Fast Thoughts: McQueen’s Tragic Triumph

Over three years ago, on the 22nd November 2015, I was meant to drive from Falmouth to Plymouth to review the British documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans. I never made it to the screening, rivers and cars don’t mix apparently. The film the documentary inspired , however, should have been better. But was it?

It follows the making of the film Le Mans, released in 1971, it was semi-fiction, semi-documentary. The plot was simple. McQueen plays Michael Delaney a Porsche factory driver and Siegfried Rauch his Ferrari piloting rival Erich Stahler. The film centres around their encounter at the Le Mans 24 Hours. 

Delaney (McQueen) and Stahler (Rauch) during one of the few bits of dialogue in the film. 

That’s the fiction, now for the reality. The year before the film was released a team from Solar Productions, McQueen’s production company attended the 1970 Le Mans 24 Hours. They filmed the race and entered a Porsche 908/2 camera car to get some on track footage. They actually had an outside chance of winning the race if they decided to stop filming in the middle of the night. For the sake of the film they carried on.

So Le Mans. In short it was real footage sculpted around a plot that had Hollywood’s brightest star at the heart of the action and production. The combination looked like a guaranteed recipe for success.

It wasn’t. Firstly because a film needs a script, which Le Mans didn’t have. A film also needs a director, Steve McQueen fell out with Oscar winner John Sturges. It also needs to be on budget and on time. Le Mans was none of those things. It was a film that ended in chaos, that didn’t deliver at the box office and left McQueen in a dire psychological state.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans, with its interviews with McQueen’s son Chad, ex-wife Neile Adams and eventual director Lee Katzin, to name but a few, delivers this story of chaos with behind the scenes footage.

These interviews, including one with Steve McQueen in the late 1970s, combined with once thought lost footage found under a soundstage in Los Angeles along with film from people who worked on the project, eloquently untangles Le Mans and the people behind it.

The film pushed the boundaries of film making but was badly planned out

However, like The Room by Tommy Wiseau, it has lived on and been given life by those who the film was primarily aimed at. Though the film may have tried to appeal to the American public it was the motorsport community whose heart it touched and who it was really for. 

The film today has a cult following amongst motorsport fans who love it for it’s raw nature and aural orchestra. We love how the dialogue and plot take a subliminal role to the V12s of the Porsche 917s and the Ferrari 512Ms (a.k.a. the Coda Lunga) as they battle side by side on the long, pre-chicane, Mulsanne Straight and through the old Porsche Curves.


McQueen with driver David Piper who was among a group of professional racing drivers employed for the film. Piper would end up losing part all of his right leg from 4 inches below the knee in the making of the film after a crash at over 200mph in a Porsche 917. Despite this accident he would continue racing his own green 917 in historic racing events.

Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans then is about the making of McQueen’s tragic triumph. A film he never got to see praised by the community he felt most a part of. Its a story that is perfectly summarised by a quote from the late driver in which he says, “A racing driver can’t tell you why he races, but he can show you”.

Watch Le Mans then, and be shown.

Or don’t. Sadly the film itself is not downloadable but DVD copies compatible with consoles are available on Amazon and Ebay.

As for the documentary, you watch it on the embedded link below for free.  


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