Le Mans (film)
Theatrical release poster by Tom Jung
|Directed by||Lee H. Katzin|
|Produced by||Jack N. Reddish |
|Written by||Harry Kleiner|
|Music by||Michel Legrand|
|Cinematography||René Guissart Jr.
Robert B. Hauser
|Edited by||Ghislaine Desjonquères
Donald W. Ernst
|Distributed by||National General Pictures|
|Running time||106 minutes|
|Budget||$7.6 million (est.)|
Released in June 1971 and given a G rating, the film is still popular today among race fans, as it is a relatively accurate depiction of the era. It features lots of racing but very little dialogue (there is brief dialogue approximately 6 minutes into the film, then the PA announcer at 11 minutes, more PA announcements at 14 minutes, with McQueen's first dialogue at 36 minutes into the film). Due to this, and to the American market's obliviousness towards the Le Mans 24-hour race and foreign auto racing in general, it was a flop at the box office in the United States. It followed in the wake of the similar but much more successful 1966 film Grand Prix (for which McQueen had turned down the starring role, given afterwards to James Garner).
With little plot and acting, the movie entertains primarily by the sight and sound of Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, iconic racing cars with lots of visual and audio appeal to racing enthusiasts. There are, however, some elementary plot devices. The race itself is a fierce competition between the Porsche team (based on the JW Automotive Engineering team, though the team is only called the Gulf Porsche Team in the movie) and their main rivals, the factory Ferrari team. Since it is a 24-hour race and the cars must have at least two alternating drivers, there is time for the resting drivers to have some human interaction. The main character, Michael Delaney (McQueen) has a strong rivalry with Ferrari team driver Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch). Delaney was involved in an accident the previous year at Le Mans, an accident in which a driver named Piero Belgetti was killed.
Early in the movie Delaney spots Belgetti's widow Lisa (Elga Andersen) buying flowers, and drives his 1970 Porsche 911S  to the scene of the accident and has a flashback. An interesting film technique is used at the start of the flashback. Perfectly round circles of perfectly white light do a jerky dance against a perfectly black background to the sound of 12-cylinder engines straining at high rpms, slowly blending into a real scene with real darkness and headlights and cars winding their way toward Maison Blanche, and the viewer. This demonstrates that Le Mans is not a fair weather or daytime-only event. Belgetti, while slightly ahead of Delaney, seems to have lost control of his red Ferrari due to going too fast through this area. Delaney in his white Porsche suffers a lesser crash an instant later caused either by the distraction or having to avoid the wreck. Lisa Belgetti however may think that Delaney is to blame.
Lisa is at the race because of her new relationship with a driver named Claude Aurac (Luc Merenda), although it appears they are friends, rather than romantically linked. She wears the same downcast, depressive expression throughout the film.
The plot develops in the thirteenth hour of the race, just after 5 a.m. on Sunday morning. Erich Stahler spins his Ferrari at Indianapolis Corner, causing his Ferrari teammate Claude Aurac to veer off the track in a major accident. Delaney is distracted by the flames of Aurac's car and suffers an accident of his own. He tries to avoid a slower car and collides with the crash barrier, writing off his Porsche. It is announced that Porsche number 20 and Ferrari number 7 have been involved in an accident. Although these are separate accidents, they were so close in time and place that it appears to the spectators, the pit crews and notably Lisa Belgetti, that the accidents are linked. Delaney and Aurac survive, but Aurac's injuries are far worse. In the hospital after the crashes, Delaney consoles Lisa Belgetti and rescues her from a horde of reporters. After he puts her in a waiting car, a journalist asks Delaney whether his and Aurac's accident can be compared to the one with Belgetti in the previous year's race. Delaney stares the journalist down and does not respond.
A subplot involves Johann Ritter (Fred Haltiner) and his beautiful wife Anna (Louise Edlind). He senses that she would like for him to stop racing and take up other employment. He suggests it, thinking she will be overjoyed. She demurs and says she would like it only if he likes it. He chides her a bit about not being entirely honest. Later the decision is taken out of his hands when the Porsche team manager David Townsend (Ronald Leigh-Hunt) replaces him for not being "quick enough." Anna tries to comfort him, reminding him that he was planning to quit anyway.
