Summer of Sports Films: Le Mans

Le Mans illustration by Jeff Schwartzbauer

Le Mans – 1971

Dir: Lee H. Katzin | Starring: Steve McQueen, Siegfried Rauch, Elga Andersen, Fred Haltiner

Sport: Auto Racing

Review: Steve McQueen is an American race car driver participating in the 24 Hour race at Le Mans. In the previous years event he was in a terrible accident that resulted in another drivers death and he has to brace that burden while also pushing he and his car as close to the edge as he can.

I’ve not seen a film (outside of a documentary) put such a laser focus on a single sporting event in the way Lee H. Katzin has with the Le Mans 24 Hour Race. This film is a love letter to every single aspect of the spectacle. For motorsports fanatics this must have been a godsend in 1971 because there would have been no way, short of flying to France, to see this event with such detail. I have to assume television coverage for an 24 hour endurance race was sparse at the time and its unlikely they would’ve captured even a 10th of what goes on. The films rawness is almost to the experimental levels with long wordless stretches of film, minimal score, and the lens capturing so much motorsport minutia. The hollywood forumula is sacrificed to present things as honestly as possible and showcase the warts and all nature of the event. The drama and excitement is all there just dolled out in waves and doses as the real world race would but captured from far more angles than ever could have been before.

There is some additional plot to try and break things up and give a bit of depth to the characters. It is welcomed, but unfortunately the dialogue and performances during these scenes isn’t crafted very well. Steve McQueens star power did little to overcome the word that spread of the film not exactly being an action-drama most audiences would expect and the film was a box office flop.

I highly recommend this movie for film buffs for at the very least to see how a sports film will never be produced again. Filmed at the real event, with real crowds, real rain, and real cars. Every ounce feels and looks as authentic as anyone could ever hope to achieve. Having just seen trailers for the upcoming Ron Howard film “Rush” I can tell you that the synthetic glob of CG that film is trying to pass off as 1970’s auto racing is pretty embarrassing compared to what was captured in this film. If you can be patient with a films pacing I highly recommend this very unique work.

Its seems an actual offical trailer does not exist on Youtube, so here is the 2 minute segment of the race’s start. I think it does a good job of representing the film:


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