'Le Mans' Provides Actual Footage from the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans

“Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”

Le Mans

Director: Lee H. Katzin
Cast: Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Fred Haltiner
Distributor: Paramount
Rated: G
Release date: 2011-05-24

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.






Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.


The Flaming Lips Reimagine Tom Petty's Life in Oklahoma on 'American Head'

The Flaming Lips' American Head is a trip, a journey to the past that one doesn't want to return to but never wants to forget.


Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.


Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.


Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.


Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.


'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.


Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.


Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.


Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.


Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?


Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.


IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.


Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.


NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.


The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.