Le Mans (1971) … Remembered
Le Mans (1971) stars Steve McQueen and tells the story of a race at Le Mans, France. I picked this movie up because I like Steve McQueen and I like cars more, so I had always wondered what this movie was like. The movie takes its time to tell the story of a single race at Le Mans and I’m not sure I needed that much detail about a single race. Steve McQueen has playing a cool guy down pat though.
This movie gives about as accurate a depiction as you can get of racing at Le Mans. This is perhaps the most dangerous race in history and I’ve read that it was quite a suicidal choice to participate. There were even injuries on the set. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much racing in a movie. It has therefore become a cult classic amongst motorcar enthusiasts, but I’d have to balk at the discussion about it being up there with the true, movie classics.
The movie has little dialogue, but does have some story. Somewhere. Steve McQueen basically races in Le Mans to honor his friend and that’s it. That’s the story. They show the tragic death of the guy, but that’s all there is. The rest of the movie is the race and how people are coping with the guy’s death.
The director makes some odd choices. His cuts oddly, he likes panoramic shots and zooming the camera in for that extreme close up. The pace is so slow at the beginning I wondered if I read wrong and was being shown a movie about the French countryside. That pace doesn’t change much. I then realized that the movie was more about the race culture and habits at Le Mans, rather than about any semblance of a plot. In this way, it has elements of a documentary, such as showing a massive crowd of people coming to the race and the detailed preparations at the event. If they were really going to show so much of the race preparations and details, I would have suggested a narrator.
The movie begins with Steve McQueen’s Porsche 911 coming down a long stretch of road. That car is awesome. The Porsche 911 driven by McQueen is famous and is really an impressive vehicle. In fact, most of the cars are nice to look at. You can see a lot of them at the beginning at the track and there is at least 10 minutes of prepping the cars, including the famous Porsche 917. I say famous because it is well-known to car lovers and die-cast collectors.
After about twenty minutes of shots around Le Mans, we finally get back to Steve McQueen. The camera follows him as McQueen walks onto the track. He looks at the race track. He squints. He puts on his helmet. There is no dialogue. Then we cut to other drivers doing the same. What? One guy inspects a car and watches a man roll tires. Steve McQueen waves to crowd and walks to his car. The same girl from earlier watches him get into his car and I think she was supposed to be related to the guy who died in the crash 20 minutes ago. Anyway, there is no dialogue, so I didn’t know. With a shot of a guy looking at his watch, I too wondered if this movie would ever get going.
The track announcer actually makes up the majority of the dialogue and tells us who the drivers are. We sit with Michael Delaney played by McQueen and experience the anticipation a driver feels at the time of the race. However, it is not dramatic, it is painstakingly drawn-out. As soon as they are off, I must admit there are some great shots of the cars racing. They bank. They turn. Their motors are loud. The camera waits for them to zoom past. Vroom. Repeat.
Music comes up as we apparently watch hours and hours of racing at Le Mans. The race takes place over a 24 hour period, so the cars in the movie zoom past repeatedly. And I mean repeatedly. We then get a shot of McQueen getting out of his car and trading places with his partner. The race apparently is a tag team competition. The movie shows McQueen helping himself to a darn salad bar for god’s sake, and focuses on the French racer instead of McQueen.
The French racer discusses his racing gig with his wife. He thinks about doing something else besides being a suicidal racer. The scene is too short and the wife simply acts too agreeable. We can sorta anticipate a bad accident based on this racer’s foreboding, bad feeling that he should be doing something else. That’s when things always go bad, isn’t it? He later goes to the hospital so the answer is apparently yes.
The girl Lisa, played by Elga Andersen, really has terrible delivery with her dialogue. Luckily, she doesn’t have much to say before we are back to watching cars go fast. We see the Ferrari versus Porsche battle at the end of the movie and that seems to be the best part, but it is hard to tell.
Steve McQueen wears a racing jacket in the movie, which was later saved. It was up for auction at Bonhams Nov 25. Will people buy it even though the movie wasn’t very successful? Check out my Bonhams auction post to find out.
The biggest problem in this movie is the script, the dialogue itself, and the absence of any pacing whatsoever. I think the racing itself drowns the plot, if there were any to begin with. The movie bombed at the box office mostly because of this, although does have a certain quality about it that differentiates it from lesser b-movies. I can see why people might still like it today for its realistic racing elements. Steve McQueen does his best here with what he’s given, but things are just too slow.
All in all, I think I can safety say that this movie takes realism a bit too far. While I don’t expect a Disney story, it’d be nice to have a balance of the movie’s elements and maybe some scenes that went somewhere. Instead we get some lessons in what a 24 hour race looks and feels like, including the length, unfortunately.