I don’t care for racing. I don’t like NASCAR, or Forumla One, or Indie or stock car racing, or even demolition derbys. I don’t watch for the racing, nor do I watch for the crashes. I’ve feared for my life during every impromptu drag race I’ve been an unwitting participant in (always in the passenger seat) down Aloma or University. Honestly: I don’t even have a driver’s license.
But Steve McQueen’s Le Mans is, to me, one of the most exciting films I’ve ever seen.
If you explained the movie to someone without saying it was a Steve McQueen film, you’d probably get a blank stare and a shrug. There really isn’t much to the film beyond McQueen’s screen presence and the charm of a revving Porsche for nearly two hours. But when it’s Steve McQueen and a souped up racing Porsche, that’s more than enough to carry a film.
Le Mans is a 24 hour race in France where two drivers take turns racing one car and the film is portrayed as realistically as possible. It’s a race that McQueen himself has taken part in it, coming in second place behind Mario Andretti’s team in 1970.
The plot is the race, and the theme is overcoming demons to win a race. There are side characters and rivalries with other racers and car manufacturers, but boiled down to it’s essence, it’s all about the race. When you put it like that it sounds overly simplistic, but when it’s put in action by this group, the balls and guts behind it elevate it to something beyond. You feel the fatigue of driving in a way that you don’t in any other racing film. The race is edge of your seat stuff, and the portions when McQueen is resting are perfectly paced, and much needed, breaks from the action so you can collect your nerves and relax your ass muscles as well.
While you have to take movies like The Fast and the Furious or The Legend of Speed on face value and call them dumb fun, you couldn’t rightly call Le Mans dumb fun. There is a serious-minded bent to the film. There is so much riding on the race personally and financially, and doubtless some of the pressure from the film itself needing to be a hit (it wasn’t) comes through in the film as well.
It’s not meant to be fun, it’s meant to be exciting. It is fun, but not in the modern sense, where there is some resignation behind the sentiment, but fun in the gritty 1970s sense, like The French Connection and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three were fun, a sense that is now dead and will never return. In short, you don’t have to turn your brain off for Le Mans to make a connection and take hold in your brain. It’s all down to McQueen. By rights, you’d have to call this Steve McQueen’s Le Mans — he called the shots, he was the muscle that got the film made.
McQueen is, of course, a man’s man. He is probably the very definition of the term. There is a movie called The Tao of Steve that uses that idea as it’s basic thesis (though the thesis is sound, it’s application in the movie by Donal Logue is basically adolescent in nature). He’s done this stuff for real and it shows on screen. There is an easy confidence to him being on the race track that exudes from every pore of his being. He’s driven these cars in races. He belongs in that white and red racing suit, it’s as natural on his body as his short blond hair.
Of course, Mario Andretti just thought of him as an asshole from Hollywood, not as a real racer. Andretti, I think, was more terrified of losing a race to an asshole from Hollywood than he was of just simply losing, which is a position that you can certainly understand.
Andretti won at Le Mans, but McQueen won with Le Mans, even if it took years after the fact (and after his death) for that to come true.