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Chariots with Tires: or the Semiotics of Ford vs. Ferrari

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By the time of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, America had just concluded a bad decade. Watergate, Kent State, rampant inflation, the abject failure of the Vietnam War, Soviet adventures in Afghanistan, and the Iran hostage crisis had all taken their toll on the national morale, and people were feeling rather down and morose. So, when a young and inexperienced American hockey squad defeated the defending- champion Soviet team in what wasn't even the gold medal round, the country seized upon the occasion as grounds for a national celebration. One would have thought that America had just won the First and Second World Wars combined to judge from the level of elation and patriotic pride that greeted the victory, as "going for the gold" became the unofficial national motto for what would soon be known as the Reagan eighties.

 

America, of course, isn't the only country that treats international sports victories as surrogates for military success—after all, that is what the original Olympic games were for—but it does make the most movies about such events. And it is in this context that we can understand the enormous popularity of the recently released Ford vs. Ferrari. So, let's have a look.

 

Ford vs. Ferrari belongs to a genre of sports movies—often "based on a true story"—in which the protagonist beats the odds to achieve some kind of athletic triumph or another— a genre that includes such fictional films as Rocky and Breaking Away, and such real life movies as Fighting Back: The Rocky Bleier Story and Rudy (Chariots of Fire is a British version of this sort of thing). The key thing about these movies is their focus on an underdog, someone (or an entire team) whose eventual triumph serves as a kind of parable of the American dream. At first glance, then, Ford vs. Ferrari would seem to belong to a very different kind of sports film, pitting the gigantic Ford Motors corporation against a boutique Italian race car manufacturer, but by pitting two ageing driver/designers against the Ferrari legacy of track dominance, the movie manages to create a David vs. Goliath scenario after all, with Carroll Shelby and Ken Miles playing the role, in effect, of America's Lake Placid hockey team, and Ferrari standing in for the Russians.

 

Which explains why such a film would be conceived and produced now, and why it should be such a success. Because America is having another bad decade. Increasingly divided along ideological lines, still suffering from the after-effects of the Great Recession, watching the war on terrorism turn to an infinity war, and nervously monitoring the rise of China to superpower status, Americans are badly in need of a good shot in the arm. Enter Hollywood, right on cue, with just what the country needs, remaining true to the slogan that in America when the going gets tough, the tough make movies.

 

Now, if only they could come up with something to make us feel better about the global climate crisis that our love affair with the internal combustion engine has helped create. Hmmm. I wonder if Greta Thunberg plays hockey.

Photo Credit: Pixabay Image 152088 by OpenClipart-Vectors, used under Pixabay License

2 Comments
Migrated Account

Thank you for the review and the apt comments about this piece of

literature. I will pass it along to my colleagues with your comment. I

love the quip at the end.

Patricia V. Frech, Ed.D.,

Dual Enrollment Instruction: PDCCC at SHS

On Thu, Dec 5, 2019 at 2:52 PM jack.solomon <community.support@macmillan.com>

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About the Author
Jack Solomon is professor of English at California State University, Northridge, where he teaches literature, critical theory and history, and popular cultural semiotics. At present he is Director of the Office of Academic Assessment and Program Review, a task to which he frequently applies the critical thinking insights that cultural semiotics can reveal. He is often interviewed by the California media for analysis of current events and trends. He is co-author, with Sonia Maasik, of Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers, and California Dreams and Realities: Readings for Critical Thinkers and Writers, and is also the author of The Signs of Our Time, an introductory text to popular cultural semiotics, and Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age, a critique of poststructural semiotics that proposes an alternative semiotic paradigm.