If you see only one 44-years-later postmortem on a critical and commercial misfire this season, it might as well be “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” an inside-baseball documentary best appreciated by movie geeks with a taste for cautionary tales about superstar hubris, slow-motion trainwrecks and dream projects that devolve into, if not full-blown nightmares, then extremely rude awakenings. It might also attract longtime fans of McQueen, who died of cancer in 1980, as well as a few under-30 curiosity seekers interested in knowing what the “King of Cool” was all about. And, yes, there’s definite appeal for those fervent cultists who insist “Le Mans,” the 1971 film maudit examined here, is some kind of underappreciated masterwork, though there certainly aren’t enough of those folks to make much of a difference. Theatrical pit stops will be fleeting, but the movie could have respectable mileage in small-screen platforms.
Some of those aforementioned cultists will note that co-directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna cover much of the same ground (and use a smattering of the same interview clips) as “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans,” a 2001 doc featurette originally produced by the now-defunct Speedvision cable network (and included as an extra on the 2011 “Le Mans” DVD release). “The Man & Le Mans” offers a more complete picture — and is, by any reasonable measure, a superior piece of work — largely because Clarke and McKenna were able to draw on far greater amounts of archival material (including outtakes and promotional footage from “Le Mans”), interviewed many more eyewitnesses and participants, and gained access to after-the-fact audiotaped interviews with McQueen himself.
Even so, it’s still the same old story, a fight for elusive glory. McQueen, eager to exploit his international fame and box-office clout after the back-to-back 1968 successes of “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” set out to channel his passion for auto racing into producing as well as starring in the ultimate auto-racing movie. And, mind you, not your garden-variety Hollywooden auto-racing movie. McQueen envisioned “Le Mans” as a stripped-to-essentials, filmed-on-location, documentary-style view of the famed 24-hour race in northwestern France, with a minimal amount of dialogue, a maximum amount of intense and up-close racing footage, and character interactions so sketchy as to border on the abstract.
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Unfortunately, filming began in June 1970, and progressed for several weeks, without a detailed treatment, much less a completed script. Even more unfortunately, as “Le Mans” veered way over budget and long past a scheduled completion date, McQueen’s obsessive pursuit of perfection (or, if you prefer, his half-cocked, indecisive ego tripping) led to ruptured relationships — veteran director John Sturges, who had worked with McQueen on “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent Seven,” quit the picture after his star pulled rank too many times – and wretched excess.
In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, real-life racer David Piper recalls having to shoot a tricky driving sequence a second time because, since the script had not yet been finished, it had not yet been decided whether he would pass another driver, or get passed. He wrecked his car during the second go-round — and wound up losing part of his leg. Afterward, he pointedly notes, he never saw McQueen again. (On the other hand: Piper is visibly moved when presented with a copy of a letter McQueen sent to the movie’s producers, urging that proceeds from ticket sales for a premiere screening go to the driver. The request was ignored.)
The active participation of Neile Adams McQueen, the actor’s first wife, and Chad McQueen, his son, is only one indication that “The Man & Le Mans” is, to a large degree, an authorized biography. Indeed, even some of the more critical commentators seem to be bending over backward to express sympathy for McQueen’s determination to be taken as something more substantial than “a candy-ass movie star,” and to “break the film barrier” by eschewing melodrama and emphasizing verisimilitude. “He wanted to leave his scratch marks on the history of film making,” Neile Adams McQueen says.
And yet, for all that, Clarke and McKenna dish a fair amount of dirt. McQueen repeatedly is described as a serial adulterer — one interviewee reports he enjoyed at least 12 illicit assignations a week during the filming of “Le Mans” — and a pampered prima donna who relied on others to clean up his messes. (When he cracked up his car during a late-night, high-speed drive through rain with a beautiful co-star, he arranged for his personal assistant to take the blame, and had the whole incident hushed up.) He also is characterized as acutely paranoid — though, to be fair, not without some cause: McQueen, a good friend of hair stylist Jay Sebring, a victim of the Manson Family, discovered his name had been found on Charles Manson’s hit list when the cult leader was apprehended.
Ultimately, “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans” comes across as a portrait of the artist as a spoiled jerk, albeit a jerk whose charisma cannot be denied, and whose artistic ambitions elicit grudging admiration. Much like “Le Mans” itself can be admired for its technical virtuosity — the pre-CGI-era racing footage, much of it shot with cameras mounted on cars in the actual 1970 Le Mans race, still dazzles — even it remains, at best, a failed experiment in storytelling.
Clarke and McKenna sound a decidedly melancholy note at the end of their film, indicating that, after the failure of “Le Mans,” McQueen stuck to safe commercial projects for the rest of his career. But that facile judgment fails to take into account such subsequent movies as Sam Peckinpah’s “Junior Bonner” (1972), an affecting tale of an aging rodeo cowboy — or the little-seen, George Schaefer-directed film of Henrik Ibsen’s “Enemy of the People” (1978) in which a bearded and beefed-up McQueen appeared as the iconoclastic scientist Thomas Stockman. Consider the possibilities for a documentary about that curiosity piece.