Le Mans, Steve McQueen Style

Steve McQueen was one of the great acting badasses. Not necessarily a brilliant actor (though quite good), but so entrenched in iconic badass roles that he began to define the stereotype. That role trends towards the “badass guy with sharp driving/racing skills”, because he strongarmed a number of directors into adding such sequences to films (the motorcycle bit in the Great Escape? All him). And it almost always worked. He did this because he loved cars. He also loved to race them.

This eventually filtered down into a personal project, the 1971 film Le Mans. For the 1970 running of the race, he and director Lee Katzin recorded the racing, but wanted to go a step further: McQueen (teamed with the also driving badass Sir Jackie Stewart) were going to enter a car in the real race to provide footage. Unfortunately their application was rejected, so they just did their recording with another car that was out there. 

But the overall effect they wanted to go for was to let the cars and the action do all the talking. Almost literally… there’s no dialogue in this movie until half an hour in, and even when it does start it’s quite sparse. And oddly, it works. The announcer at the track provides a little background info, but before long the rivalry between McQueen’s Porsche team and the Ferrari team are apparent without anyone having to actually say it. This is absolutely a movie of show, not tell. Possibly the greatest example I’ve ever seen.  

Of course, not everyone really gets that, so it didn’t do especially well at the box office of the day. Stepping back and taking a big picture view, I can see why. Not everyone is drawn in by racing, and you kind of need to be to understand this film. It’s not like it’s some sweeping magnum opus or even, really, an action movie. It just structures a very calm, reasonable plot around a race.

I really quite like it, even if I know most folks won’t get it. And as a side commentary about certain other kinds of sports/racing media, the effect of watching a real race with the real audio, and not having some jackass yammering over it, is incredibly appealing.