The 24-hour race in an around the city of Le Mans every June is still considered one of the ultimate tests of driver, crews and cars, but in 1970, when filming on this movie began, it was even more so. This was before many of the safety features drivers now take for granted and when the cars were insanely powerful and fast. The Mulsanne straight was still more than two miles of flat-out, unbroken driving, with cars reaching over 230 mph before braking for the next curve.
Steve McQueen didn’t write, direct or produce this film, but it was still in every way his baby. He wanted to make the ultimate racing film. When not acting, McQueen raced cars and motorcycles for real, much to the horror of the studio executives who coveted the box office he brought in. McQueen was no dilettante, either. He was a serious driver who was competetive in virtually everything he raced and was well respected by his fellow racers. To them, he was just one of the guys who also did some acting on the side.
Filming for Le Mans actually began at the 1970 running of the race, when the production team entered a camera car in the race and had film cameras positioned around the 8.4 mile course. As a result, much of the footage you see is quite real, as is the Gulf-Porsche team that McQueen drives for in the movie. Filming then continued for months afterward on the actual course with real race cars worth hundreds of thousands in 1970 dollars. McQueen reportedly drove director Lee Katzin nearly batty by being perpetually dissatisified with the footage they had so far. The making of the film was painstakingly documented in a book with the unfortunate title of French Kiss with Death.
What you get out of watching Le Mans depends much upon what you expect out of movie. Plot? Character development? Snappy dialogue? In that case, this is not the movie for you. McQueen, the star of the movie, has barely enough lines qualify as a bit part. In fact, you’re almost twenty-minutes into the film before the first on-camera lines of dialogue are spoken.
The character with the largest speaking role is the off-camera track announcer, who functions as a kind of ad hoc Greek chorus, doing most of the exposition and explaining who these characters are and what their relationship is to each other.
McQueen’s character is Michael Delaney, an American driver who was nearly killed in a terrible accident, or “shunt” in racing parlance, that did kill another driver. That other driver’s widow (Elga Andersen) is at the race. It’s possible, but never clear, that the shunt was Delaney’s fault. It’s also possible, but never clear, that Delaney and the widow are romantically involved. Racing for Ferrari is Delaney’s chief rival, German Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch). Meanwhile, Delaney’s boss, Gulf-Porsche team principal David Townsend (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) has only one measure of success: Porsche must beat Ferrari.
If the off-track story barely registers, the on-track action more than compensates. This is, quite simply, some of the best racing footage ever captured. The howling noise of the massive 12-cylinder supercharged engines is captured in all of its teeth-rattling glory. I saw this film when I was about six years old and it turned me into a motorsports fan for life. That’s who this film is made for: people who breathe exhaust fumes, drink gasoline and bleed motor oil.
In order to create an exciting race for the movie, the filmmakers had to take a few liberties with reality. Most notably in the film, the Porsches and the Ferraris are evenly matched and the race comes down to a photo finish. It truth, the Ferrari 512 were out of production and were thoroughly outclassed in 1971 and ’72, the brief glory years of the mighty Porsche 917s, which were unbeatable until changes in the engine regulations effectively banned them from competition after 1972. Photo finishes are also almost unheard of at Le Mans, where the winning car can be a lap or more ahead by the end of a race.
Still, there is a reason that racing fans hold this film up as the greatest motorsport movie of all time, above other racing films of that era, like Grand Prix and Winning (and don’t even think of mentioning misfires like Days of Thunder or Driven in their presence; you might get spat upon). Le Mans comes as close to capturing automobile racing as it really was better than any film ever made.