In the documentary “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” about the making of McQueen’s passion project “Le Mans” — a dynamically filmed but dramatically inert racing saga released in 1971 to tepid reviews and middling business — the actor-producer is likened to Icarus, the mythical figure with wax wings who flies too close to the sun.
It’s the kind of hubris suffered by many superstars over the course of Hollywood history, including McQueen’s contemporary, Marlon Brando, whose 1961 Western that he directed and his company produced, “One-Eyed Jacks,” which, like “Le Mans,” went over schedule and over budget, and sunk the method actor’s designs to be a filmmaker in charge of his own projects; while McQueen’s spiritual offspring, Kevin Costner, suffered his own Waterloo with “Waterworld,” the 1995 flop he produced that was also plagued by cost overruns and filming setbacks.
Like Costner at the time of “Waterworld,” McQueen in the late ’60s was riding high from such hits as “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt,” the latter of which brought a fresh level of gritty realism and action to the detective film, and marked a considerable step forward for McQueen’s Solar Productions.
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With “Le Mans,” the actor-producer was not only determined to make a movie about a subject near and dear to his heart, but he wanted to control every aspect of production. For this he managed to recruit some of the best in the business, including some of Formula One’s leading lights as extras in the movie, but also the director who helped make him a star with “The Great Escape” and “The Magnificent Seven,” John Sturges.
According to Clark, the director and star had discussed making “the ultimate racing film” for five or six years. But the tables had turned on this latest project, and their chemistry together had changed for the worse.
“There was a shift around this period of time because he was allowed to be more than just the actor,” says John McKenna, who co-directed “The Man & Le Mans” with Gabriel Clark. “I suppose there was an increased ego, an increased power. Steve was very strong-willed, very stubborn, very, very keen to make sure that the part was right for him.”
Unfortunately for McQueen, having a finished script going into production on “Le Mans” was the least of his concerns.
According to Clark, the budget for “Le Mans” was about $6 million dollars, the most that Solar’s production partner, Cinema Center Films, ever worked with. “They went about one and a half million over budget,” says Clark. “essentially because they didn’t have a story. So they were filming a lot of racing scenes that were very costly, and different versions of scenes almost to cover themselves for all eventualities that might be written down by scriptwriters. Essentially the tail was wagging the dog. Steve was clearly incapable of putting down his own vision on paper in terms of a three-act story. That’s not what he wanted.”
What McQueen wanted might have been sabotaged by his inability to compete in the actual Le Mans race that was being filmed in 1970 for the movie, which the project’s insurers would not allow (McQueen had finished second in the 12-hour race at Sebring earlier in the year, bested only by Mario Andretti, so his racing bona fides were legit).
“That was the plan,” explains McKenna, “to be on the actual start line of that race. I think maybe he would have had the documentary material to do what he wanted to do and the studio would have realized that this is something extraordinary.”
As teams of screenwriters came and went during the course of production, McQueen’s intractability eventually sunk the project. Sturges would quit in frustration. And when Cinema Center took over the film, McQueen considered it a betrayal by his Solar production partner Robert Relyea, with whom he never spoke again, along with Sturges. His serial womanizing while making the movie certainly didn’t help matters.
Despite the film’s poor reception, it does have its champions, especially among the racing community.
“When you watch ‘Le Mans’ now, especially the first 35 minutes, it’s essentially a documentary and is in many way ahead of its time,” says Clark. “That’s really the vision McQueen had for (the entire movie).
“McQueen was very much a visionary; he was a very mechanical man, a very technical man. He designed these rigs onto which they put cameras onto the cars. These were ahead of their time, bringing you the sense of speed and exhilaration, and the drug of being behind the wheel…You have to balance the negatives with the positives of what he did achieve on film.”