50 years of ‘Le Mans,’ Steve McQueen’s love letter to auto racing
“Le Mans. The men. The machines. The motion picture. Steve McQueen stars in it. No one else could.” That clearly macho, laconic tagline was uttered in the trailer for the King of Cool’s 21st film, a fictionalized chronicle of France’s brutal 24 Hours of Le Mans. Ever since his Oakmont Drive neighbor James Garner issued the epic Grand Prix in 1966, McQueen was dead set in favor of one-upping his rival by producing the most authentic car race ever captured by Tinseltown. To rub salt into the wound, The Sand Pebbles exceeded its projected shooting schedule in Hong Kong due to rain and other factors. That delayed McQueen’s start date on Day of the Champions, a competing racing spectacle that would have seen the light of day before Grand Prix. Day of the Champion was never made, and McQueen had to wait almost four years before Le Mans materialized.
By 1970 McQueen had been perched for the second consecutive year at No. 3 on Quigley’s Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll, so it was his way or the highway. McQueen was never as invested, both financially and artistically, as he was in Le Mans. Unfortunately, the movie ran two months past its shooting schedule and $1.5 million over budget. “McQueen wouldn’t allow anyone else to step on his territory and became frustrated,” confirms Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon author Marshall Terrill. “He had the pressure of the entire movie being on his back.”
Le Mans severely impacted McQueen’s career and personal life throughout his final decade. McQueen lost first wife Neile Adams, four-year-old movie company Solar Productions, agent Stan Kamen, friendships including director John Sturges, and a significant chunk of his wealth in spite of eventually accumulating $22 million at the worldwide box office. A note on page 321 of Hollywood Icon explains that “the break-even point of Le Mans was around $15 million after prints and advertising and financing costs. McQueen didn’t see a dime because he gave up his salary and points” after CBS’s briefly-operated Cinema Center Films seized control of the picture from Solar and prohibited him from participating in post-production.
Sturges had cast the then-Wanted: Dead or Alive TV actor in the star-making Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. After shooting seven weeks worth of inferior footage, an exasperated Sturges walked off Le Mans and flew home to the USA, eventually accepting a job on Clint Eastwood’s western Joe Kidd. Sturges’ exit should have elicited a red flag, but McQueen replaced him with former TV western helmer Lee Katzin, who eliminated all of Sturges’ footage at his moody star’s behest. Le Mans would never have been distributed or finished without McQueen’s admirable tenacity.
Like McQueen’s penultimate film Tom Horn, the script of Le Mans was in his head. Explaining the plot to concerned studio brass was impossible. Le Mans is tedious, due to McQueen’s insistence on never-ending race footage and dialogue astonishingly not appearing until 37 minutes into the film. Racing aficionados nevertheless deem Le Mans a cult classic because of its cinéma vérité nature, absence of stunt drivers, and camera techniques that place the viewer in the center of the action.
So how do the experts gauge Le Mans? “Because I’m not a racing fan, I find Le Mans boring and unwatchable,” asserts Terrill [the seven-time King of Cool scribe also co-wrote Steve McQueen: Le Mans in the Rearview Mirror with the racing flick’s prop master Don Nunley]. “The behind the scenes drama that went on behind Le Mans is much more interesting than the movie itself. Ultimately, Le Mans is a testament to McQueen’s star power at the time — how many other major movie stars can get away with carrying an entire picture with a dozen lines of dialogue? I promise you that would never happen in today’s industry.
“In 2012 McQueen’s widow Barbara Minty and I visited Hamburg, Germany. More than 400 people showed up for the premiere of her photography exhibit. It was an amazing cross section of young and old, men and women, car people, movie people, aviation people, fashion people — all knew a little something about McQueen’s history. They were pretty much united in the film they admired most — Le Mans. Auto racing is much more appreciated in Europe or should I say, is more of a mainstream sport than it is in the States. They get that McQueen truly loved racing and wasn’t a poser. There is also an inherit understanding that McQueen did the film his way and that he got on film the heart of racing and it wasn’t a piece of Hollywood fluff.
“When I saw Le Mans for the first time I was disappointed because it is very non-linear,” maintains Steve McQueen: The Actor and His Films wordsmith Andrew Antoniades in an additional exclusive interview for this story. “I was expecting something with a little more action off the racetrack. However, I know it is cherished by racing enthusiasts and rightly so. After many viewings I have come to admire it greatly. Once you come to accept that it is not a conventional film and essentially a superb account of racing, you start to see the qualities. Le Mans is a paradox, since its flaws are also its strengths.
“The lack of story, the absence of characterization and back story as well as McQueen’s virtual silence are, in some people’s mind, major problems with the film. However, they are also what make it so special and unique. The absence of character development and story leave the film free to play out a narrative on the racetrack where the cars are the stars.
“As for McQueen’s performance and lack of dialogue, this provides a master-class in non-verbal communication. Steve was a master of this, saying more with his body language through stares and gestures then rival actors could with endless script pages. He didn’t need words to create atmosphere — he emanated it.”
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