Steve McQueen was the biggest movie star in the world in the late nineteen-sixties, and had his pick of projects, but films were not his biggest passion in life: driving fast was. He had participated in many motor races before he took part in Le Mans of 1968, the famed twenty-four hour competition, and come a creditable second behind Mario Andretti who only just beat him, that in spite of McQueen driving with a broken foot that he had received in another, recent motorcycle race. Thanks to this, when the chance came to make his own film, with his own production company, about the sport, he was in no doubt about what the subject matter would be: he would create a personal epic about Le Mans.
Which was either very brave or very stupid, and you would waver between those two choices watching this documentary about that turn of the sixties into the seventies period when McQueen's ego simply went rampant. Because of this film, his 1971 release named after Le Mans, we are told to believe he lost a huge part of what made him the major player in the entertainment world that he was, and along with that lost much of what had made him the private person in his life away from the big screen. The tension in the story was emphasised by directors Gabriel Clarke (son of Alan Clarke, the great television director) and John McKenna, which wanted you to see McQueen as the hero.
Only he was a deeply flawed hero, and they did not skimp on the anecdotes that portrayed him in a poor light, tales of his egomania resulting in dreadful judgement and riding roughshod over those who should have really mattered in his life. Among the statistics were that when the free love movement hit Hollywood, McQueen ignored his wife, the singer Neile Adams, and bedded a dozen different women every week, and though she was more or less loyal to him it did not matter when he could get as much sex as he wanted, largely from anonymous encounters with what amounted to groupies who sought the thrill of sleeping with a movie star. But that wasn't going to kill him - driving at incredible speeds around a race track might have.
It didn't as it turned out, but the shoot of Le Mans was so disorganised that it was a minor miracle nobody was killed. This documentary was a testament to how some people can get through a highly dangerous situation they have devised themselves without a scratch while others around them suffer: McQueen lost some of his closest friends here (some of whom are interviewed) because he could not get anyone to agree to his vision of how the movie should be approached, he wished for a near-documentary style that was all about the racing, though not unreasonably the studio and his associates pointed out that a solid script was necessary to pull all the endless footage together, much of which is on display in this. But what McQueen did not want was a rerun of the John Frankenheimer-James Garner motorsport movie Grand Prix.
You got the impression that he despised that production mainly because he was not the star, but the irony was that his Le Mans was not a million miles away from it, since they both displayed filmmakers caught up and lost in love with the pursuit of racing cars, often to the detriment of any conventional storyline. We were looking at this from the perspective of McQueen having been dead from asbestos-related cancer ten years later, and the directors had secured tapes of interviews with the star from just before his death, not that you heard a whole lot of his observations. His son Chad McQueen, an erstwhile actor who was nearly killed himself in the sport that his father had introduced him to, took a central role in the documentary, offering his understandable hero worship which offset the rather less laudable accounts of Steve McQueen's activities, including it had to be said causing two near-fatal accidents while making Le Mans, one of which needed the amputation of a leg of one of the drivers he admired so much. The film got a lot out of his system, and the glamour had gone for him by the end; it didn't do much at the box office, but has since become a cult film, though this absorbing if vacillating work unintentionally makes the case it didn't deserve to be.
[Noah's DVD has a bunch of featurettes that look like edited out footage from the main film, so if it whet your appetite for more, dive in.]