Le Mans – A Cinematic Review

“When you’re racing, it… it’s life. Anything that happens before or after… is just waiting.” – Michael Delaney, Le Mans.

Le Mans is a 1971 racing film, directed by Lee H. Katzin and starring Steve McQueen. Directed as a response to the 1966 film, Grand Prix, which Steve McQueen had hoped to star in, Le Mans is a homage to the legendary French 24-hour endurance race.

The film focuses on a professional American racing driver, Michael Delaney, as he competes in the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. Racing in one of the Porsche 917s entered by Gulf Oil and John Wyer Automotive Engineering, Delaney returns to the race after a devastating accident the previous year, in which a competing driver was killed. This time, though, Delaney is in contention for a victory, but the race is long and arduous, taking its toll on cars and drivers, and he must compete with the drivers of the Ferrari 512s, including a German rival, Erich Stahler.

The plot, frankly, never gets very deep in this film. The story is simplistic, merely forming a backbone for the racing action. To truly understand the film, one must know the history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and the history of Ferrari and Porsche. One must know about the domination of Ferrari during the early 1960s, cut short by a vengeful Henry Ford; the underdog status of Porsche, class winners competing for an outright win; the close finish in the 1969 race, where Porsche was denied a victory 120 metres from the line at the hands of an outdated and overweight car driven by a remarkable rookie and the ingenious plan by Ferdinand Piech to take advantage of a loophole in the FIA rules, leading to the barely-concealed prototype that was the Porsche 917.

There isn’t much characterisation either, and apart from a few brief looks at the rivalry between Delaney and Stahler, the growing relationship between Lisa Belgetti, wife of the driver killed in Delaney’s accident in the 1969 race, and several of the drivers in the race, and a subplot involving a driver intending to retire after the race, most of the characters remain one-dimensional and unexplored.

However, the film compensates for these missing elements with some of the most intense and realistic racing action ever seen in the world of cinema. Le Mans is a film made long before the introduction of CGI, and the scale of the film rules out an over-reliance on stunt doubles. Instead, extreme steps were taken to ensure realistic, believable racing action – some of the racing footage is filmed from the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. Steve McQueen, owner of the production company, went as far as to enter his own personal Porsche 908 sports prototype into the race itself for use as a camera car, and would have entered the race in his own right had his insurers agreed.

Internet cookies go to anyone who can spot the camera car in this shot.

Even the original footage was filmed with the drivers going flat-out. As a result, the racing action looks completely real throughout the entire film. The cars slide around the corners, kept in check with opposite-lock, and scream down the straights, eventually reaching in excess of 230mph on the terrifying Mulsanne Straight. Just as importantly, the cars sound completely real throughout the entire film as well, with the high-pitched screams of the flat-12 Porsche and V12 Ferrari engines, along with the raspy notes of the back-runners in their flat-6 Porsche 911s.

The attention to detail in this film is mind-blowing. Along with the actual footage of the cars captured from the racing camera car and the sides of the tracks, the rest of the racing action shows a true knowledge of racing from the production team. Drafting manoeuvres can be seen as the leading Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s leapfrog each other, the “traffic” from the drivers in the lower classes is accurately depicted, and both of these become plot points at various points in the race. Flashing lights from the overtakers can be seen several times, and the night and rainy racing are dealt with in a consummate and skilful fashion.

The low visibility and slippery track make racing in a wet twilight an unenviable prospect.

The pit action doesn’t suffer either, with anti-static clips connected to the chassis during refuelling, drivers leaving their cars as mandated by ACO rules, and an accurate depiction of the uncomfortable and dangerous conditions which the mechanics found themselves in. Some of the attention to detail is so subtle that one won’t often notice it until a large contrast is made, including cars which acquire dirt throughout the running of the race.

With this attention to detail to the racing, one may logically assume that the rest of the film suffers as a result. However, despite the minimalistic plot, Katzin and McQueen manage to show not only the race on the circuit, but also the people attending the race. There are various fantastic shots of people sitting by the track, attending the carnival outside the circuit, and even a homage to the original Le Mans start with a race between toy pedal cars while the sports car race goes on alongside them.

Considering all of this detail, it seems strange that the plot is so simplistic, but while this will alienate the general viewer, the minimalistic approach will certainly satisfy racing enthusiasts. At its heart, this film is very much a niche film, eschewing many Hollywood conventions to bring the most accurate depiction of racing at the time to the screen. Even the mandatory Hollywood romance is dealt with in a subtle and slowly-paced way.

Nowhere is this minimalism more apparent than in the dialogue. Indeed, the character with the most lines is the track commentator, and most of the main characters have very few lines, including Michael Delaney. Even then, most of the lines said by the main characters are focused on the race itself, and more is said through body language than dialogue, but in among all of this, Delaney expresses succinctly the reasons why the drivers risk their lives in such powerful cars, making the viewer very aware that some of the world’s most daring deeds have been performed by men with flawed personalities.

While most of the soundtrack is provided by the roars and screams of the cars, some of the scenes are backed by a great ensemble of music by Michel Legrand, which helps establish the mood without becoming overbearing. The sound elements of a film in this fashion are as important as the visual elements, and the engines certainly suffice in providing their own sonic impact.

Two Porsche 917s on the exit of Tertre Rouge, entering the legendary Mulsanne Straight.

Le Mans is certainly flawed in various respects, including the simplistic plot and the one-dimensional characters. However, at the same time, it is a marvellous film, showing attention to the smallest details in a way that rivals the films of Stanley Kubrick. By all means, it is a niche film, and won’t be enjoyed by the general audience, but for racing enthusiasts, it’s unmissable.

Bottom Line: Le Mans is a racing film for racing enthusiasts. The uncompromised view of some of the most amazing cars ever made will satisfy any petrolhead, but the simplistic plot and lack of dialogue will alienate most viewers.

Recommendation: A must-see for racing enthusiasts, but give it a miss if you’re not a fan of the automobile. A great present for the budding petrolhead.


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