Gothic Steam Phantastic

The Great Race

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The Great Race
by Blake Edwards, 1965

To my surprise, I saw The Great Race listed as a steampunk movie. The Great Race is one of my favourite movies ever, but steampunk? I’ve never seen it as a typical steampunk movie. So I browsed my memory and saw the movie once again to check out the steampunk content.

Now I still wouldn’t call The Great Race a steampunk movie. It is set in 1908, and is about a car race. The hero “The Great Leslie” (Tony Curtis) and the bad guy “The Magnificent Professor Fate” (Jack Lemmon) are the contestants in this race from New York to Paris. They cross the Wild West, the Arctic, Russia and Europe before they end under the Eifel Tower.
There is no hint at anything Victorian, there are no devilish big steam powered engines, there is no advanced technology and there are no conspiracies. Nothing that makes you think “hey, steampunk!”.

Yet there is something that might be of interest to the steampunk fan, and that is Professor Fate, a classical, but a bit clumsy mad scientist. He is a rather old-fashioned when compared to his opponent, in his clothing and in his ideas. He lives in a huge gothic house -including an organ-, that is not unlike any haunted house we know from the movies. He’s got an assistant, Max[imillian] (Peter Falk) who is not too bright. Together they make the evil twins of Laurel & Hardy.
But most of all, professor Fate is the man with the technical gadgets. It is these gadgets that might make the movie a steampunk one. The best featured is the Hannibal 8, a car filled with gadgets that Fate uses to race in. It puts the inventions of Q (from James Bond fame) to a shame. The most steampunk device was the Zeppelin-bike, a small zeppelin that is moved forwards with a man-powered fan. Other things are nice, but not too spectacular for the steampunk audience.

Then we have in the social part the sideline of Maggie Dubois (Natalie Wood). She is, as you might have expected, a woman. But not the regular 1908 woman, but a true feminist. She wants to be a reporter and cover the race for the New York Sentinel from beginning to end, so she enters the race as well. The men from the New York Sentinel are not quite happy with this. During the movie, there are confrontations of Maggie and Leslie, and Maggie and Fate, that deal with their attitude towards feminist ideas. Can you be a gentleman if the women don’t want you to be just gentle to them?

Another thing that might be of interest is the music score. It’s by Henry Mancini (from the Pink Panther tune) and has a wide variety of atmospheres. They are not classic music as used in many movies, and not the traditional bombastic action-movie-score either, but has a true nostalgic feel over it. However, I haven’t seen the soundtrack anywhere.

I’d say “go see the movie, it’s fun!”, but I wouldn’t list it as being steampunk, gothic or even fantastic.

© Yaghish 2003
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