Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Racing Cars ~ Le Mans (1971)

UPDATE: Stop! Before you leave a comment, read the entire post first. I have some opinions about the film not everyone will agree with but I was as fair as possible. Don't jump to conclusions. Thank you.

Le Mans (1971) is simply a terrible movie. It's more a quasi-documentary Steve McQueen/race car fest than it is an actual film. There is virtually no plot and if you are not a race car enthusiast or perhaps you do not know what Le Mans is you would be confused and bored by the seemingly endless race that lasts the entire film. For those of you who are not familiar with Le Mans, it's a 24 hour endurance race (relay with teams) which takes place every year in the Le Mans region of France. The whole movie centers around Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) the champion racer who is participating in Le Mans in the shadow of the recent death of another racer Belgetti. Belgetti's widow Lisa (Elga Andersen) hangs around the race for some reason, looking forlorn and lusting after Delaney. It's hard to tell if this is really what is going on. Her husband just died and here she is, holding on to the lifestyle and social circle she's grown accustom to which she no longer has a connection. So is Delaney the replacement that will keep her in the race care lifestyle? Who knows. It's Steve McQueen driving a race car. Cool.

This film has very little dialogue. So little that the first 37 minutes of the film contain no dialogue spoken by any of the characters. All you hear is the occasional announcer. The remaining 69 minutes has some dialogue but not much.  So why watch this film? For the setting, the fancy shots of real race care driving and for Steve McQueen. McQueen loved sports and he loved racing. After his famous chase scenes in Bullitt (1968) and The Great Escape (1963), it seems inevitable that McQueen would do a movie completely devoted to race car driving.

The 1970s was the most varied and the most sparse decade in Steve McQueen's film career. Le Mans was produced by Solar Productions, McQueen's production company run by himself and business partner/friend Robert Relyea. By 1970, McQueen had become one of the world's most recognizable talents and a hot commodity for film studios. He also become one of the most difficult actors to work with. Le Mans really should have been Day of Champion (1966), produced by Warner Bros., starring Steve McQueen but it wasn't meant to be. Instead Grand Prix (1966)  starring James Garner was made and Day of the Champion was put on the back burner. Relyea eventually made a deal with CBS's Cinema Center Films to do 3 pictures with Solar Productions. It was a deal I'm sure CBS came to regret.

According to Steve McQueen biographer Marc Eliot, a $5 million dollar insurance policy was taken out on McQueen's behalf were something to happen to him during the filming of Le Mans. Although Solar Production and McQueen were virtually broke, McQueen, banking on his fame, managed to get a good deal out of making Le Mans. Initially that is. However, there were many problems. The director John Sturges, was sick of McQueen's antics on set and the constantly changing script (whatever there was of one) that he abandoned the picture. Le Mans was hemorrhaging money. Pretty much all of Sturges' scenes had to be tossed, CBS' Cinema Center pulled out, McQueen's salary was cut, people were fired and the filming just plain stopped. CBS's Cinema Center took it back on after a few weeks with a new director on board. Lee H. Katzin took over but was restricted heavily by McQueen's demands. Katzin stuck with the production to the bitter end, bless him. By the end of filming, the editors had a mess of a movie to piece together, McQueen ended his business and personal relationship with Relyea forever and McQueen's marriage with Neile was on life support. The film was a critical disaster, didn't make enough to cover it's costs and it quickly disappeared from theaters.

I do hope this movie is released on BluRay, because although it's a terrible film I really do think it should be restored. It's aesthetically and historically important given the footage of real racing and Steve McQueen's iconic status in the history of film. The quality of the DVD is as bad as the plot of the movie. If you are a courageous soul and do brave watching this film on DVD, you will be rewarding by a very nice Speed Channel documentary about Le Mans (1971) hosted by McQueen's son Chad McQueen. I'd say it's better than the actual film. (Update: Le Mans is available on Blu-Ray).


  1. we're in accord 100% on this one Quelle. this is and "On Any Sunday" were pet projects for Steve but they bored the crap outta me. as you say its a shame beacause Steve doing a "Racing movie" was a total natural and if they had a decent script and John Sturges hung around it coulda been something special. now its just a curiosity. kudos to you for sitting through it, i honestly cant think of a any woman i have ever known who woulda done that, lol!

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  3. Wow, your comments about the film were particularly harsh. In my view, this film is a timeless classic. I'd rather watch real time, real peformance by real people in film than be duped by today's computer animation, writer's lack of creativity and people with no imagination in movies these days.

  4. Kali - Thanks for stopping by. I don't think I was that harsh on the film. I did note that I thought the film was aesthetically and historically important and thus should be preserved and seen. Really the best parts of the film were the driving sequences and Steve McQueen being Steve McQueen.

    And I agree that real performances are great and while we are duped by CGI and all that stuff that is used today, old Hollywood had tricks up their sleeves too. It wasn't ever all real. And while I really love classic films, I concede that there are some terrible ones in the mix. Just because a film is old doesn't necessarily mean it's good.

    I think Le Mans would have been a good film if Steve McQueen hadn't been in such dire straits. His production company was falling apart, his friendship and business relation with his partner ended forever, his marriage was about to end and no one could agree on a plot line. It was a mess! If the situation were different, I think Le Mans had the potential to be a really great film.

  5. This movie is excellent. If you went to watch the race in person you would have a much different feeling about the movie. I literally watch the movie 3 times a year and it gets better every time.

    1. Marky - Next time, before you leave a comment, read the entire post first.


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