‘Le Mans’ or — McQueen vs. Reality?

I was told that the Steve McQueen film ‘Le Mans’ (1971) was best viewed as a time capsule and that’s certainly the case as the entire movie serves as an excellent document of early Seventies racing. It is, indeed, a great time capsule.

Which is just as well because viewed as a movie its fucking awful! In fact, I don’t even think ‘Le Mans’ qualifies as a movie because isn’t a film supposed to have things like a plot and characters or ANYTHING to hold the viewer’s interest? Christ, this movie was dull.

So whats ‘Le Mans’ about? Well, Steve McQueen plays a racing driver… and that’s it! Seriously, there is nothing else, nothing more to ‘Le Mans’ than that. As I said, this isn’t a movie at all but more a documentary about Le Mans that Steve McQueen decided to turn up and photo-bomb.

The film was made because McQueen was a racing nut and had enough clout in Hollywood to make whatever he wanted. So he made this, a love letter to both racing and film which is ironic as the end result is enough to put anyone off both racing and cinema for life. This might be the most tedious movie ever made and considering it involves sports cars racing at high speed then that’s quite the achievement.

The main problem, apart from lack of any form of identifiable story, is that the race Le Mans itself isn’t that exciting, being essentially an endurance test as opposed to a race. This means ‘Le Mans’ is severely lacking in any form of variation. Frankenheimer’s far superior ‘Grand Prix’ (1966) consists of three individual races, all of which vary vastly in tone, style, meaning, reason and energy. ‘Le Mans’ on the other hand is pure monotony where we are simply watching the same thing over and over again. The only real variation that occurs is day turns into night then back into day so if your idea of pulse-pounding excitement is simply observing the day/night cycle play out then you’ll be blown away by this.

This also extends to the sound design which although technically excellent is aesthetically mind-numbing. Most racing films will have all sorts of sonic shit happening — gears shifting, tires squealing, acceleration, deceleration, crashes, etc. But because the cars in ‘Le Mans’ are all moving at such a constant pace then the noise is nothing more than a drone, an almost static hum. Combine that with the fact that the only real dialogue comes from the static drenched voice of a Tannoy then ‘Le Mans’ is like watching, and listening to, a Dalek play Scalextric for 106 minutes.

There’s also no real visual indicator as to who is out in front so there’s no excitement to the actual race itself. Also, is the film about the race or McQueen? We don’t know and are never told so we never care.

Sometimes thing do happen. At one point there’s a crash and a driver flees his vehicle before it explodes so the editor milks it to death with about thirty slow motion cuts that drags the entire fleeting moment out to what feels like minutes, possibly because something exciting has finally happened. Then, about a minute later, there’s another crash which the editor shows us TWICE with the second time, again, in glacial slow motion, possibly because something exciting has finally happened.

At one point McQueen’s character, when asked why he races, says “When you’re racing, its life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.” So if this is what his life is all about, if this is the pinnacle of excitement in his existence then how fucking boring must his life be when he ISN’T racing?! It beggars belief.

Towards the end McQueen’s team manager says he wants the team to win. This is the first, and ONLY, piece of dialogue that explicitly states any intention, drive or intent on anyone’s part. It’s the sort of stuff screenwriters bed down at the start of a script so the audience knows what it’s all for and about. But here its spoken twenty minutes BEFORE THE END! So NOW you give us a reason to be engaged! GAAAHHH! I hate it when a movie turns me into Lucy from Charlie Brown and boy, ‘Le Mans’ left me in full on Lucy mode last night.

The story behind the making of ‘Le Mans’ is vastly more entertaining than the actual movie itself. At one point the producers had to fly over to France from Hollywood, possibly because they had the hunch that a movie with no script, narrative, plot, characters, dialogue or drama could be a subtle sign that something was not quite right.

Not that it’s all bad (although it pretty much is). The cinematography is nice and there’s a technically mind-blowing camera move when McQueen passes a Ferrari that’s spectacular to behold, but none of this expertise behind the camera can save the fact that’s there’s nothing of interest going on in FRONT of the camera.

The only real sense of rivalry going on in ‘Le Mans’ is the one throbbing just off screen and that’s the clash between the world of racing and Steve McQueen’s rampant ego because this movie is a massive indulgence on McQueen’s part where he gets to place himself inside his favourite sporting event and pretend he’s won. The only tension is wondering who is going to win — McQueen’s delusion or the brute force of reality. And that’s it. That’s the only drama there is in this insufferable, tedious, boring, dull, unvarying, monotonous, wearisome, irritating, inert “movie”.

And I still think Steve McQueen looks like a less crinkly Sid James. At least I had that to think about to get me through this.

Comedy writer, radio producer and director of large scale audio features.