If Michael Mann were to ever direct a racing car film it would probably resemble Le Mans (1971), a passion project for its star Steve McQueen, himself an avid racing car enthusiast. Much like Mann’s recent work, Le Mans eschews conventional narrative storytelling in favor of an impressionistic approach with an emphasis on visual storytelling and a surprising lack of dialogue. In some respects, McQueen is the auteur of the film, committing so much time and resources that it bankrupted him because the actor refused to compromise the vision he had for it – the beauty and a sense of purity in racing. McQueen believed in the relationship between man and machine and the notion that you’re not only racing against an opponent, but also yourself in terms of mental and physical endurance, which Le Mans explores in fascinating ways.
Known as the 24 Hours of LeMans, it is the oldest active endurance racing sports car race in the world. It began in 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France and occurs during the European summer in June. The race starts in mid-afternoon, runs through the night and finishes the next day at the same time it started. Racing teams maintain a tricky balancing act between speed and the car’s capacity to run for 24 hours. Also, the drivers are put to the test, often spending more than two hours racing before stopping in the pits to switch control over to a relief driver.
Le Mans prologue establishes its unconventional approach as Gulf Porsche Team driver Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) cruises through the French countryside. He spots Lisa Belgetti (Elga Anderson) buying flowers, which provokes him to drive to the scene of an accident that occurred during the previous 24 hours of the Le Mans auto race where he was injured while rival driver Piero Belgetti was killed. The entire sequence and subsequent flashback Delaney experiences is all conveyed without any dialogue as the film shows us everything we need to know, like a shot of the new section of guardrail that was replaced after the accident. The flashback itself is an almost abstract collection of sights and sounds: round circles of light at night to the roar of engines taking us back to that fateful time. The crash is not actually shown, but conveyed through editing with a shot of Belgetti’s frightened face, a shot of the guardrail, a fiery explosion, a stray tire rolling away, and ending with a shot of the man’s racing helmet lying on the ground, the flaming wreck reflected in its broken visor. Whether he was responsible for it or not, Delaney feels some burden of guilt for what happened.
The opening credits play over the sleepy French town of Le Mans before the race starts with many spectators camped out in tents from the night before. We see the town come to life as preparations for the race are depicted documentary style over the snazzy jazz soundtrack by Michel Legrand. The filmmakers immerse us in the sights and sounds of the event so that we almost feel a part of it. Like many films from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Le Mans adopts a cinema verite style to create a sense of immediacy and realism by mixing actual footage of the race with staged scenes that dramatize Delaney’s story on and off the track. In this respect, it resembles Medium Cool (1969), which preceded it, only doing for car racing what that film did for politics and journalism.
Instead of using title cards or have some character explain it, the rules for the race are explained by the race announcer as we see various drivers getting ready. This is a wonderful example of the narrative economy at work as the filmmakers opt to show us as much as possible and tell us little, leaving it up to the viewer to pay close attention to what is going on. The way a character moves or how he acts or reacts to others tells us what they are feeling at a given moment. This unusual approach takes some time to acclimatize to as we are used to most films telling us everything, spelling things out so that there is little nuance or ambiguity – something that Le Mans is steeped in.
A stretch of the race becomes increasingly dangerous with the onset of rain and this not only makes the roads wet, but very difficult to manage. Visibility is poor as the Porsche and Ferrari teams engage in a battle of wills as the respective team managers see who will bring their team in last and switch tires to compensate for the weather. Then, it becomes a contest between who has the more efficient pit crew as we see these men hard at work, the camera lingering on the minutia of their actions. This sequence is cinematic catnip for gearheads and racing enthusiasts.
With the character of Lisa, Le Mans shows how the car racing lifestyle affects the loved ones of the racers. She looks a little haunted, walking through the staging area, watching her husband’s team go on without him. In between racing shifts, Delaney sits down with her at a cafeteria and they finally cut through the tension between them. Not much is said, but the looks they exchange speak volumes. Delaney and Lisa reconnect after he crashes his car later on in the race and in his trailer she asks him, “What is so important about driving faster than anybody else?” He replies, “A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re going racing it … it’s life. Anything that happens before or after … is just waiting.” This is a beautifully acted scene, especially by McQueen who delivers this iconic line almost matter-of-factly, spoken by a man who has seen the highs and lows of racing and continues to do so because he is in the pursuit of excellence. He wants to be among the very best of his profession because he feels compelled, he’s driven to do it and this is something few people truly understand and appreciate. It really is the key line of dialogue that defines the film and explains Delaney’s motivations.
Le Mans shows how a seemingly minor mistake, like overcompensating just a little to avoid a stalled out car or being briefly distracted by a crash, can result in a fiery crash that is edited rather dramatically. The crash itself is a noisy affair, but as the dazed driver crawls out of the wreckage and attempts to get away, there is no sound, which only enhances the unbelievable tension until the car explodes, sending its driver sprawling. During this sequence, the editing depicts it rapidly from several different angles in a very kinetic and visceral way that would anticipate what contemporary action films would do by many years.
Le Mans also touches upon the parasitic nature of the press corp. that swarms all over Lisa after Delaney’s crash. She is blindsided by a barrage of flashbulbs going off and questions directed at her until Delaney steps in and protectively leads her over to a car so she can escape. When a journalist asks Delaney how this crash compares to the one last year that involved her husband, he just gives the reporter that trademark intense McQueen look and walks off.
