As someone with a lifelong passion for cars, most people who know me are surprised when I express my indifference to auto racing. Or at least the American version of it. I'm part of the crowd that dismisses it as a whole lot of boring left turns.
I've always preferred the European model of racing, in which competitors drive on real roads, in real conditions like rain or darkness. The endurance style of racing, typified by Le Mans, puts as much emphasis on the reliability of the cars as their speed, and the constitution of the driver in addition to his skills.
"Le Mans," the 1971 film starring Steve McQueen, is an odd duck of a movie. There really isn't much of a plot to speak of, other than the race itself. There's very little dialogue -- I don't think McQueen utters a word until almost halfway through the film.
Directed by Lee Katzin from a script by Harry Kleiner, "Le Mans" is really more a documentary of European racing. The first half in particular is an almost fetishistic orgy of shots of zooming cars, tires being replaced, men wrapping themselves in fire-resistant racing suits and the spectacle of the crowd. With all the close-ups of mechanisms and metal, it's practically racing porn.
McQueen, a serious racer in real life, had very specific ideas about how he wanted this movie to be made -- so much so that he clashed with the film's original director, John Sturges, several weeks into production. Sturges had directed McQueen in his star-making roles in "The Magnificent Seven" and "The Great Escape," but walked off the set.
The production was an amazing orchestration between fiction and reality. It was shot during the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans race. McQueen in fact intended to participate as one-half of a racing team -- at that time, two drivers alternated in each car -- but that idea was scrapped. But cameras were set up all over the track, and additional scenes were shot after the race using the same cars from the Porche and Ferrari teams.
The studio even entered a special car in the race equipped with cameras to record the action on the track. That car did fairly well, although the team didn't win because it had to make extra stops to swap out film reels.
So as one watches "Le Mans," you're seeing a combination of footage of the actual race and scenes staged for the movie, but using the exact same cars and equipment the real drivers use. It's the ultimate in verisimilitude.
Perhaps that's one reason why this film, which was a critical and box office flop, has gained a cult status among racing fans for its devotion to realism and detail.
Several crashes were staged for the film, including the one where McQueen's character, Michael Delaney, is distracted by a fireball from another crash and wrecks his own car. He's not out of it long, though, as the Porche team leader substitutes him into another car to replace a soon-to-retire driver who's gotten overly cautious.
There's also a romance of sorts, between Delaney and the widow of another driver (the striking Elga Andersen). Delaney was part of the accident that killed her husband a year earlier, and perhaps he feels responsible, so they exchange a few looks and bits of dialogue that suggest an attraction.
She asks him why men like him (and her husband) risk their lives for something that's ultimately unimportant. Delaney delivers probably the longest piece of dialogue in the movie, and the most memorable:
"A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it ... it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
The movie does not exaggerate the danger of Le Mans. Serious crashes happen every year, and in 1955 driver Pierre Levegh catapulted his car into the crowd, losing his own life and taking those of 84 spectators with him. Another 100 or so were injured.
I really liked the film's ending. Delaney and his arch-rival from the Ferrari team, Erich Stahler, are both waiting in the pits while their teams work out mechanical problems with their cars, numbers 22 and 8, respectively. In the down time, number 21 from Delaney's Porche team zooms by and takes the lead.
Stahler takes off and catches up with the 21 car, driven by a young and inexperienced driver. Delaney uses his vehicle to block out Stahler so he can't pass, preserving a win for the Porche team.
As the young drivers are feted by the crowd with champagne, Delaney stands alone, ignored, even though it was his actions that guaranteed the win for his team. He looks over at the driver he replaced and flashes two fingers twice, silently cheering their car and its decisive --if unheralded -- role in capturing glory.