Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is a documentary film about the making of a movie- the 1971 misfire Le Mans, a passion project of Steve McQueen, the King of Cool who after the successes of his previous films could seemingly do no wrong, but proved ultimately undone by his obsession. Its one of those tales of ambition and excess and the folly of over-reaching that is so familiar to movie fans, tales the like of which can be an obsession of their own. Whether it be the disaster-turned-triumph of Apocalypse Now, or the grand what-if of films like The Magnificent Ambersons, the making of movies can be as fascinating as the films themselves. I have never seen Le Mans, but from what I have heard of it, I assume that this documentary is more entertaining than the film it chronicles- for all I know, the film may be a masterwork, but I doubt it.
McQueen of course needs no introduction, he is one of the great icons of Hollywood, hardly ‘real’ now at all- star of so many classics (The Great Escape, Bullitt, Papillon, and so many others) he’s become more a screen legend, the real person lost in the shadow of those changeless, classic films that play over and over. One of the chief rewards of this fascinating documentary is the glimpse of the ‘real’ man – the actor, the producer, the flawed and monumental ego. It is surprisingly candid, painting McQueen in at times a decidedly unfavourable light: it is claimed by one interviewee that McQueen, at the time married with children, was a serial adulterer on-set, bedding as many as twelve women a week during the shoot. His passion for racing cars off-set as well as on-set endangered the lives of others, and when he crashed a car with beautiful co-star Elga Andersen alongside him, he bullied his personal assistant to take the blame rather than risk losing control of the project. On the other hand, many of the racing drivers and colleagues appearing in the film talk of the star with great respect and affection.
The film’s main problem was that it was being shot without a script, filming at Le Mans both during the 1970 24-hour race (McQueen intended to take part in the actual race, but the films insurers put a stop to such daring ambition) and then spending months at the track recreating the race with professional racing drivers, one of whom lost half a leg after a bad crash. The films biggest problem was that no-one, it seemed, could crack the script, measure it up to McQueen’s ambition to create the definitive, ultimate racing movie. Alan Trussman, screenwriter of McQueen’s earlier triumphs Bullitt and The Thomas Crown Affair, described a bruising meeting with the star, after which he never worked again in Hollywood: “I was the highest-paid screenwriter in town when I went to that meeting,” Trussman recalled, “and after that meeting, the phone never rang again.” McQueen’s role as producer caused increasing friction with the film’s director, John Sturges (of The Great Escape and The Magnificent Seven) who walked away from the project. Finally the panicked studio took control of the movie and diluted of its star’s grander ambitions, finally cobbled together a releasable movie from the millions of feet of film, which was released to poor commercial and critical response. It was a bitter experience for McQueen.
Its one of those stories of the corrupting power of huge success and wealth, someone reaching the top of the mountain and finding the only next step is down, and the all-too familiar tale of a film running out of control. Its a surprisingly affecting film, in which the candid treatment of the actor (part Coolest Man Alive, part Total Asshole) allows us a fascinating glimpse of, as one interviewee puts it, McQueen as Icarus, over-reaching and too close to the sun. Ultimately, regardless of the Silver Screen dreams he now appears in forever, he was only human, living as so few of us could ever dream of.
Steve McQueen: The Man and Le Mans is currently available on the BBC iPlayer, and also on DVD and Blu-ray