Release Date: June 23rd, 1971
Directed by: Lee H. Katzin
Written by: Harry Kleiner
Music by: Michel Legrand
Cast: Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen
Cinema Center Films, National General Pictures, 106 Minutes
Upon its release in 1971, Le Mans was pretty much a big box office failure. Regardless of that, it was a big passion project for Steve McQueen and it was a film that had exceptional challenges in trying to make. In the almost fifty years since it came out, however, it has grown to be a beloved and well-respected movie.
The film is really a time capsule, especially for racing aficionados, as it truly gives an insider’s perspective of the 24 Hours of Le Mans from a bygone era. Today, the endurance race still exists but it has changed drastically. This shows the sporting event when it was more pure. It also displays iconic historical supercars in all their high speed glory.
While this is a fictional motion picture, it really plays like a documentary with small breaks in it where some acting takes place. The film might not resonate with many, as it sacrifices dialogue and story to showcase this amazing annual event in all its intensity.
When it comes to the story though, it is still pretty good and it is more emotional and introspective than something that needs a complex narrative or a lot of dialogue to keep things moving. McQueen’s character arrives to Le Mans, France in his Porsche and sees a woman buying flowers. Through flashbacks, we come to know that she is the widow of a driver that died in a crash in the previous Le Mans event. McQueen’s character feels responsible for his death and the public generally blame him, as does the widow. As the film goes on, he and the widow keep running into each other. There is an attraction there but still an awkwardness. McQueen crashes in the race and the widow’s concern for him becomes more apparent as her feelings grow. McQueen goes back into the race and he finishes it, unscathed and as he walks towards the widow, we are left wondering what will happen between them. It is actually a pretty poetic story and the way that it was executed, with minimal dialogue is pretty profound and really shows the acting talent of both Steve McQueen and Elga Andersen.
Ultimately, this is a very unorthodox film in how it presents itself. The story on the track is what takes center stage but the emotional bond between the two main characters and the film’s minimalist approach to that portion of the story is somewhat beguiling. There is a lot to be explored with these two characters but most of that is left to the viewer’s speculation and interpretation.
I love the 24 Hours of Le Mans event. In fact, it is my favorite annual sporting event. I also love old school supercars, especially Ferrari, which are the cars driven by our hero’s rival team. Therefore, I have a soft spot for this motion picture. Its documentary feel and its authentic grittiness is something that isn’t easily created in the CGI heavy films of today. Were this picture made in 2017, the vast majority of it would be shot in front of a green screen. McQueen went out to the real race, got in a car, took to the track and let the crew film him and the real racers. The action you see, for the most part, is all real.
I love Le Mans. I get why a lot of people might not have the same affinity for it as I do but it is still an incredibly unique picture and something that just wouldn’t be replicated today, in the same way.