Not only is the 24 Hours of Le Mans one of the oldest continuing automobile races in the world, it’s also a brutal endurance test where pairs of drivers continually drive the eight-and-a-half-mile course for 24 straight hours. Imagine that. Whoever drives the greatest distance in this time, wins. It’s a legendary event that draws enormous crowds of dedicated fanatics who create a circus-like atmosphere. Hollywood icon Steve McQueen, himself an accomplished driver and racecar enthusiast, numbered among the devotees of race. In the late ‘60s he set out to capture the experience, and the result was the 1971 film, Le Mans, which is now out on Blu-ray.
McQueen plays Michael Delaney, driver of a Porsche 917, who competes in the race despite having been involved in a horrific crash the year before, a wreck that left another driver dead. Over the course of the race he forms a connection with Lisa (Elga Anderson), the widowed wife of the deceased driver, a connection based upon their individual attempts to come to terms with the tragedy.
There are a couple of additional subplots, one between Delaney and his archrival Eric Stahler (Siegfried Rauch), who drives a Ferrari 512, the other emblematic car in the film. The other involves Delaney’s teammate Johann Ritter (Fred Haltiner) and his wife Anna (Louise Edland), and Ritter’s impending retirement from racing.
Plot, story, and character are secondary concerns in Le Mans. Okay, secondary is putting it a bit strong, these elements are present in the film, but not to the degree you generally anticipate in a major motion picture. The film is a near documentary look into the world of grand prix racing, and the bare bones story unfolds over the course of a single race. There is minimal dialogue. In fact the first meaningful exchange—the first beyond exchanges like, “Hi, Mike”—doesn’t occur until 40 minutes into the film. The film keeps its distance, taking a removed stance, and letting you be a fly on the wall during the build up to the race, as well as watching the drivers careen through the course.
Even within this nominal narrative structure, there is little overt story. Everything is subtext; long, pinched glances full of pain, and awkward conversations where the few words spoken dance around what the characters really want to say. More is written into character’s expressions than the actual script.
The real stars of Le Mans are the cars and their drivers. Much of the film is actual footage from the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans, which you learn about in the 23-minute bonus feature, Filming At Speed: The Making of the Movie ‘Le Mans’, where people involved in the project, including director Lee H. Katzin and McQueen’s son Chad McQueen, discuss the particulars of the production and the legacy of the film. Le Mans features more than 40 stars of the international racing circuit, and McQueen even did a great deal of his own driving.
Largely because of its lack of discernable plot and story, as well as a very specific, rather limited target audience, the film tanked at the box office, despite the star power of McQueen, who was fresh off the massive success of Bullitt. That hasn’t stopped Le Mans from establishing a cult following among hardcore racing fans. It’s full of enough pulse-revving race scenes to satisfy followers of the sport, for whom it is best suited, and serves as a genuine documentation of an iconic event, even though the film is fictitious.
In addition to what has already been mentioned about Filming At Speed, the extra delves into McQueen’s quest for authenticity in this film, his pet project. Topics include how the filmmakers created new technological innovations in order to accurately capture the skids and squeals of race day; near misses during productions; and how McQueen and the racing contingent butted heads with the studio over issues like how the movie had no script. I can imagine how the people behind financing a film like this might be ill at ease, backing a movie without a script.