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I can't wait for this to come out! Who else will be going to the theater to see it?
@NickJ I better get a thumbs up!

New documentary tells the story of McQueen's self indulgent but magnificent Le Mans

For all the cult status Le Mans enjoys now it was a Christmas-grade turkey when it was first released. Reviewers and audiences were bemused by a movie with little plot and even less dialogue. Even Steve McQueen, then one of the biggest stars in the world, couldn't save it. As the New York Times' critic put it: "the star's exchange of monosyllabic utterances and long, meaningful stares with other drivers, and especially with Elga Andersen, a sensitive-faced blonde, add up to tepid, monotonous drama."

Yet, 45 years later, Le Mans is regarded by many as the high watermark of motorsport films, the one that was brave enough not to fall for the genre's many cliches. It was filmed with real drivers in real cars, and driven at real speeds. Even the lack of a meaningful story isn't held against it any more (SPOILER ALERT: man goes to Le Mans, drives race, finishes second) as it gives more of a chance to revel in the period details of what's practically a beautifully shot documentary from the era when racing was the exclusive preserve of those with the clankiest trouser furniture.

Which brings us to another documentary, a new film about the making of Le Mans, which is being given a limited release in the US and which we hope will turn up on this side of the Atlantic some time soon. Look beyond its slightly cringy title, Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is a fascinating look at the battles and bust-ups that went on behind the scenes of Le Mans, and how McQueen's personal life was falling to pieces at the same time.

The film was an intensely personal project for McQueen, a real labour of love. He had used all of his weight as a major player to get it into production, with himself as executive producer as well as star. He was already a keen (and talented) amateur racer, and his determination was to make a 'real' motorsport film in contrast to the gimmicky and over-produced Grand Prix, Hollywood's previous attempt at a racing flick (and one McQueen had reportedly turned down the lead in.) After the huge success of The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt, McQueen practically had a blank cheque. One that he still managed to bounce while making Le Mans.

The idea was to make a film that would include both footage from the 1970 24 Hours race alongside sequences shot on the same track immediately afterwards. It was predictably expensive, the production company built its own village and recruited many of the star drivers from the real race to drive in the film's action sequences, for the princely sum - Derek Bell reveals - of $200 a day. Serious money back then. A specially modified Porsche 908 was also entered in the 24 Hours carrying three film cameras to gather footage, meaning much of what you see in the movie - including the complete in-car start sequence - is from the actual race.

The behind the scenes stuff is genuinely fascinating, especially seeing just how cumbersome some of the camera mounts fitted to the cars were. McQueen was insistent that all the on-track sequences be filmed at racing speeds, including some of his in-car reaction shots, and - this being sportscar racing's primed grenade era - the danger was equally real. Bell suffered facial burns when the car he was driving caught fire, David Piper lost part of his leg in a crash.

But the obsessive interest in the race meant little emphasis was put on making a film to appeal to what could politely be described as a non-geek audience. Filming began without a script and quickly started to run late and over budget. Pretty much all of the principal characters were involved in major bust-ups with each other, with veteran director John Sturges - who had made both The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape with McQueen - walked off the set. To save the film McQueen gave up his executive producer role and any hope of making money from it. By the time shooting finished it was November, months behind schedule, and the crew was having to repaint trees green so it would still look like June.

If the documentary about the film has a fault its one it can't really be blamed for - almost none of the major protagonists are still alive to talk for themselves. McQueen died in 1980 and his contributions are mostly limited to an audio interview he gave in the months before he died. Both John Sturges and Lee Katzin, the man who replaced him, are also dead, as is female lead Elga Andersen (whose real name, according to Wikipedia, was Helga Hymen.) McQueen's son Chad and his first wife Neile Adams are heavily featured, along with others including Bell and Piper, but there's far more of "Steve said" than Steve actually saying.

Overall it doesn't have the broad appeal that Senna managed, but if you loved Le Mans then its well worth seeking out when it does eventually become available over here.

Watch the trailer here.

 
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