“You got motor racing, you got Steve McQueen. Whaddya got? You got everything! This can’t miss!”
That, recalled former Cinema Center Films employee Bob Rosen in Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s absorbing, if slightly baggy, documentary, was the view of everyone involved with McQueen’s 1971 motor racing movie Le Mans. At least until filming began.
McQueen was hot as lava after back-to-back successes The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, a film famous for its magnificent car chase around the streets of San Francisco.
Throw in director John Sturges, who’d previously worked with McQueen – turned him into a star, basically – on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and everything seemed set for a sure-fire hit full of high drama, tension, thrilling race scenes and a sprinkling of romance.
But McQueen had other ideas. Motor racing was his passion. He wanted to make a “pure”, authentic racing film, shot on location during the actual Le Mans race, that would make the audience feel as if they were behind the wheel, tearing around a track at over 200 miles an hour with the spectre of death sitting on their shoulder.
“He wanted to leave his scratchmarks on the history of filmmaking,” said McQueen’s first wife Neile Adams, whose marriage to the star fell apart during filming. Le Mans was supposed to be the film that defined McQueen as something more than just “a candy-ass movie star”.
What it did instead was rupture nearly every close relationship he had, including with his production partner Robert Relyea. It lost Cinema Center millions of dollars (the film ran over budget and was a critical and commercial flop) and almost cost the lives of a few drivers.
Clarke and McKenna use archive footage, out-takes, after-the-fact audio interviews with McQueen and interviews with key people, including McQueen’s son Chad, who’s inherited his father’s love of fast cars (and his hairstyle), to tell the story of an egotistical star’s grand folly.
It’s a portrait of the artist as a total jerk. The plan was to film the entire 1970 Le Mans race, then recreate it using the same drivers, including Derek Bell and David Piper. Six weeks into production, there was no script; all they were doing was shooting endless racing footage.
Alan Trustman – aptly-named, since he was the only screenwriter McQueen truly trusted – wrote Bullitt and was one of several people trying to knock out a workable script. After a heated meeting with McQueen, he learned the price of disagreeing with a superstar.
“I was the highest-paid screenwriter in town when I went to that meeting,” he said, “and after that meeting, the phone never rang again.”
Shooting the racing sequences was more dangerous than participating in the real Le Mans.
Derek Bell was lucky to escape with burns when his car burst into flames. David Piper, forced to do a dangerous piece of driving twice to allow for an alternative outcome to a scene, crashed and had to have his right leg amputated just below the knee.
Sturges discovered McQueen was a different man now. His ego had swollen and he was paranoid (to be fair, he had reason; his name was on Charles Manson’s hit list). As executive producer, he continually pulled rank on Sturges, who quit.
With filming three months behind schedule and $1.5m over budget, Cinema Center made McQueen sign control over to them and installed Lee Katzin, a journeyman TV director.
McQueen, soured by the experience, didn’t attend the film’s premiere and lost his interest in racing cars.
I’ve seen Le Mans; it’s no misunderstood masterpiece waiting to be rediscovered. The race sequences, shot with car-mounted cameras, are dazzling, but otherwise it’s a bore. Mind you, the documentary’s suggestion that McQueen stuck to safe fare like The Getaway and The Towering Inferno thereafter is wrong. In 1978, he starred in a film of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. Now that would be worth a documentary.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (BBC4) - 3 stars