Ken Miles’ death in Ford v Ferrari isn’t too far off from what really happened – though the movie changes some details for storytelling purposes.
Ken Miles’ death in Ford v Ferrari isn’t too far off from what really happened – though the movie changes some details for storytelling purposes. For years, Hollywood wanted to adapt the true story of Ford’s triumph over the perennial champion Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, and for good reason. It’s a fascinating tale of clashing egos, behind the scenes machinations, and talented artists struggling to balance creative integrity with commercial viability, all culminating in a thrilling vehicular race where one false step could mean a horrific crash and possibly immediate death for the drivers involved.
After an earlier version starring Tom Cruise and Brad Pitt fell apart, Ford v Ferrari finally made it to the big screen under the direction of James Mangold (Logan). The film stars Matt Damon as Carroll Shelby, a former race car driver-turned automobile designer tasked with building a new racing car (the Ford GT40) that will allow Ford to finally usurp Ferrari as the champions at the annual Le Mans competition. Christian Bale, who had previously worked with Mangold on his 3:10 to Yuma remake, costars as Ken Miles, the highly-talented, but hot-tempered, World War II vet-turned professional driver whom Shelby (being an old acquaintance) enlists to help him.
Sadly, just a few months after Ford defeated Ferrari at the 1966 Le Mans (and he missed out on being the individual winner on a technicality), Miles was killed while testing out a new Ford vehicle (the J-car) at the at Riverside International Raceway in Southern California. In real life, the car suddenly flipped, crashed, and caught fire for reasons that have never been fully determined to this day, ejecting Miles from the vehicle and immediately killing him. This occurred just as the driver was approaching the end of the track and after an entire day’s worth of test runs. However, in the film, the vehicle crashes after experiencing brake failure and Miles is killed in the ensuing fire. Miles was the second test driver to be killed while testing a J-car in the span of five months, with the previous driver, Walt Hansgen, being killed before Miles. The J-car testing was halted for a bit before resuming with Miles at the wheel. Following his death, the car was renamed Ford Mk IV and was heavily modified.
Miles’ death in Ford v Ferrari might seem like a minor alteration, but it’s an important one that delivers an emotional narrative payoff to an earlier setup. The scene in question revolves around Miles, Shelby, and their team testing out the GT40 MkII, only for the vehicle’s brakes to fail and the car to catch fire, very nearly killing Miles in the process. Both Miles’ wife Mollie (Caitriona Balfe) and his young son Pete (Noah Jupe) are present for the crash, and it’s a pivotal moment for the latter, as he comes to appreciate just how dangerous his dad’s line of work truly is. By comparison, Miles’ real-life death led to Ford installing a NASCAR-style rollover cage in their race cars and favoring the use of younger drivers moving forward, something that wouldn’t have had the same effect in the film as it was a self-serving move for Ford rather than a respectful or personal one for Miles.
Seeing as Ford v Ferrari is really more the story of Shelby and Miles’ tempestuous friendship than it is one about Ford’s racing program, it makes sense that the movie alters a few real-life details in order to keep the focus on how Miles’ death impacted Shelby and his loved ones, rather than getting into the minutiae of how things began to change at Ford after that. It also allows the previous sequence involving Miles’ near-death to act as proper foreshadowing and the film as a whole to show the high price that race car drivers can pay for putting their lives at risk, but which spectators often don’t see. There isn’t a film out there that is based on a true story that doesn’t exaggerate or tweak the details of events to deliver an emotional payoff or make the theatrical narrative smoother, and the same was the case for Ford v Ferrari. And as much as Hollywood loves including an uplifting ending to biopics, Ford v Ferrari subverts those expectations and serves as a reminder to everyone that race car drivers don’t always make it out of the car alive.
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