Purpose-Built: Looking Back at LE MANS

On paper, the 1971 racing picture Le Mans possessed all the requisite elements to be a massive box office success: Steve McQueen, race cars, high stakes, and an exotic French setting. But despite all the cinematic firepower therein, it stands as a somewhat notorious failure. It didn’t earn back its estimated $7.6 million budget nor did it strike a nerve with critics or audiences in any wide regard at the time of its release—though it’s since grown a dedicated cult following. Despite its considerable pedigree Le Mans is a beautiful, compelling, and fascinatingly anti-commercial experience.

In addition to part of a stuntman’s leg the famously embattled production cost itself the marquee name of John Sturges—Director of The Great Escape, The Magnificent Seven, and Bad Day at Black Rock, among others—who quit after growing tired of McQueen’s obsessive grasp over nearly every aspect of the production. While television veteran Lee H. Katzin was hired on to fill Sturges’ absence, it was still McQueen’s show.

The first thing one’s likely to notice while watching Le Mans is that there’s no spoken dialogue for the first 37 minutes of its 106 minute runtime. This first clue of the film’s inextricable oddness gives way to backstory told through hazy, impressionistic montages rather than explicit exposition. The actual story being told is almost made to take a backseat to presenting a poetic, but ultimately utilitarian documentation of the famous annual race. If this film was presented to someone who didn’t know who Steve McQueen was, they could be told it was a documentary and hardly be any the wiser by the time the credits roll.

The intricacies of the race itself are hinted at via commentators on loudspeakers around the track, but none of the rules are laid out for the uninitiated. Remember the poker scene from Casino Royale? The one where Giancarlo Giannini explains the rules of Texas Hold ‘Em to Eva Green? This movie is the polar opposite of that. There’s no audience surrogate. No handholding. It’s a mood piece that happens to feature thrashing, powerful machines, cutthroat competition, and terrifyingly violent wrecks.

The story of McQueen’s famous racer Michael Delaney grappling with his past and chasing his future is a somber, elegiac affair. He seems to be at turns haunted by the accident that claimed his rival Belgetti’s life the previous year, and concerned with the undertaking at hand and younger drivers eager for victory nipping at his heels. These themes are far from radical for a sports movie, but the presentation is once again where Le Mans starkly distances itself from the pack.

In between some of the most breathtaking, pioneering racing footage ever filmed and the requisite roar of super-powered engines, McQueen and the other drivers are shown almost exclusively in quiet moments. Wandering around the decidedly unglamorous, muddy grounds of the racetrack, hiding out in their trailers, answering inane queries from reporters, eating, and trying any way they can to create some headspace not dominated by the potentially deadly reason they’re all there to begin with. Scenes are not so much transitioned to and from as dipped in and out of. Drivers yelling pointers about track conditions and car idiosyncrasies into one another’s ears are drowned out almost totally by roaring engines and frantic pit crews. The visuals are striking and iconic, from McQueen’s jumpsuit to the blue-faced Heuer Monaco watch strapped to his wrist, to the blue and orange paint job of the low-slung Porsche supercar he drives; but like a race car itself the story itself is sleekly unadorned and made for speed. Extraneous parts are cut for weight and stripped from their moorings, fragile, aerodynamic fiberglass covering precisely engineered mechanical wonders.

It seems like nearly every measure possible is taken to strip a movie about the star of Bullitt as a race car driver of its commercial potential, but the result is a fascinating mixture of thrilling automotive action and an almost documentarian level of immersion in a world that McQueen was obsessed with. 

It may not have been ready-made fare for the moviegoers of 1971, but Le Mans is without a doubt one of the weirdest cinematic moves by a star at the height of their powers and one strange and beautiful ride.