In this week’s Acton Commentary, I take a look at Ford v Ferrari, the new feature film that captures the story (it’s a true thrill ride) animating the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans. This is all about the pursuit of excellence, even perfection, by two industrial organizations whose cultures couldn’t be more different, and drivers constantly striving for the “perfect lap” as they compete for the checkered flag.
Against Ford’s mass scale industrialization and Organization Man culture, Ferrari was about the uncompromising, unstinting pursuit of excellence. The company only sold cars to the public to finance its racing teams, which explains why it was broke and in need of a partner in the mid-1960s. The bright red racing Ferraris were not only fast, they were beautiful. In the Scuderia Ferrari workshops in Italy, one man built an engine from scratch, another assembled the transmission piece by piece. Where Ford workers were cogs on an assembly line, performing the same mindless task every 45 seconds, Ferrari craftsmen were proud virtuosos of the socket wrench and welding torch. (If you want a young person to find a path to artisanal “soulcraft,” why not encourage them to spend a couple years learning how to tear down an engine?)
The Ford racing team with driver Ken Miles and team manager Carroll Shelby was aiming to beat the then-dominant Ferrari stable of race cars. It’s a high stakes competition that can bring out the best, and the worst, in people.
The classical and Christian virtues (arête in the Greek, or habitual excellence) are all over Ford v Ferrari. These are among others honesty (truthful at all times and lacking in hypocrisy) and faithfulness (faithful to a calling, to family, to friends). Miles is faithful to his wife Mollie – the civilizing force among the alpha competitors that inhabit her life – and to the son who accompanies him to the track and garage to learn by seeing.
But prime among these virtues is undoubtedly courage. And not just the courage to push the race cars and themselves to the breaking point (the death toll from racing the Le Mans circuit totaled 11 drivers in the 1950s and 1960s alone, and a horrific crash in 1955 took the lives of 83 spectators). It’s the courage for Miles to be exactly who he knows himself to be and to act consistently with that self-understanding.
It is for the Ford men in the story to personify the vices, but it isn’t cowardice that they show so much as ingratitude. They’re perfectly comfortable with trampling on the integrity and freedom of the nonconformists of the race team as they reach for glory on the track. Ingratitude is “despicable … the most despicable thing of all,” in the words of Gregory of Neocaesarea, the third-century saint known as the Wonderworker. “For someone who has experienced something good not to try to return the favor, even if he can manage no more than verbal thanks, he must plainly be obtuse and insensitive to his benefits, or thoughtless.”
Read “Ford v Ferrari and the virtue of courage” on Acton Commentary.
Photo: Ford racing team members gathered around a GT40 in Ford v Ferrari. TM & copyright © Twentieth Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved. / courtesy Everett Collection.