Le Mans (1971)
Starring: Steve McQueen, Elga Andersen, Siegfried Rauch.
Director: Lee H. Katzin
Plot: Still haunted from crashing and causing the death of his friend’s husband and fellow driver in the race a year earlier, Porsche driver Michael Delaney races in the 1970 24 hour Le Mans circuit, one of the longest and most dangerous race circuits in the world.
With Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, a documentary featuring one of the most iconic actors of the 1970s and his obsession with creating the ultimate racing film due to be released in UK cinemas this week, now would be a good time to look at the film Le Mans itself and see how Steve McQueen’s fantasy became his bittersweet brainchild.
Le Mans (1971) depicts an endurance race on the most intense race course in history, the Le Mans circuit in France; a circuit so intense in fact, that even the filming couldn’t escape its reputation. Stunt driver David Piper is mentioned in the credits as a special thanks for his ‘sacrifice’ which refers to his leg, which had to be amputated following a botched stunt. The race stretches out on a 14.5km track that goes on for 24 hours with each car alternating between two drivers throughout the race. Driver Michael Delaney (McQueen) is known as one of the best drivers of his generation and is rivaled only by Ferrari driver, Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch). Delaney must do everything he can to win the race whilst still being haunted by an accident that took place in the same race the year previous, in which he caused an accident that resulted in the death of Ferrari driver Belgetti. Lisa (Elga Andersen), Belgetti’s widow and friend of Delaney, still blames McQueen’s character for her husband’s demise, but slowly comes to admire him.
The film’s style and production is often compared to that of a documentary, with only a small portion of the film actually resembling a narrative. Excluding the 5 minute opening sequence before the credits, the constant establishing shots combined with zero dialogue give the film’s opening 40 minutes the feel of an actual televised race. It’s only until Delaney takes his first break from driving that we are introduced to the idea of a plot. This, however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing; the film’s director Lee H. Katzin wanted to avoid the addition of an over-the-top Hollywood plot or twist, and along with McQueen who notoriously interfered a lot with the film’s direction, simply wanted to create a film about racing. This is supported with the use of real-life race footage from the actual 1970 Le Mans race and, with exception of McQueen, the avoidance of big name actors who might divert the attention away from the cars.
The absence of dialogue is a feature that serves for the entire film and not just the opening 40 minutes. The roar of the cars’ engines is only occasionally drowned out by the stadium commentator who serves as a substitute for dialogue between characters by giving us information about the status of the cars, racers and the race itself. Specifically, the film goes without any dialogue for 37 minutes and, throughout the film, a lot of dialogue is suppressed through characters whispering in ears and the use of the stadium announcer. This mainly goes back to the idea that this is simply a film about racing – the cars are the stars, not the actors. To put it even further into perspective, the sound of cars is actually more prominent than dialogue and even in scenes where there is conversation, the sound of cars can still be heard in the distance.
This overall style of the film gave it the tone of an actual race and not necessarily a movie. Whether or not that is truly what McQueen and Katzin wanted didn’t matter as, to other critics, this gave the film a lack of identity and an uncertainty of what it was trying to be. Despite this, Le Mans is still seen as the ultimate racing film, even by today’s standards – spectacular and extreme close-up shots of the cars at full speed provide an adrenaline rush that make you feel part of the race. The lack of an overzealous Hollywood plot creates a genuine atmosphere where anything can happen and tension is always high. On the other hand, the lack of character development and an absence of more than one big star name makes it arguable that the tension isn’t really there and you’re not really concerned about the fate of a character or the race. With that aside, McQueen still delivers a trademark iconic performance, not necessarily pushing his acting skills to the limits, but taking on a more advanced role in filmmaking, and projecting his creative side.