________________ CM . . . . Volume XIX Number 33. . . .April 26, 2013


Mysteries in the Archives: 1955 Tragedy Strikes le Mans’ 24 Hours.

Serge Viallet (Director). Florence Fanelli (Producer).
Montreal, PQ: National Film Board of Canada, 2008.
26 min., DVD, $99.95.
Order Number: 153B 9909 274.

Subject Headings:
Automobile racing-Accidents-France.

Grades 10 and up / Ages 15 and up.

Review by Frank Loreto.

*** /4


I am not a fan of car racing, and so I approached this film about a car race held a year after I was born with some degree of hesitation. I knew nothing of the le Mans’ race and could not imagine this being of any real interest. Once again, I have been proven wrong.

      As part of the “Mysteries in the Archives” series, 1955 Tragedy Strikes le Mans’ 24 Hours captures a moment in time that is truly memorable. Normally, the running of the 24 hour le Mans race is no small event. Driver endurance, as well as technological advances, are expected. On 11 June 1955, up to 300,000 spectators gathered to watch a race that had taken place since 1923. This particular year would feature a grudge match between Jaguar and Mercedes. The Jaguar team won two years earlier and were hoping to repeat the victory with their new model which had been flown in from England. The Mercedes challenger came by rail from Germany, and the company was hoping for a win. Film crews were there to capture this race in black and white for the new television market, colour for newsreels and in cinemascope for the movies. The race did not fail to disappoint as cars reached speeds of 300 km/hour. At the 147th minute mark, the Mercedes crashed and exploded. In a matter of seconds, 80 spectators were killed and 140 injured. Despite this, the race continued with most of the drivers unaware of what had happened.

      The organizers of the race feared that cancelling the race would have resulted in bankrupting the event. While Jaguar and Mercedes denied any responsibility for the accident, the Mercedes team left in the night, and 30 years passed before Mercedes came back to le Mans. All race car events were cancelled in France and Germany until the implementation of certain safety measures. Following the race, the track was redesigned, the stands were moved back from the cars and protection for the spectators erected. A hospital was built on the grounds, and the number of ambulances increased from 6 to 35.

      This film can have applicability in many subject areas. The most obvious would be Transportation Technology as the cars in the race were the best of the day. Some historical footage of the le Mans race is presented. Fashion classes would be interested in the styles of the day and the fact that the drivers were expected to wear a tie. Marketing classes would have fun with the products advertised along the race track. Many companies no longer exist, but there are several that students would recognize. Media classes could look at the camera work and the differences among the filming styles. Despite all the sophisticated cameras, the only footage of the actual accident was taken by an amateur photographer. The reconstruction of the accident and the trajectory of the various car parts that tore through the crowd depended heavily on this footage.

      At 26 minutes, 1955 Tragedy Strikes le Mans’ 24 Hours could easily be shown in a class with time for discussion.


Frank Loreto is a teacher-librarian at St. Thomas Aquinas Secondary School in Brampton, ON.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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