Much derided in the 70’s and 80’s, when it was a tv staple, Steve McQueen’s passion project comes up rather differently in 2021; popping up on the BBC iPlayer for the next couple of weeks, this motor-racing drama was seen as one long gruelling race back in the day. These days, skipping the contrived soap-opera drama and heading straight for the hard driving thrills is exactly the way to go; we love immersive experiences, and that’s exactly what Le Mans delivers.
There’s already a feature length documentary dedicated to the filming of Le Mans; the takeaway is, The Great Escape’s director John Sturges left the project, and McQueen’s ego got much of the blame for running over budget and not delivering on the commercial coolness of the initial McQueen-and-car premise. With Lee H Katzin in the director’s chair, but McQueen calling the shots, Le Mans was shot in and around the 1970 version of the notorious 24 hour race, and the granular detail is remarkable. There’s not a single line of dialogue in the first 40 minutes as we examine cars, mechanics, adverts, spectators, catering, nearby funfairs, more cars and pretty much everything about the racetrack setting. McQueen plays top driver Michael Delaney, first sighted as he watches the widow of another driver buying flowers to put on her husband’s grave. That’s just about all we need in terms of character and motivation, and all we get.
Racing car dramas lend themselves to the screen; Grand Prix and Winning both mixed stunning footage with tepid drama, but Le Mans is far more radical and modern than that. The relationships between the drivers are elliptical, and often expressed through awkward silence, although McQueen cannily gives himself a killer monologue to deliver near the end. Luc Merenda and Elga Andersen add to the glamorous Euro-chic credentials, and the whole thing looks great.
Actually, strike that; seen in widescreen and 1080p on the iplayer, Le Mans looks more than great, it looks phenomenal. With no sets, no back projection, and exhaustive attempts to film actualities, McQueen managed to make a film that has dated in no way, and actually matches if not surpasses the technical standards of today’s film-making. Like a bottle of wine put down with care, it’s aged astonishingly well, particularly the Peckinpah-style slow-motion for the crash scenes. McQueen’s 70s career is more notable for what he turned down than what he made, but it’s obvious that he put everything he had into making Le Mans a monument to the obsessional nature of sport, and the merging of documentary, fiction and wish fulfilment is high-octane stuff for purists and petrol-heads alike..
Le Mans is currently (Aug 2021) on the BBC iplayer and on the Amazon link below.