Friday, January 25, 2013

Car Wars: THE GREAT RACE Revisited

Someone recently tweeted the question, “What’s your favorite movie sword-fight?”

Well, of course the obvious answers all popped up straightaway: the duels in Star Wars (take your pick), Pirates of the Caribbean, Kill Bill, Rob Roy, The Princess Bride, etc.  And these are all great, no doubt about it… but the sword fight that occurred to me was from a movie I haven’t seen since I was a kid: The Great Race.

Jack Lemmon, Blake Edwards, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, The Great Race, Henry Mancini, Steampunk

The Great Race is just what it sounds like: a movie about a race—an old-time car race from New York to…Paris?

Right there you know it’s a wacky comedy, since New York and Paris are literally oceans apart--not good for a road race.  But The Great Race is directed by none other than Blake Edwards, comedy maestro of The Pink Panther series, who also brings along his court composer, the reliable Henry Mancini.

The Great Race is basically Blake Edwards’s big-budget homage to the Nickelodeon era of dashing heroes, dastardly villains, and damsels in distress.

Jack Lemmon, Blake Edwards, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, The Great Race, Henry Mancini, Steampunk

Our Hero is a Mr. Perfect daredevil named The Great Leslie (Tony Curtis), who is apparently a champion at everything, including dental hygiene.

Our Villain (Boo!  Hiss!) is the top-hatted, Snidely Whiplash-esque Professor Fate (Jack Lemmon) who, despite his cool evil gadgets and loyal henchman (the always-good Peter Falk), is as comically inept as Leslie is disgustingly perfect.

Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon?  Wait a second, the same two guys from Some Like It Hot?

Yup, the very same…only instead of going gaga over blond bombshell Marilyn Monroe, this time they must contend with prickly (but no less hot) brunette Natalie Wood playing a different kind of bombshell—a crusading suffragette newspaper reporter named Maggie DuBois, who is determined to cover the race by entering it herself.

Apparently the shortest route from New York to Paris takes you first through the Old West, where our three leads are caught up in a classic saloon fight (triggered by a run-in with bandito-attired Larry Storch of F Troop), and then through the frozen Arctic, where they have the remarkable good luck to end up adrift on an ice floe that carries them at seemingly supersonic speed to the fake European country of Potsdorf.

Jack Lemmon, Blake Edwards, Tony Curtis, Natalie Wood, The Great Race, Henry Mancini, Steampunk

This is where Jack Lemmon gets his chance to do the Peter Sellers thing, taking on a second role as the lovably drunk ruler of Potsdorf, Prince Hapnick, a benevolent buffoon whose scheming ministers decide to replace with lookalike Professor Fate.

Wait, wasn’t this a Kurosawa film?

Ensuing hijinks include a fumbled coronation, the mother of all pie fights, and the aforementioned sword duel between Leslie and local badass Baron von Stuppe (Ross Martin, AKA Artemus Gordon on The Wild Wild West), who sees pretty-boy Leslie as a fly to be swatted.

This fencing match is the only part of the movie not played for laughs, and it’s pretty harrowing, with Leslie and von Stuppe both bloodied in the increasingly-hectic swordplay.

After that, the movie glides toward its big finish under the Eiffel Tower, with Leslie arguing about the meaning of love with Maggie as he and Fate vie neck and neck for the finish line.  No spoilers here — suffice to say it all ends smashingly.


Walter Greatshell is the author of the Xombies trilogy of novels, and the thriller Mad Skills, published by Ace Books.  He is also the author of Enormity (under the name W.G. Marshall), and Terminal Island, both published by Night Shade Books.


  1. I LOVE the Great Race. Classic stuff.

  2. Basil Rathbone has two amazing sword fights under his belt, against Errol Flynn and Tyrone Powers in Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, respectively. Gene Kelly dances through his sword fights in his The Three Musketeers, and the Hammer film Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter has a dynamite sword fight scene that has inspired much later films like Liam Neeson's Rob Roy. Outside Asia, these are some of my favorite sword fight scenes.

  3. Not only is the sword fight in The Great Race one of my favorites, that film was very influential to a young 7 yr old when I first saw it, and I'm pretty sure it was the catalyst for my learning several languages and taking up fencing when I got older.

    Looking at the clip makes me wish that Ross Martin had had a chance to play more adventurous roles as either a heroic protagonist, or a dashing rogue.