In June 1970, filming began on Le Mans starring Steve McQueen, fresh off the back of 1968’s Bullitt, and produced by his new company, Solar Productions. It would capture the essence of motor racing – McQueen’s passion – in a film set at the famous 24-hour race in France. The project had one small fault: there was no script. But hey, The Great Escape was made the same way apparently, and, you know, it was Steve McQueen.
Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s feature-length documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans (a subtitle both irresistible and a little toe-curling) shows what can happen when an actor is given more creative control than is good for him, or for anybody else involved. Le Mans was going to be McQueen’s baby, to “show why a man races” to an audience who didn’t have the disposable income, or the down time, to race Porsches for a hobby.
From the start the production was shaky. Beyond the matter of no script – something the film mentions, ooh, 27-or-so times – there were squabbles with the director and studio, blown budgets, ignored schedules, bad accidents (one driver had a leg amputated) and McQueen’s dissolving marriage (not helped by his rampant philandering; one associate interviewed said he was sleeping with around a dozen women a week, or as he helpfully breaks it down, “a little less than two a day”). Of course, it’s humanising to see that icons can have existential crises, too.
Stevan Riley’s recent documentary, Listen To Me Marlon, made a sympathetic case for Marlon Brando’s much-ridiculed social activism as a genuine attempt to make a difference to the world. McQueen, if one is being harsh, is less immediately winning. “You like speed, don’t you?” asks a journalist. “It’s nice,” he replies. His first wife, Neile, remembers his opening chat-up line. “Hi. You’re pretty.” (It was, at least, effective.) Also, as altruistic acts go, showing people how fun motor racing can be is arguably not at the top of the list.
How you feel about Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans will depend on how much you share his interest in fast cars. Admittedly the footage shot (approximately a million feet) is gloriously rich and thrilling; the then-innovative filming techniques included fixing cameras to a car competing in the 1970 Le Mans race to capture the action at 240mph. And there was certainly genuine feeling on McQueen’s side, as the film’s somewhat-fawning talking heads attest.
As vanity projects go, Le Mans was certainly not the most worthy, but damn it if it doesn’t make your heart race a little bit faster. And, you know, it was Steve McQueen.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is out on 20 November