Directed by: Lee Katzin
Produced by: Jack Reddish
Written by: Harry Kleiner
Starring: Steve McQueen
It’s extremely easy to describe the plot of Le Mans: there isn’t one. Sure, there’s a very rudimentary love story between star Steve McQueen and Elga Andersen, who plays the widow of one of McQueen’s friends and racing competitors, but, really, plot isn’t the point of Le Mans. This is a straight-up racing film, one that skirts the line between art film and documentary.
McQueen was a racing enthusiast, and was also notable racer. (You may recall that in the film The Great Escape, not only did he race across the border on a motorcycle in one of cinema’s greatest scenes, but he also played the role of the German soldier chasing him.) Thus, Le Mans was McQueen’s pet project; he spent several years trying to convince studio heads and producers of the film’s potential. After years of failure, McQueen financed the film himself, and thanks to his decision to film over the course of a summer (as opposed to shooting it in true 24-hour race form), he went over budget, incurring heavy personal financial losses. Additionally, the production was plagued with many of the real-life pitfalls and risks associated with the Le Mans race; most notably, driver David Piper was involved in an accident that resulted in the amputation of part of his leg.
In spite of these setbacks and problem, the results were stunning. McQueen focused on unique angle shots and edits that capture the exciting pace of the race, and though he’s the star of the film, the true star of Le Mans is the race itself. Several productions decisions at the time were received negatively, but in hindsight are recognized as brilliant moves.
Going into Le Mans, one should not judge the film in the same manner as a narrative production, because it’s not a traditional narrative film. Case in point: the first dialogue in the film does not occur until 43 minutes; most of the film’s dialogue comes from PA announcements and the noises associated with a racetrack. Additionally, some of McQueen’s techniques initially feel puzzling; for instance, repetitive flashbacks can confuse the viewer, not making sense until after the scene has passed.
Upon its release, the film received mixed reviews. It did not recoup; McQueen lost not only hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he also lost credibility as a film producer; he would only produce one more film before his death in 1980.
Watching the film today, its failure is puzzling, but not completely unjustifiable. McQueen was an action/adventure actor, but in Le Mans, he didn’t act. Moviegoers may not have appreciated the innovative camera work, and this pet project did not recoup.
Still, the negative reception and poor box office performance does not in any way negate the amazing cinematography and the overall quality of this superior, beautifully-shot film.