Largely unseen when made in 1971, Weekend of a Champion provides an intimate look at Forma One racing. Led by Jackie Stewart, than at the top of the sport, we are given an all-access pass to the1971 Monaco Grand Prix. Filmmaker Roman Polanski, a close friend of Stewart’s, who produced the documentary between directing Macbeth (1971) and What? (1972), seems totally comfortable in this world of fast cars.
Having no experience with documentaries, Polanski recruited Frank Simon—who had recently made waves with The Queen, a documentary about drag queens—to direct. They both accompanied Jackie Stewart to that year’s Monaco Grand Prix, which Stewart subsequently won. A title card announces each passing day, building anticipation of the Grand Prix’s arrival. In the opening credits, Jackie Stewart walks through the track surrounded by a worshipful crowd. It’s a rock star’s welcome. Despite the craziness that surrounds him, Stewart appears relaxed and personable.
Away from the glare of the public eye, Stewart is surprisingly thoughtful. He talks with Polanski about the precision involved in every step of the race, and then takes him on a practice run. The camera follows them over-the-shoulder as Stewart explains the methodology behind every move. Obviously an intelligent man, Stewart is well aware of the great dangers that racing posed at the time. As confident as he is, Stewart knows that forces beyond his control could result in tragedy.
Aside from watching Stewart, it’s fascinating to see Roman Polanski, still vibrant, not yet beaten down by the various events that would later inform his personality and work. Sporting long hair and sideburns, both Stewart and Polanski look like typical jetsetters of the early 1970’s. They complement each other well; at times it’s like watching a buddy movie. While filming Stewart shaving himself in the morning, Polanski catches the racer accidentally cutting himself. “This is great for your movie, Roman,” Stewart says. “You love blood in your movies.”
In a concluding interview shot forty years later for the restoration, Stewart discusses the high volume of racer-related deaths from that period, information that would likely have been better at the beginning of the film in order to illustrate the danger that both men place themselves in while speeding down the track. In one of the film’s most shocking moments, Stewart’s wife Helen remarks that he’s in a league of his own because the five racers who were closest to his level professionally have all died in crashes.
The filmmaker’s decision to go almost exclusively with a cinéma vérité style puts viewers right in the middle of the action. Though a bit jarring, the sudden cutaways to the older Stewart and Polanski recalling their experience provides a fascinating reverse look at the action on the film. Both men seem honestly amazed that Stewart has made it to old age. Watching Weekend of a Champion will give even those with no knowledge of racing an appreciation for the fact that forty plus years ago, merely surviving represented a major accomplishment.
Notably, Ringo Starr and Joan Collins have silent, momentary cameo appearances at a victory banquet, and Princess Grace of Monaco appears in an official capacity at the race.
MPI Media Group has provided a solid encoding. The enhanced widescreen image is surprisingly clean, bright and colorful. The audio setup is simple but clear, and English subtitles are provided. A trailer is included.