Le Mans is the world’s greatest motor-race, cars racing around the Circuit de la Sarthe in Northern France for a full 24 hours. It is also the name of a self-indulgent film from Steve McQueen. The DVD of this 1971 film contains a short TV documentary called ‘Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans’, which tells that much of the film was shot before there was an actual script, the filmmakers trying to pull a decent film out of the one million feet of film that had been exposed. Does the world also need a 100 minute documentary adding more behind-the-scenes details of the making of a minor movie?
Directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna believe so. They have discovered hundreds of hours of new footage and audio – including recordings of McQueen himself. Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans pieces together a patchwork of opinions about and images of the making of the movie. Clarke and McKenna also take McQueen’s son Chad back to France to reminisce and film a little at the contemporary track.
In 1970 McQueen was a huge star and could at last get his dream film financed. As a motor sport lover who had competed in the Sebring 12hr race he wanted to try and capture the atmosphere of racing. The obvious setting was the world’s greatest race: Le Mans. For insurance reasons McQueen himself wasn’t allowed to compete in the real race. Instead the filmmakers used top racing drivers like Derek Bell and Jacky Ickx to film real racing action, whilst McQueen drove around the same track in the days after the race.
The film they created is virtually plotless and consists mainly of speeding cars and close ups of drivers. Now the shots would be easy to create. Go to any race meet nowadays and many racers have fitted Go Pros to their cars to watch the action later. But this documentary shows that back then the directors (first John Sturges and then when he resigned Lee Katzin) had to fit huge 35mm camera to the sportscars, cameras so heavy that they affected the balance of the cars.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans makes it clear that the problems during filming were caused by having no script. Sturges wanted Le Mans to be a background element in a love story. McQueen wanted to film racing cars. Eventually, with the project over budget the studio stepped in, took away McQueen’s control and insisted on the film being finished.
The documentary includes archive footage of McQueen racing at Sebring. It also shows the crazy Le Mans starting procedure. The drivers used to stand on the opposite side of the track to their cars. When the start was signalled the race began with them running to their cars, jumping in, strapping themselves in and starting the engine. Some drivers wouldn’t waste time by strapping themselves in. It was a dangerous sport and death and injury came close to the film when driver David Piper crashed and had to have a leg amputated. Bell also endured a fiery crash from which he recovered.
McQueen’s son is an executive producer of the film. That doesn’t stop mention of his father’s daily philandering and some of his human faults – McQueen was quick to drop people when he felt he had been betrayed. The documentary shows the extravagance of the whole production, the way minions were forced to lie to stop true stories of McQueen’s lifestyle becoming known. But the story behind the film isn’t that interesting and includes much that was already revealed in the shorter TV documentary already available. The shots of Le Mans, both archive and contemporary show the thrills of racing, but if you want to see the cars of the period racing, get the original film .