top of page

McQueen's Folly



Steve McQueen did not write Le Mans. He didn’t direct Le Mans. And he didn’t produce Le Mans. But indisputably, Le Mans is Steve McQueen’s film. Or folly. He is the instigator, the auteur and the star of the most obtuse, indulgent and possibly best racing movie of all time.


“We don’t want to explain why a man races,” said McQueen. “We want to show it.”


And after twin hits The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, he was allowed to try.


In hindsight, both films offered hints of where McQueen might go. Roger Ebert called Thomas Crown the most “under-plotted, underwritten and over-photographed film of the year” while The New York Times said Bullitt was “just right for Steve McQueen – fast… and written the way people talk.” 


Those elements — minimalism, style, speed and realism — would come to the fore in Le Mans… much more than anything as “phony” as a script, as the Hollywood star tried to transcend expectations and perhaps even himself to create the racing movie he’d always wanted to make. Real cars, real drivers, real speed. 


When the actor had turned down 1966's Grand Prix his neighbor James Garner had grabbed it. When he failed to get his alternative – Day of the Champion – off the ground, his rival Paul Newman stole his crown as Hollywood’s Favourite Racing Superstar by making Winning. (McQueen retaliated by turning down Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.)  


But now a new decade had arrived. It was 1970 and change was in the air. This was McQueen’s chance.  He was going to tell the story, no, he was going to show the story of what it actually feels like to compete in the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He knew endurance racing — he’d already competed in the 12 Hours of Sebring, driving his Porsche to a second-place finish, despite competing with a broken foot. Now he was going to share what racing meant to him with the world.


Le Mans was a passion project that became an obsession for McQueen, blowing through schedules and budgets, arguably derailing both his marriage and his career, and speeding ever onwards in search of something like truth.


It is more tone poem than movie. A symphony of images that suggest a storyline. It’s been described as brilliant, boring, metaphysical. A vanity project. A midlife crisis on film. It may be all of those things. It gets better on repeat viewings. It drags less and reveals more.


We start on a winding country road. Pretty as a postcard. We hear lush cinematic music. A beautiful slate grey Porsche 911S zips through the frame. And on, to a picturesque town square where a woman is buying flowers. And on, past a road sign that reveals we’re 8 miles from Le Mans. And on, until we reach the Circuit de la Sarthe. Now the car stops. The driver gets out. We see the back of his head. The camera circles around him to finally reveal his face (Hey, it’s Steve McQueen!), then zooms in like a spaghetti western until his blue eyes almost fill the frame. What’s he staring at? Another spaghetti-style zoom — to a metal barrier in the road… flashback! Now it’s dark. Lights dart across the screen creating hypnotic patterns. Engines roar. Signs appear in the night. 200. 100. Headlights flare. A glimpse of car. A flash of red: a crash helmet. We see the driver’s eyes. More swirling lights. A blur. Suddenly, the barrier! A cacophony of sound. Crash! The speedometer falls to zero. An explosion fills the screen. The bell of a fire engine rings. A female spectator leaps from her seat. It’s the woman who was buying flowers. She must be the driver’s wife! Belgetti. That’s his name. We know because it’s printed on her race jacket and painted on his car. The car that’s now on fire. He’s not going to make it. An announcer’s voice comes over the tannoy. “There has been an accident…” The flashback ends. A reflective Steve gets back in his car and drives away. Off to prepare for this year’s race. Cue the opening titles.


We’re five minutes in and our star hasn't said a word (and he won’t for another 33 minutes). But we’ve already witnessed speed, sorrow, drama, love, death and regret. It’s not exactly reality, because reality doesn’t pay homage to Saul Bass and isn’t scored by Michel Legrand. But it might be poetry.


Over the remainder of the film we will witness a simple tale, told spectacularly. (Spoilers ahead.) McQueen is Delaney, a race car driver for Porsche competing at Le Mans. In last year’s race he was involved in an accident. Another driver – Belgetti – died in the accident. Belgetti’s widow, Lisa, is at this year’s race. Delaney and his Porsche teammates — young driver Larry Wilson and secretly planning-to-retire-soon Johann Ritter – are hoping to beat the Ferrari team which includes Claude Aurac and Delaney’s arch rival, Erich Stahler. Delaney races hard, and has a few stilted conversations with Lisa between sessions. At one point, the Porsche of Aurac crashes off the track and explodes in a fireball. Aurac survives but the flames distract Delaney who spins out and crashes but is not seriously injured. He appears to be out of the race but his Porsche boss David Townsend, sniffing a win, asks him to replace the too-slow Ritter. Delaney returns to the track and drives hard but tactically, securing and maintaining second place — thus holding Stahler at bay in third, so Wilson can take first place and ensure an overall Porsche team win. As the Porsche team celebrate, a subdued Delaney sees Lisa in the crowd.  They exchange glances but no words.


It’s not a lot of plot — it probably takes up less than a quarter of the movie and you could fit the entire dialogue from the film on a couple of pages. But that’s because McQueen wasn’t interested in plot or dialogue. He just wanted to show racing.  In fact, for most of the time shooting, there wasn’t even a script to work from. The crew began filming not knowing what tale would be told. They arrived in Le Mans in June 1970 and shot every conceivable aspect of the event that they could. The race, of course, from numerous angles, but also the crowds, the adjacent fun fair, the preparations, the staff, the police, the stewards, the pits, the car parks, the grounds, the town. The variety of mounts and camera angles used was considered revolutionary at the time. Hundred of thousands of feet of film  — including from on-board cameras during the race — were shot to capture everything that might serve a yet to be decided story. All McQueen was certain of was that he didn’t want to make a predictable Hollywood tale of a driver who won the race and got the girl. He was after something more… 


Initially he planned to compete in the race as they were filming. But the film’s insurance company vetoed that. However, after race weekend, McQueen did get on the track, along with 41 professional drivers who were hired to — at full racing speed — recreate and embellish manoeuvres that had happened in the race. This recreation would go on for almost five months, way over schedule and budget. By the end, the crew were having to paint brown leaves green to make it look like it was still summer. It was rumored that over a million feet of film had now been shot.


“The recreation was, in many ways, a lot more dangerous than the race itself,” said Derek Bell, five-time Le Mans winner and one of the drivers employed. A point horribly emphasized by British former Formula One driver David Piper, who lost half a leg in a crash during filming (During the closing credits, when the list of participating drivers comes up it ends with the note  “And Special Appreciation to DAVID PIPER for his Sacrifice during the Filming of this Picture”).


McQueen’s obsession was careening out of control. He kept rejecting script ideas. He didn’t want anything ‘fake’. Meanwhile the cars kept racing and the footage piled up. Director John Sturges, who had previously worked with McQueen on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, found the situation intolerable and quit the picture.


With no script and no director, the financial backers had finally had enough. They threatened to remove McQueen from the picture. There was talk of replacing him with Robert Redford. Eventually McQueen ceded creative control and financial points to get the film completed. TV director Lee Katzin was employed and some story elements were shot and inserted into the film which received middling reviews and failed to recoup its budget at the box office — although the theatrical campaign did include the truly inspired tagline: “Le Mans. The men. The machines. The motion picture. Steve McQueen stars in it. No one else could.”


McQueen’s career eventually recovered (The Getaway, Papillon and The Towering Inferno were around the corner) though he never raced again. But Le Mans’s reputation slowly grew. As David Bell observed:  “It’s a bit like a bottle of really good French wine — it may have been a bit tart when first vinted, but has grown and aged memorably with time, and is thus great to enjoy over and over again.” 

bottom of page