Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans

If you read the stories surrounding the production of the film Le Mans, the ill-fated Steve McQueen racing passion project, then it sounds like the production of Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. Both films went massively over budget and over schedule, accidents occurred, cast and crew members dropped out by the day etc. But the chief difference between them both is that Le Mans was a lot less organised, and that is saying a lot.

Principal photography for Le Mans began without a finished draft of the script, and for what the cast, the crew, and the drivers knew, they were just shooting reels and reels of cars lapping over and over. This had a part to play in the film flopping at the box office plus receiving a middling reception. But for filmmakers, Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna, this means more for them. They present the Hearts of Darkness to Le Mans in Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, a feature-length documentary surrounding the production of the film and McQueen’s obsessive and dangerous desire for racing.

The film has a slick presentation, built from the ground up with archival photographs and footage, actual rushes from the film, interviews with several crew members working on the project and the cherry on top is audio of late-career McQueen talking about his regrets over making the film nearing his deathbed at the time. Weaved in-between is stock footage that works well enough to the film’s advantage. Often these encompass close-ups of passing gravel at high-octane speed or for little stories that beef up the pacing.

For example, after driving along a country road on a rainy night with two friends, Louise Edlind and Mario Iscovich, McQueen lost control of his car for not obeying the speed limit and crashed. The car was in shambles and Iscovich’s arm broke on impact, but McQueen and Edlind came out unscathed. Looking for local shelter, they found a car near a barn whom McQueen suggested to hot-wire, only for a French local to drive them off the land with a pack of dogs and a shotgun. Minus one injury, this unknown story never came to light because McQueen and Edlind didn’t have a scratch on them, so it allowed the actor to escape from any scrutiny.

Regardless of what people make of McQueen, whether he was a perfectionist with a heart of gold or a risk-taker who put his career on the line and several people’s lives in danger (the documentary does shed light on an accident which resulted in Formula One driver, David Piper, losing part of his leg during a very tricky shooting set-up). The film never ceases to paint McQueen as a person who still tried his hardest to get the project finished, no matter how much it cost him in the end. And even then, he still remained truthful to who he was in the light of things going horribly wrong such as Piper’s crash. During the final moments of the film, Piper is genuinely touched by an unseen letter from McQueen directed towards the film’s producers, urging that the proceeds from ticket sales go towards Piper’s treatment and recovery. Unfortunately, the producers ignored it and Piper never saw McQueen again.

But perhaps the biggest problem with The Man & Les Mans is that it doesn’t take many liberties in standing from any other typical making-of documentary. Yes, it provides a thorough and detailed account into what happened, but someone can gather it by reading the background information or by just watching the original film itself to get the hints into why it failed. On top of that, there are some oddball stories that don’t fit the narrative that the film is conveying and detract from the experience, such as McQueen winding up on a hit list by the notorious cult leader, Charles Manson. This small story states that McQueen was paranoid upon learning such terrifying news. But it doesn’t fit as a part of the jigsaw as neatly as it should. It feels like it was quickly mentioned in passing without proper development.

This relatively small and odd documentary on McQueen’s love for the sport and Les Mans’ troubled history appeals to two groups of fans. Those who are into racing sports such as Formula One, and those who are fans of “the King of Cool” himself. Whether you fall into either camp, you will be getting a fair share of knowledge, passion and the thrills and dangers of such a sport and a person. But most importantly, the film speaks to another audience despite having such a niche subject. It warns that whilst everyone should go out conquer their dreams, be ready when plans for said dreams slowly dissolve, sometimes this happens for nothing. McQueen learned these facts after the release of Les Mans, so it’s always important to have an alternative strategy.

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