Saying “Yes” – and Discovering a Bloody Race
To Saying Yes – how the making of the film of the biggest motorsport disaster of all time – ‘Deadliest Crash’ at Le Mans, came about
Article by John Matthews
June… I can’t remember when it was. 2007? Anyway it was the second time I was filming in the pits at the Le Mans 24 hours. The previous year I made a film called ‘Le Mans – In the Lap of the Gods’ and it had become popular, having been shown on Bravo, now Virgin TV. I had filmed Martin Short, aka ‘Shorty’, a man famous for his short temper who had a ‘bit of a reputation’ according to a journalist I knew. We filmed his frustration of failing to realise his dream of getting on the podium of the greatest race in the world. His attempt, in a car that had never been tested before, was a fly on the wall job. Whilst Martin did not realise his dream, I realised mine of making an utterly compelling film that reamins highly entertaining many years on.
On that pit straight, I was asked by someone I did not yet know, Clive Stroud (who turned out to be a book dealer who I still do business with to this day), “John can I have a copy of your Le Mans film from last year please?” “Well of course you can, but am not giving it to you, it is how I earn my living. I’ll do you a swap if you like” (people always ask for freebies when you make films and write books). “How about this, a ‘Racing Jaguars at Le Mans’ book” wafting an ugly tome with scratched cover.
My face said it all.
Instinct, being British, was to immediately retort “no thank you,” turn around and carry on with the new film I was making. But having been on some Americanised Course, encouraging you to ‘say ‘YES’, I bit my lip, turned around and said “Ok, why not.” I handed over a copy of ‘In the Lap of the Gods’, not in any way wanting a book about crappy old Jaguars but beginning my journey of ‘The YES Way.’
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If I had said no to that book, my life would have been completely different. I have no idea where I would be right now…
Later, flicking through the book I did not want, I came across a series of photographs, used in a court case to get top racer Mike Hawthorn off from being blamed as the cause of the deaths of over 100 people at the 1955 Le Mans. At this race, long forgotten by some, a works Mercedes went into the crowd, chopping off the heads of dozens of spectators and slicing others completely in two. It left a bloody mess splattered all over the grandstand, the magnesium car a fire nobody could extinguish, left to burn to ash.
Having been at Le Mans twice before, in a big way, making films in the heart of it all, I wondered how come nobody ever mentioned this story? Why had I and no one else ever heard of it? I could not get those images out of my head. The story stayed on my desk for months. And months. And more months.
I did not realise it, but saying ‘yes’ had sent me on a journey that would take up the next three years of my life.
The story of this deadliest crash had to be told, and it had to be told quick as it had happened 55 years ago, the main protagonists, if not already dead, would soon be so. It needed recording, it was an important story and it was one I could not allow to die along with those involved.
With help from a local film initiative, I set off with my then friend and film making buddy Rich Heap to Connecticut, New York State, USA, to interview an affidavit from John Fitch, Mercedes team mate of Frenchman Pierre Levegh, who having also died in the crash, had been blamed for the deaths. “The dead can’t sue” said Chris Hilton, one of our interviewees.
John, who was 96 at the time [and has since passed away], could remember in vivid detail what had happened that day. He was a key player in what was and remains the biggest motorsport disaster of all time. John and I became friends, he admiring my get up and go to come 3,000 miles across the Atlantic with my camera, hire a van, to film a 96 year old drive a 60 year old racing car around a track. John said to me “this will be the biggest disaster in motorsport, until there is a bigger one. History is important John, so we don’t make the same mistakes twice.” He was glad the story was to be recorded for history (affected by the crash, John went on to invent the Fitch Safety Barrier, used all over the world to save lives on motorways).
John was convinced that racing hero Mike Hawthorn was to blame for the crash, but Hawthorn’s team mate Norman Dewis, another healthy 80 odd year old, had other ideas. There was much tension and contradictions, so much so that we built a computer model to try and work out exactly what had happened. This was an important story that involved the biggest racing names of the day such as Fangio – the greatest racing driver that ever lived – and an event that would end Mercedes’ racing ambitions for 30 years.
The race, in spite of the mass bloodshed, was never stopped. Boy Scouts were given the job of matching heads to bodies, lined up under the grand stand where the crash occurred, crowds filling the gaps made by the dead, their blood soaking into the leather soles of their brogues.
Researching what happened, we met many witnesses from the disaster, including a woman who had never talked about the crash, not even to her husband. Madame Pasquier told how she had been almost beheaded by pieces of the car, how her husband had thrown her to the ground to save her, how her hands were burnt and how she thought she would never hold her baby again. At the end of the interview, in her kitchen, she tried to hand over some money. She felt that I had given her some kind of service by listening so intently, the only person to do so in almost 60 years, and that that required formal acknowledgement. Of course I told her that I could not possibly accept any money, and that it was not something that she would be expected to pay for. It was the most astonishing interview I have ever done.
Whilst the race carried on, Mike Hawthorn and his Jaguar team eventually lifting the victory cup, Mercedes pulling out, people like Madame Pascquier and hundreds of others would be left to pick up the pieces for the next six decades.
Deadliest Crash was shown on the BBC, Discovery in America and we sold it all over the world. It was nominated for the prestigious Grierson Award for Best History Film. For several years afterwards, from articles placed in newspapers and magazines in France and the UK in search of witnesses, people were still coming forward.
To this day there is not a fitting memorial for those that died and were scarred that day.
On the back of Deadliest Crash we got to make ‘Grand Prix the Killer Years’ for the BBC, a film which has become famous all over the world. Those in turn were a springboard to a film about Group B Rallying ‘Madness on Wheels’, and on the back again of that ‘Madness in the Desert’ about the Paris Dakar Rally. Plus I made a film about motorcycle racing genius Joey Dunlop for ITV.
From there I have ended up being the director of a feature film, plus involvement in another big-named feature film, both based on my own work. This from saying yes to a book I did not want. I screwed up my face, like many of us do each day. I was going to say ‘NO’, like we all do, far too often. And thus switching off the chance for opportunity.
John is a commercial film director-producer and owns the film studio Bigger Picture.
He regularly shows the film and presents talks about ‘Deadliest Crash.’ He also does talks about his Grand Prix film ‘The Killer Years’ and his rally film ‘Madness on Wheels’