Pros: A marvel of technique that places the viewer in the middle of the racing experience
Cons: Many viewers just won’t appreciate the way this film operates
Almost reminiscent of the 1970 documentary Woodstock in terms of the way it covers a real-life event, the 1971 film Le Mans is perhaps the finest auto racing film ever made. Chronicling the running of one of the world’s most well-known and dangerous racing events, the 24 hours of Le Mans – run each year on an eight-mile configuration that combines public roads with purpose-built racing corners, the film mainly follows driver Michael Delaney throughout the course of the race weekend. Honestly, the “story” here is almost non-existent and wholly irrelevant: director Lee H. Katzin focuses almost entirely on the racing action itself. The lack of a conventional story and minimum of dialogue means that Le Mans very clearly isn’t to all tastes, but in my estimation, the true flavor and essence of auto racing has never been better captured by a fictional theatrical feature.
The film begins with a scene that finds a lone Porsche street car whizzing through the French countryside, passing through rows of trees, town squares, and stretches of farmland before stopping on a remote section of road. Steve McQueen (playing Delaney with a confident but low-key swagger) emerges from the vehicle and stares intently at a newly-installed section of metal Armco barrier running alongside of street. To those unfamiliar with the world of auto racing, this may seem an inconsequential, pointless sequence, but to anyone who knows a thing or two about racing – and specifically, Le Mans – it has devastating implications. Any time a major accident occurs, the likelihood that this Armco barrier will be destroyed is relatively high, thus a brand new section of barrier indicates a spot where a possibly horrific accident occurred previously. This turns out to be the case, since a flashback sequence shows Delaney’s involvement in a crash that killed a fellow competitor the year before.
Shortly afterward, we rejoin Delaney in the midst of the hustle and bustle of race weekend, with the sounds of a distant PA announcer providing the on-site crowd (and in turn, the viewer of the film) with a sort of crash course in how the famous Le Mans 24 hour race operates. An intense sequence leading up to the race start is next, punctuated by a rapidly accelerating heartbeat, a piercing moment of silence, then an absolute explosion of roaring engines and screeching tires. The race itself, filmed from a variety of camera angles situated around the track as well as on, in, behind, beside, and around the actual racing machines, makes up the main body of the film, with some downtime popping up when Delaney relinquishes control of his car to a secondary driver.
The Porsche 917K, one of which McQueen’s character pilots in the film
The first genuine dialogue in the film occurs around the 38-minute mark, a fact which should provide some indication of how this film is constructed. Removing the action cues, Harry Kleiner’s script would easily fit on one typed-out page and seems to delight in giving the viewer only brief glimpses of a typical Hollywood-type story. Perhaps the amazing thing then is that a viewer is able to pick up on the major dramatic elements of the piece, many of which relate to Delaney’s interaction with the widow of the driver killed in the previous year’s crash. These two exchange a very limited amount of words between one another, but the knowing glances they pass back and forth speak volumes. Aside from this rudimentary subplot, all attention is paid on getting through the endurance (and some might say torture) test that is the 24 Hours of Le Mans, and things do get rather exciting as the race nears its conclusion.
Racing in the rain at Le Mans; the race also runs through a full night of darkness
Truth be told, it’s quite shocking to watch a feature film in which the conventional story elements are downplayed to the degree they are here, but the nature of Le Mans makes it much more an experience to behold rather than an entertainment picture to sit through. The masterful film technique on display here only accentuates that notion – sound design, editing, and cinematography featured are absolutely stunning. It’s immediately clear from the film’s opening moments that an absolutely colossal amount of footage was shot during the production phase (much of the filming took place during the actual 1970 race, with additional footage shot to accentuate the film’s narrative). From the mechanics in the pitlane to the massive infield area at the track, to the actual on-track action itself, there’s coverage of anything and everything related to the Le Mans race, and even sifting through this massive amount of film to assemble a coherent work had to be a monumental undertaking. The cinematography by René Guissart Jr. and Robert B. Hauser is not only gorgeous to look at but incredibly innovative. Trackside vantage points provide eye-popping glimpses of the race, but the in-car perspectives are truly hairy, sometimes uncomfortably so – sequences filmed from the cockpit and in the rain prove just how far racing drivers push towards the edge of catastrophe. These amazing images are combined with fabulous sound design that accents the gut-rattling roar of the racing engines as well as the alarming silence that drivers face while away from the cars. All these elements are edited together precisely (to a wonderful, jazzy score by Michel Legrand) to create one of the screen’s most jaw-dropping and authentic portrayals of auto racing.
One of several wild crashes in the film.
As I mentioned previously, Le Mans simply won’t appeal to everyone, but to car and/or racing enthusiasts, it’s simply a must-see. The 1970s were arguably one of the most thrilling periods in motor racing: the cars were wickedly fast, achieving speeds on the Le Mans circuit of some 230 MPH in spots – yet driver safety technology had lagged to the point where these vehicles were often described as “bombs on wheels.” The tracks themselves were often insanely hazardous as well, as evidenced in the film by the lack of a pit wall (literally, the mechanics servicing these vehicles were directly beside the racing line) and presence of a track-side runoff area that would virtually launch a car into the nearby forest. Though the fatal accident detailed in the film’s opening moments isn’t clearly seen, a pair of other nasty crashes feature prominently in the picture. One sequence, which finds a driver reliving the accident he just suffered in slow-motion while sitting in his mangled cockpit, pretty much nails what goes on in the mind of a racer following such a shunt, and I think the overall film captures the mindset of a racing driver very precisely and accurately.
No pit wall at the Circuit de la Sarthe in 1971 – fans of motor racing will be keen to note the many, many safety innovations that have been introduced since the making of this film
Over the years, audiences have gotten used to the “come from behind” story that features in sports movies of all types, but I was pleasantly surprised that Le Mans unveils a more realistic ending of the Rocky (I) variety. Combine its denouement with the documentary-like presentation of its story and Le Mans stands as the polar opposite of pictures like 1966’s thrilling but formulaic Grand Prix – to say nothing of the more recent, utterly loud and obnoxious Days of Thunder. It’s not at all surprising that audiences used to Hollywood endings and more or less predictable scripts wouldn’t quite know how to take this largely free-form and dialogue-free picture – it bombed at the box office back in 1971 – but I’m glad that over the years, the audience that could appreciate the picture has discovered Le Mans. For my money, this is the flat-out best motor racing film ever made and those interested in racing – or artistically-satisfying cinema – would probably enjoy it.
Widescreen format DVD includes the theatrical trailer as well as a take-it-or-leave-it featurette: “Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans.” One wishes there were more…
3/10 : A few incredibly violent auto racing accidents, showing the bloody aftermath.
1/10 : A single instance of the word “ass.”
1/10 : Apparent sexual innuendo on one occasion and plenty of onscreen tension.
4/10 : Not at all a movie the general public would appreciate, but it would hold significant appeal to the arthouse crowd and racing enthusiasts.
“Lotta people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.”