Making Le Mans nearly destroyed McQueen, new documentary reveals
How the legendary race film came close to finishing off the King Of Cool
"He was not Hercules, he was Icarus. Steve wanted to fly so high, but he couldn't tell when the wax left his wings..."
These are the words of John Klawitter, the on-set documentary maker during Steve McQueen’s 1971 classic race flick Le Mans. It’s a rather metaphoric description of a Hollywood hero who, for a few months in 1970, pretty much lost the plot.
In fact Le Mans didn’t have much of a plot at all, and that was the problem. McQueen was so obsessed with capturing cars and the sweaty realism of racing that he neglected the storyline almost completely. For him, motor racing wasn’t merely a competition, but a full-contact blood sport, and he insisted on filming the battle at full racing speed.Advertisement - Page continues below
So the cars took precedence over any meaningful narrative and – as they shot reel after reel of action, using pioneering rigs and techniques to provide a level of authenticity motorsport had never received on screen – the production quickly ran over time and over budget.
Although filming had begun during the real 24 Hours race in June of 1970, it ultimately continued well into November, when the crew were forced to paint the leaves green so it still resembled summertime.
Yet despite the presence of Klawitter’s behind-the-scenes film crew, many stories never escaped the set, and the real drama has never really been told. Until now. Indeed, Klawitter didn’t make that Icarus comment in his own documentary, but in a new one, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, which opens in cinemas this month.
It’s said that more than a million feet of film was shot during the making of Le Mans, most of which mysteriously disappeared. But thanks to the efforts of directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna, much of it has been unearthed. They soon realised that the footage included unseen rushes from the camera car that entered the 24 Hours of Le Mans race itself. Bingo.
But as well as the onboard stuff, this treasure trove of material sheds new light on the making of the movie, backed up by contributions and anecdotes from those closest to it.Advertisement - Page continues below
“The making of the film was, in many ways, a lot more dangerous than the race itself,” says Derek Bell, five-time winner of the famous 24-hour race and part of McQueen’s on-screen driving crew.
Yet despite being a sports car veteran, it was only when Bell was pretending to race that he suffered his worst accident, when his car caught fire on location. He escaped, but suffered nasty burns to his face. Another British driver, David Piper, lost half a leg in a crash during filming. McQueen himself suffered only emotional damage, but that was arguably harder to stomach in the long run.
It cost McQueen his marriage (despite his wife being on set, he was a hopeless adulterer, and according to one contributor, “his trailer was never empty”). It cost him his reputation as a big-time producer, especially when the movie was ultimately misunderstood and poorly reviewed by critics. Some say it ultimately cost him his enthusiasm for making films, and that he never returned to his Sixties magnificence (Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair both came before Le Mans).
Most of all, it endangered McQueen's reputation as the undisputed King of Cool. Almost. But some would argue that the very things that made him so difficult to be around were the same things that made him so irritatingly attractive. So what if he was moody, detached, bloody-minded and determined? Suck it up.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is in cinemas from 20 November