Le Mans (1971, Lee H. Katzin)
Steve McQueen, one of the true great Hollywood screen legends, was known to be an avid driver. Small wonder that in one of his most popular films, Bullitt, the greatest action scene, perhaps the only genuine action scene, is a phenomenal car chase through the streets of San Francisco. A racing film per say would, therefore, feel like the most perfect fit of all. The famous actor had in fact attempted to create what he wanted to be viewed as the ultimate racing film, but the rights to the material that had caught is eye went to someone else, who then had John Frankenheimer direct said movie, titled Grand Prix (another entry in this very marathon in fact). It was therefore towards the legendary Le Mans 24 hour race that McQueen turned his attention to.
Le Mans 24 hour race, relatively unknown in North America where Nascar and Formula 1 arrive 1st and 2nd in popularity ranking, had occurred on an annual basis since the early 1920s. The event is held just outside the town of Le Mans, in Northern France. Drivers from all around the world arrive for, as the name of the event suggests, a race twenty-four hours in duration. Naturally, for safety purposes, teams are equipped with multiple drivers. At one time the number was set to two but in the recent decades it was augmented to 3. McQueen, sporting one of those very, very 1970s hairdos, is American Michael Delany, who represents the Porsche team, more precisely a Porsche 917. His closest rival, albeit on strictly professional terms, is unsurprisingly the Ferrari team, which operates a Ferrari 512. From 4pm to 4pm the next day, through sunshine, rain, wind, light and dark, the teams race around the deadly, treacherous track. Any mechanical damage too significant to ensure safety means a car results a team's disqualification. With so much on the line, teams push themselves to the limit, which in turn increases the risks. At the start of the film, Michael is driving up to the location of the event the day before. He stops at a particular spot on the road and reminisces about the terrible accident that befell him and a fellow driver the previous year. Michael was fortunate to walk away with his life. His competitor did not benefit from such luck. What will this year's race have in store?
Le Mans is a curious little movie. Actually, in fairness to the size of the production and the impressive efforts of the crew, the more just way to phrase that term is to write that Le Mans is a curious big movie. It is evidently enough not a documentary given how the film does have a script which inserts little narrative threads and that Steven McQueen, who is the star, was never in the 1971 Le Mans race. Nevertheless, director Lee H. Katzin and his crew, with the full backing of McQueen who was incredibly enthusiastic about the project, went over to France in 1970 to shoot warm up laps and parts of the race proper. Said footage, much of which is absolutely exhilarating, is heavily featured in the picture, thus making Le Mans a hybrid film in which documentary account meshes with the fictional journeys of some of the most popular and recognized racers involved, such as the fictional Michael Delany. The result, albeit impressive for its technical and visual qualities, is somewhat off putting at times, for reasons that will be explained in this review.
It is incredibly important to make clear that the first half hour or so of the film is exquisitely made and, when weighed next to the remaining 75 minutes, may just make up the most engaging portion of the film. The opening scene, which sees Michael recollect the nightmare from a year before, is suitably effective in setting a specific mood, not to mention dropping a crucial hint to the audience that anything can happen at Le Mans, so get ready. From there on and for the next 25-30 minutes, there is absolutely no dialogue whatsoever, save some introductory and explanatory narration provided by an announcer via speaker at the event who, even though he is speaking to the men and women in attendance, serves as the guide for any viewers who may not know how exactly the 24 hour Le Mans works (a neat trick, it must be said). So far as character dialogue is concerned though, there is none of it. A series of images, clearly documentary records from the 1970 race, depicts the early morning hours and lead-up to 4pm sharp when the cars are off and running. There are attendees waking up in their tents and in sleeping bags, breakfast and lunch being served, racers preparing their gear, mechanics checking the engines, salutes, crowd waving, some national anthems, etc. It is, essentially, a window into this fascinating world in which the driver and his car and king and prince, or vice versa. There are typically two sorts of documentaries made. One is very controlled, in which a director narrates and invites guests as talking heads, engaging with the subjects. The other is what that first half hour of Le Mans is like, where the director chooses interesting things to shoot and takes a go at it, presuming that the audience is capable of filling in the blanks. It is not as though the footage is all that difficult to understand anyways.
The raw footage continues to appear later in the film as well, although it is interspersed within some forced, confining drama which can easily take the viewers out of the picture. In truth, such stories probably really do occur. When men are risking their lives for something that in the grander scheme of life appears so petty, their women will understandably be concerned. Talk of this being 'the last race before retirement', friendly and unfriendly rivalries, meeting up with old acquaintances and even a former lover. Maybe these things do happen at the race track. They do not necessarily make for a great entertainment, least of all in a movie of this nature. Later this week Grand Prix will be reviewed (unseen at the time this article is being written), and that could very well end up being fantastic. Then again, that film is known for being a genuine drama. In Le Mans, director Katzin and star McQueen are are doing double duty, using brilliant documentary material and then from time to time inserting paper thin character development. Steve McQueen is Steve McQueen. The man was the essence of cool in his time and if compared to today's big screen icons, he would arguably still rank highly among those surveyed. Seeing him suit up for action, revving up his engine and participating in parts of the race (the actor did much of his own driving) is fun, but his presence, as well as the presence of various others actors, feels unnecessary when the film desperately tries to have a 'story' to tell. The score, courtesy of Michel Legrand, proves to be just as uneven as the overall picture. It attempts to punctuate the drama of the story rather than the drama of the race, therefore delving into very exaggeratedly romantic cues. Perhaps it would have fit another film better, but not in Le Mans.
The film's greatest strength lies with the racing footage. In Le Mans, no artificially created narrative can compare to the thrill a minute speed and excitement of the actual race. There is nary a camera angle that feels incorrect or hinders the immersion, with many of the shots perfectly capturing not only the thrills involved, but the danger too. The final sprint to the finish, in which multiple vehicles are but separated by a hair, is quite a scene to behold.
As an opportunity to see what the actual event is all about, Le Mans proves adequate. There are some fantastic moments to be seen during the competition, not to mention that the buildup is, while less thrilling, no less interesting. Ultimately, the picture suffers from its own insistence on developing a plot, which is all the stranger given that hardly any of it, save Michael's flashback, is explored during the entire first third. Racing aficionados, if they have yet to discover Le Mans, should love it. Those in search of a solid drama will come away empty handed.