Le Mans: Steve McQueen’s Race Movie

Though a failure in its initial release, this Steve McQueen star vehicle has developed a small cult of followers, due to its long and authentic sequences of car racing, some of which never before seen in a Hoollywood feature picture.

The project has been in the works for a decade, with John Sturges attached to direct, due to artistic differences, Sturges walked away and a new director, Lee H. Katzin of The Phynx, took over.

McQueen, then at the height of his popularity, is ideally cast as a champion race car driver, participating in the famed 24-hour race headquartered in Le Mans, France.

Though dedicated to Going for the Gold, McQueen finds time to romance widowed Elga Andersen.  McQueen may have been responsible for the death of Andersen’s husband during a previous car pile-up.

Sturges, who’d previously helmed Steve McQueen’s legendary motorcycle chase scenes in The Great Escape, would have done a better job.

Accurate in its depiction of the era, Le Mans features lots of racing but very little dialogue.  McQueen doesn’t engage in any conversation in the first reel.

Americans were not as enamored as Europeans towards Le Mans 24-hour race and foreign auto racing.

The movie was made five years after the epic-scale race movie Le Grand Prix, directed by John Frankenheimer and starring James Garner in a role that was first offered to McQueen.

McQueen plays Michael Delaney, positioned in strong rivalry with Ferrari team driver Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch). Delaney was involved in an accident the previous year at Le Mans, an accident in which the driver Piero Belgetti was killed.

Early in the movie Delaney spots Belgetti’s widow Lisa (Elga Andersen) buying flowers, and drives his 1970 Porsche 911S to the scene of the accident.

There is visual pleasure to be had in observing the sights and sounds of Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, iconic racing cars.

The race itself is a fierce competition between the Porsche team (based on the JW Automotive Engineering team) and their main rivals, the factory Ferrari team. As the race is 24-hour long, the cars must have at least two drivers, allowing for much needed rest and social interaction for the resting drivers.