At the zenith of his popularity, Steve McQueen sought to take control of his career. By the late ‘60s, he was already the biggest film star in the world, with earlier box-office smashes such as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) solidifying his star power, and the success of Bullitt (1968) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) cementing his bankability as leading man.
He’d set up his own production house, “Solar Productions”, and he was intent on creating a film the likes of which no one had ever seen, about a story that was especially close to his heart: the story of race-car driving. More specifically, he’d set his sights on creating an epic about the “24 Hours of Le Mans”, the world's oldest active sports car race, considered the most exciting and dangerous race in the world, held annually since 1923 near the town of Le Mans, France.
The resulting movie, Le Mans, was a box office flop and critical failure at the time of its release. The production was riddled with conflicts, budget excesses, a war with the studio, months of delays, and unfortunate accident that left one driver without a leg. Yet, it remains the most discussed, debated, and beloved auto racing film of all time.
That’s because racing pumped through McQueen’s veins. While Le Mans wasn't the first race car film of the era, McQueen was determined to make it the first race care film free from special effects or artifice. He wanted to capture the actual feeling of bouncing around in a Porsche 917 at 185 mph., to capture the smell of fuel exhaust and burning rubber, to feel and hear the roaring vibrations of innumerous V12 engines ripping through a legendary course.
That meant filming real cars and real professional drivers, racing at real speeds, in real time. With a budget of $6m (about $37m today), Le Mans was filmed on location on the Le Mans circuit between June and November 1970, including during that season's actual “24 Hours of Le Mans” race in mid-June.
McQueen’s personal Porsche 908/2, which he’d previously co-driven to a second place in the “12 Hours of Sebring”, was entered in the race by McQueen's Solar Productions, complete with heavy movie cameras capturing actual racing footage.
Additional footage shot after the race used actual Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512s, in competition liveries. Though depicted as the factory-backed Scuderia Ferrari team, the 512's used were borrowed from Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters after Enzo Ferrari refused to supply cars for a movie in which the Porsche team wins.
What the film lacked in storytelling, it made up for with speed, sound, and tenacity. Considered by many one of the best pure racing movies ever made, Le Mans is less about narrative and character development, and more of a visual poem about our love of fast and beautiful machines, and how that passion can result in both heroic and destructive consequences.
Steve McQueen was a real life racing fanatic, and Le Mans was supposed to be his cinematic dream come true. But the movie’s on set disasters and financial problems plagued the film, as did McQueen’s personal obsessions and dalliances. During the course of the film, McQueen would have a falling out with his most trusted writer, Alan Trustman, his friend and director John Sturges (who walked out, saying, "I am too old and too rich to put up with this shit"), and his longtime producer, the highly respected Robert Relyea. To boot, the film’s flop eventually led to the end of a 15-year marriage, severed ties with his longtime agent and producing partners, the collapse of his production company, and the loss of a personal fortune.
All this, and yet, he’d made his tribute, he’d finished his race. He’d created something special, a testament to human ingenuity and hubris, a film that remainsthe subject of consternation and fandom , an exuberant expression of speed and obsession.
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