As far back as The Magnificent Seven (1960), Steve McQueen had wanted to make a racing movie with John Sturges, who had worked with the actor on the aforementioned film and The Great Escape (1963), directing and Warner Brothers distributing. It was to be called Day of the Champion and was to be made after McQueen had finished making The Sand Pebbles (1966). However, MGM was making a racing car movie called Grand Prix (1966) starring James Garner, which was able to get into production before McQueen’s film. The actor was upset that he found out about this in a newspaper and that Garner, a friend of McQueen’s, didn’t tell him. As a result, McQueen didn’t talk to Garner for an entire year.
McQueen was determined to make the definitive racing movie and felt that Le Mans was the best race to depict because it represented the spirit of auto racing. After Warner Bros. canceled Day of the Champion, CBS’ film division, Cinema Center, agreed to finance his racing film, now called Le Mans, for $6 million with Sturges still on board to direct. Amazingly, the project was given the go-ahead without a finished screenplay as McQueen and Sturges disagreed over the content. The director felt that the film should feature a love story while the actor wanted to go the pseudo-documentary route.
Principal photography began on June 6, 1970 with 20,000 props and 26 race cars to be driven by 52 world-class drivers. The film crew was a mix of French and Americans with crowd extras that sometimes exceeded more than 350,000 people. During filming, three different writers were hired to create their own versions of the script. Incredibly, they were competing against each other instead of working together.
Unfortunately, the production couldn’t use any of the footage Sturges had shot prior at the 1969 Le Mans race because the Gulf-Porsche Team that McQueen’s character was a part of had been eliminated early on when their car crashed. A mock race would have to be staged, adding millions to the budget. In addition, Sturges was having difficulty directing McQueen. At that point in his career, the actor was a big movie star and according to the director, McQueen was “in a power position, so if he didn’t like a line, he didn’t read it. If he didn’t want to say anything, he didn’t.”
The budget continued to grow as some of the best drivers in the world had been hired at considerable expense and a crash involving six cars, each one of them costing $5,000, was added to the shooting schedule. Word got back to Cinema Center that the production was out of control and executives soon arrived on location much to McQueen’s chagrin. The production was shut down for two weeks and Cinema Center even toyed with the idea of replacing McQueen with Robert Redford.
McQueen was under a lot of stress and didn’t want to shut down his passion project. He agreed to forfeit his $750,000 salary and any points he’d get in gross profits as well as relinquishing creative control. Sturges wanted to work on the script with McQueen, but the actor was taking his wife Niele to Monaco in an attempt to salvage their marriage. The director felt that the actor was being very unprofessional and this was the final straw. He left the production. The producers had to scramble to find a new director and Cinema Center enlisted Lee Katzin who was about to shoot a television movie for them. Three days after getting the call, he was in France. McQueen resented Katzin being imposed on him and was difficult to work with for the first six weeks. Then, one day, while Katzin was trying to figure out what to shoot, McQueen approached him and said, “I see what you’re trying to do and I’m going to work for you and not against you.”
To add to the production’s woes, Le Mans still didn’t have a lead actress. McQueen wanted Diana Rigg, but she was unavailable. The studio brought in Maud Adams, but once McQueen saw that she was taller then him the actor wanted someone else, which ended up being German actress Elga Andersen (Bonjour tristesse). Meanwhile, the production was plagued by two accidents. A Porsche caught on fire and was ruined. Fortunately, the driver escaped serious injury. During filming, another Porsche hit a guardrail at 200 mph and broke into several pieces. The driver survived, but his right leg had to be amputated below the knee.
Principal photography dragged on – originally scheduled to end in September 1970, but continuing on into November. Even while trying to salvage his marriage, McQueen was having an affair with actress Louise Edlind and other women. Niele and their children came to visit McQueen in France and he admitted to seeing other women, which understandably upset his wife. She admitted to having an affair herself and an angry McQueen put a gun to her head. Not surprisingly, she and the kids went back to the United States soon afterwards.
Filming was finally completed in November and the production had gone $1.5 million over budget. It took over six months to edit 450,000 feet of film into something resembling a story with the studio shutting McQueen out of the post-production process. Le Mans was released in June 1971 and the critics were not kind. The New York Times’ Howard Thompson wrote, “Racing buffs will probably flip over it but mostly it’s a bore.” In her review for the New York Daily News, Kathleen Carroll wrote, “There was no attempt at characterization. Le Mans is an excuse for Steve McQueen to indulge his passion for auto racing and to show off his skills as a racing driver.” Finally, Time magazine’s Jay Cocks wrote, “Le Mans may be the most famous auto race in the world, but from a theater seat it just looks like a big drag.” The film made $19 million worldwide, but McQueen ended up owing the IRS $2 million in back taxes. He was forced to shut down his production company and turn over any profits to the government.
At its best, Le Mans recreates what it must’ve been like to not only witness this famous race, but actually be in it. The race sequences are dynamically shot, alternating between long shots of the action and you-are-there point-of-view shots that do an excellent job of conveying the speed and intensity of the race. Very little music plays over these sequences in favor of the deafening roar of the car engines. Legrand’s music has a swanky ‘60s Euro jazz vibe that suits the film quite well. Throughout, Le Mans subverts the expectations of a stereotypical racing film, right down to the ending, which doesn’t see Delaney win personally, but his teams does, which is something a more traditional movie like Days of Thunder (1990) doesn’t do because it is all about the flash and the spectacle. There is a reason why Le Mans is still admired by racing enthusiasts after all these years – it is a pure expression of what it means to race at very high speeds and put your life at risk.
Terrill, Marshall. Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel. Plexus: London. 1993.