Meanwhile, Lisa Belgetti is strangely drawn to Delaney. She seems to want him to quit racing because of the danger, but he finds the thrill is too addictive. During their conversation, Townsend enters Delaney's house trailer (caravan) and asks him to take over driving Ritter's car. After a moment's unspoken communion with Lisa, he follows Townsend.
In the closing minutes of the race two Porsches and two Ferraris closely compete. The Porsches are driven by Delaney (now in car #21) and Larry Wilson (Christopher Waite) in car #22. One of the Ferraris, leading the race, suffers a flat rear tire and is out of the race, leaving just one Ferrari driven by Delaney's archrival Stahler (#8). Wilson is in the lead, but Stahler and then Delaney quickly catch up. Delaney passes Stahler for second place.
Delaney, on the right, sees slower traffic ahead in his lane and must slow down, letting Stahler pass him, and then follows Stahler in the left lane around the slower car. Then they both catch Wilson. Delaney could remain in the left lane to follow Stahler around Wilson and then try to pass Stahler, but he wants to gain both the top two positions for Porsche rather than winning himself.
Instead of remaining in the left lane, Delaney switches to the right lane immediately behind Wilson's bumper and alongside the overtaking Stahler. The drafting maneuver speeds up both Porsches, and they pull away from the Ferrari. During the maneuver, Delaney's Porsche bumps the Ferrari, and Stahler throttles back to avoid spinning out when his car goes partially off the pavement. Delaney then blocks Stahler, forcing him to remain in third position to avoid the guard rail.
Although Delaney does not win the race, he beats archrival Stahler, and Porsche takes the top two positions, relegating Ferrari to third. Although the movie does not explain why Wilson’s Porsche #22 is slower than Delaney’s #21, a hint may be found in that in the real race #22 had a 4.5-liter engine, and #21 had the more powerful 5-liter. The movie does make it obvious that Delaney is a team player and knows that if he went for first place Wilson would take third.
A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it... it’s life. Anything that happens before or after... is just waiting.
Team manager David Townsend:
Michael, I want you to drive flat out. I want Porsche to win Le Mans.
- Steve McQueen as Michael Delaney
- Siegfried Rauch as Erich Stahler
- Elga Andersen as Lisa Belgetti
- Ronald Leigh-Hunt as David Townsend
- Fred Haltiner as Johann Ritter
- Luc Merenda as Claude Aurac
- Christopher Waite as Larry Wilson
- Louise Edlind as Mrs. Anna Ritter
- Angelo Infanti as Lugo Abratte
- Jean-Claude Bercq as Paul-Jacques Dion
- Michele Scalera as Vito Scaliso
- Gino Cassani as Loretto Fuselli
- Alfred Bell as Tommy Hopkins
- Carlo Cecchi as Paolo Scadenza
Filmed on location during the 24 Hours of Le Mans race in mid-June 1970,  McQueen had intended to actually race a Porsche 917 together with Jackie Stewart, but the #26 entry was not accepted. Instead, in the movie, he was shown starting the race on the blue #20 Gulf-Porsche 917K, which in the real race was driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman. The race-leading white #25 Porsche 917 "Long tail" was piloted by Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens, Jr..
The Porsche 908/2 which McQueen had previously co-driven to a second place in the 12 Hours of Sebring was entered by Solar Productions to compete in the race, equipped with heavy movie cameras providing actual racing footage from the track. This #49 camera car, which can be briefly seen in the starting grid covered with a black sheet (at approximately 17:51) and again at just before the 79 minute-mark (at 1:18:42) racing past the starting line, was driven by Porsche's Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. It travelled 282 laps, or 3,798 kilometres (2,360 miles) and finished the race in 9th position, but it was not classified as it had not covered the required minimum distance due to the stops to change film reels. It did, however, manage to finish 2nd in the P3.0 class.
