing he could have done differently to prevent his terrible fate. But Hollywood likes to give closure with its endings — even if they may not reflect the true story — and there’s no doubt that the emotion audiences will feel in reaction to the scene will be 100 percent real.