Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Roman Polanski’s 1971 racing doc, Weekend Of A Champion, gets yanked out of obscurity

Illustration for article titled Roman Polanski’s 1971 racing doc, Weekend Of A Champion, gets yanked out of obscurity

In 1971, Roman Polanski decided to make a film about his friend Jackie Stewart, who was then at the height of his career as a Formula One driver. Having no experience with documentaries, Polanski opted not to direct the picture himself (though he now claims to have co-directed it in all but name); instead, he recruited a guy named Frank Simon, who’d recently made a small splash with a doc about drag queens, and they both accompanied Stewart to Monaco for that year’s Grand Prix, which Stewart subsequently won. Weekend Of A Champion premiered at the 1972 Berlin Film Festival, had a tiny theatrical release in Europe, and then vanished for 40 years, all but forgotten. Only when the archive in possession of the negative contacted Polanski, inquiring as to whether they should keep the film or throw it away (note to archivists: The correct answer is always “keep the damn film”), did it occur to him that it might now make for an interesting time capsule, if nothing else.

In fact, Weekend Of A Champion serves as a terrific primer on auto racing. Its climactic chronicle of the actual Grand Prix is a bit pedestrian (forgive that pun), due to the nature of Monaco’s street circuit; Simon and Polanski just can’t secure many worthwhile angles on the action. (John Frankenheimer had shot some of Grand Prix in the same location just five years earlier, in any case.) A couple of days before the race, however, Stewart takes Polanski on a tour of the entire course (driving an ordinary car) and proceeds to narrate his strategy for every turn, every incline, every tunnel. For those not intimately familiar with the sport, learning the basics from one of the all-time greats while he’s actually behind the wheel, as opposed to sitting in the booth as a color commentator, is invaluable. Other parts of the movie boast an affable hangout vibe, as Stewart and Polanski shoot the shit in a hotel room or worry about the impending bad weather (as not knowing whether to expect rain makes it difficult to choose the right tires for the race).

All in all, the original 1972 version of Weekend Of A Champion, which ran a fleet 80 minutes,was probably a thorough if minor pleasure. Unfortunately, that’s not the version now being released. Polanski says that he felt the need to re-edit the picture in order to make its rhythm more palatable to a modern audience; presumably, that means the new version is punchier, though it’s hard to say without being able to make a direct comparison. Much more damagingly, he’s added a 20-minute present-day epilogue in which he and Stewart sit in their same hotel room from 1971 and discuss the various ways in which they, Monaco, and Formula One have changed over the past four decades. Much of this conversation concerns improved safety regulations, which is an important topic (see: Senna) but has little bearing on the original documentary, which didn’t involve any tragic accidents. Even if the epilogue were more relevant, it’s unnecessary. Make it a bonus feature on the eventual DVD. Cinematic history should be left alone.