Additional footage shot after the race used genuine racing cars of the day, mainly Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 models, painted as real competitors which staged the main rivalry in the 1970 season and the film. According to rules, 25 of each sports car had to be built, so enough were available, compared to few if any of the prototype class. In the crash scenes, cheaper Lola T70 chassis were sacrificed, disguised with bodywork of the Porsche and Ferrari.
Despite being depicted as the factory backed Ferrari team, the 512's used were borrowed from Belgian Ferrari distributor Jacques Swaters. Enzo Ferrari had been approached to supply the cars but refused official Ferrari participation after reading the script and finding out that the movie ends with a victory for Porsche. Enzo told the producers they could only use the factory 512's if the script was re-written to have a Ferrari win the race. His request was refused.
McQueen had wanted to employ Christopher Chapman's new multi-dynamic image technique in the film, as had been done at his instigation with The Thomas Crown Affair, in which he starred in 1968. Chapman advised against it, much to McQueen's disappointment; in Chapman's words, “it was much too big a film, with too many writers; it wouldn't work that way.”
Despite the film's lack of success, the film now has a large cult following as it is considered difficult to replicate realistic racing scenes without the use of CGI and without an over-dependency on stunt doubles. Also the film tends to be used as a referencing point by motorsport and car media, when referring to the race itself. For example, at the time of the film’s release, a pitwall was added for the safety of pit crews as other circuits already had similar set-ups. Although the pit lane has been commonly used as a referencing point in the film, it was unpopular with both drivers and pit personnel for being cramped as well as difficult to get cars in and out of the pits, even when repairs were needed. It wasn't until following the 1990 race that the outdated pit lane was demolished in favor of a modern complex which is still in use today. In addition, the 1970 race was the first in which the famous Le Mans "running start", in which the drivers lined up against the pit wall and ran to their cars as the flag was dropped, was not used. Instead, the race started with the drivers already strapped into the cars. The previous year, Jacky Ickx had made his famous protest against the danger of the traditional start by waiting for all of the other drivers to run to their cars and start the race, before walking to his car and fastening his seat belt carefully before joining the fray and eventually winning the race with co-driver Jackie Oliver. Since 1971 every race began with rolling starts.
Ickx's protest was in fear that a driver could be seriously injured or even killed if involved in a crash soon after the start and they had not secured their seat belt correctly in their haste to get a fast start. This unfortunately came true on the first lap of that same 1969 race when British driver John Woolfe crashed his Porsche 917 at Maison Blanche and was killed.
The inherent danger is realistic. Racing driver David Piper lost part of his lower leg in a crash during the shooting. The conclusion of the race in the movie is similar to races of the period. The 1969 Le Mans race, two years before the movie's release, was decided by a few hundred feet, the closest unstaged finish in the race's history. In the 1970 Sebring 12-hour race, McQueen himself and partner Peter Revson were relegated to second place after Mario Andretti took over the car of Nino Vaccarella/Ignazio Giunti. Gulf and Wyer won Le Mans twice with Ford GT40s, and Gulf won once more with its Cosworth-powered Mirage car, but Gulf and Wyer never won Le Mans with Porsche.
- "Le Mans". Milwaukee Journal. (advertisement). June 22, 1971. p. 13.
- Huber, Jim (July 4, 1971). "'Le Mans' gives a gripping insight into racing world". Spartanburg (SC) Herald-Journal. p. D6.
- "car of the day". Carsinpedia.com. Retrieved 2010-11-25.
- "McQueen may join Stewart". St. Petersburg Independent. Associated Press. March 2, 1970. p. 5C.
- Williams, Jonathan (June 27, 2011). "Le Mans 1970". AutoWeek (Crain Communications Inc.) 61 (13): 24–28. ISSN 0192-9674.
- The Personal Vision of Christopher Chapman, CM, RCA, CSC, CFE, Ontario Film Institute; 1989 interview published March, 2010, http://www.csc.ca/news/default.asp?aID=1423
- Michael Keyser, Jonathan Williams, A French Kiss With Death, Bentley Publishers, 1999 - A lengthy, profusely illustrated and very readable history of the making of the movie
- Le Mans at the Internet Movie Database
- Le Mans at the TCM Movie Database
- Le Mans at AllMovie
- Sebring Results