“A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.” – Michael Delaney
There have been few stars in the history of cinema that have achieved the iconic status of Steve McQueen. Known as the king of cool, his rough around the edges style saw him play prominent roles in some of the very best films in cinema history. However, having supported himself whilst studying acting by competing in races, and always favouring doing his own driving in films where possible, his one true love was motor sports and it was inevitable that some day he would make his own race movie. In 1971, Le Mans ended up being that movie.
The movie’s based on the titular competition that sees the French town of the same name effectively shut down, so that 14.5 kilometres of country roads can be closed for a number of teams to engage in an endurance race that tests both racers and their vehicles to their limits.
Each car has two racers that alternate every few hours, but even with breaks, the race is still incredibly demanding.
The film itself focuses on the competition between two teams, Ferrari and their German driver, Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch) driving the 512lm, and Porsche and their American driver, Michael Delaney (McQueen) driving the 917k. The competition between the pair is intensified, as one year prior, Delaney caused a crash that caused the death of a fellow racer known by both competitors.
McQueen’s desire was to make the ultimate film about motor racing, but the film itself is rather unconventional, with the blurring of real footage with the backdrop of the established narrative. But the race was always the primary focus, and the narrative was very much secondary.
Much of the film was unscripted, which caused some tension among cast and crew, as it was perceived that there was a lack of focus. It was this tension that lead to the departure of the film’s original director and the hiring of Lee Katzin, comimg on board at short notice to get the production back on track by working closely with McQueen to make a project that was satisfactory for both studio and star.
The lack of script is evident throughout, as there’s very little in the way of dialogue in much of the film. In fact, it takes just under forty minutes for any of the leads to utter any dialogue. Before that, the only dialogue is delivered via announcers.
The lack of dialogue in the early stages adds an almost unbearable sense of tension in the build up to the race itself.
Le Mans could have ended up very differently, as McQueen’s Solar Productions had acquired the rights to Robert Daley’s The Cruel Sport. However, John Frankenheimer was working on a similar adaptation, which ended up as the epic Grand Prix.
McQueen was, for a time, considered for the lead role in Grand Prix, but he chose to pass on the project and pursue his own project, and the lead role went to James Garner.
A test run for McQueen and his crew occurred at the ’69 Le Mans as they placed a number of cameras around the course to get a feel of how the film would take shape, which put them in a good position to start production on the film itself the following year. The footage from the ’70 grand prix formed much of the material depicted in the film, with shots of the actors driving and other set pieces being filmed on the course a few months after.
The fact that so much of this was filmed at the 1970 Le Mans means most of the footage is authentic, as opposed to being filmed for dramatic purposes, which give the film a feel of a documentary at times.
In terms of the racing action put on screen, there’s very little out there to rival this film, even to this day. The fact that all of the stunt work and driving was done practically and by professionals adds to the sense of realism that runs throughout the film.
Influences of the film can still be seen and felt in films that followed. Days Of Thunder certainly owes much to it, but recent films such as Taladega Nights and The Fast And The Furious franchise all, in ways, showthe same level of influence as they try to capture a certain degree of realism in their set pieces.
Some of the set pieces in Le Mans are absolutely exhilarating, particularly when the worsening weather and fatigue of the drivers causes mistakes to be made, and all of a sudden, the stakes are raised and the threat of crashes causing injury and even death is very much a reality.
The tension can, at times, become unbearable, as the camera work gives a real sense of speed immersion. You find yourself struggling to see clearly what’s coming up, particularly as the falling rain obscures the view from the windscreen.
Few would argue that this is McQueen’s finest moment as an actor, and those with little interest in motor sports will find that there’s not a great deal to enjoy here, but what should come across clearly is the enigmatic star power of Steve McQueen and his passion for racing.
For someone so heavily involved in the making of the film, this is an incredibly un-showy and unselfish performance from McQueen. He’s aware that, whilst he’ll be the main draw for many, given his status at the time, the important factor was the race itself.
As described, it’s a rather unconventional movie, but one that captures some of the finest racing committed to film, regarded by many as the most realistic representation of the race and, as such, stands as the greatest pure racing film of all time.
Le Mans is out now on Blu-ray and available from the Den Of Geek Store.