Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is a riveting documentary about Steve McQueen the man and the filming of his 1971 racing passion project Le Mans. Despite never even seeing Le Mans this doc paints a compelling account of all the behind scenes drama, much of it caused ironically enough by McQueen himself.
By the late 1960s Steve McQueen was the biggest star in Hollywood. He could have his pick of any movie he wanted to make. His lifelong love of racing was the catalyst for his desire to putting it on film and share with the world. The 24-hour endurance race in Le Mans, France would be the setting for the film, in which McQueen would star and every possible effort would be made to capture the reality and thrills of auto racing onscreen. It sounded like the makings of a blockbuster film that would dazzle audiences.
It didn’t quite work out as well as everyone hoped.
The documentary recounts how production of the movie started to spiral out of control almost immediately. Original director John Sturges was faced working with not only a powerful star, but also McQueen in the role of executive producer who wasn’t scared of overriding his decisions.
Script after script were vetoed by McQueen who was searching for I suppose something perfect. Meanwhile, cameras continued to roll to document the race and hired drivers were performing. Essentially no one knew what they were making.
The studio was concerned, drivers were taking live threatening risks, serious accidents occurred on camera and off, Sturges walking away, filming was halted, the budget increasing, more pressure placed on McQueen and still no actual story was in sight. Many principals who were involved recount the tales of the production in some pretty raw interviews, along with McQueen’s ex-wife and son who were staying in France with him at the time.
There’s some excellent footage from the production. They shot millions of feet of feet of film for it, so apparently a lot of it has never been seen before. Along with some of the interviews done at the time, it gives you a taste of what they were trying to do in the racing scenes and how time consuming it must of been.
It’s kind of amusing to hear interviews with Sturges from the set and how confident he’s trying to sound, but meanwhile we know they have no idea what they’re doing.
The doc gives some background as to McQueen’s talents behind the wheel. He was not just an actor playing a part when he’d rev the engines in his movies, but he knew exactly what he was doing.
It also illustrates the pressure he was under in his personal life. Not only keeping quiet his sexual liaisons with women, his worries the film could be cancelled at any given time, the risks he was taking on the racetrack but also the physical threats he faced from others. The guy was invited to Sharon Tate’s home the night of the Manson murders! When he later learned he was on the list of targets by Charles Manson it’s no surprise he would be stressed and worried.
One thing I really liked about The Man & Le Mans was how the film didn’t try justify McQueen’s behavior. He might have been cool, but he was not a perfect person. He was obviously stubborn, arrogant, unfaithful, there were huge ego clashes, many sound quite irrational (of course we’re not privy to McQueen’s version of them).
It didn’t seem like he was going to make any compromises for the film or in his personal life – good or bad. When he felt betrayed by someone, legitimate or not, that was the end of his relationship with them. The title of the doc The Man & Le Mans is very accurate, since it’s as much of an insight into who McQueen was as the making of his movie.
If I had a quibble about the doc is that the text directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna decided to use was somewhat small and hard to read. The film also tries to end on something of a redemptive note with McQueen having made Le Mans which was not well received at the time, but becoming a beloved film with racing enthusiasts.
I suppose that’s a minor victory, but it seems like it fell far from the aspirations it was originally envisioned to be. But overall it’s very well put together and had me completely engulfed in its story.
It’s a fascinating examination of moviemaking gone mad. Le Mans might have been started with the best intentions by McQueen, but soon it evolved into such a troubled production it’s amazing that the film was ever completed at all. Film buffs and McQueen fans should really find it an enlightening doc. It certainly made me want to see Le Mans now, just out of curiosity.