Movie star and motor sport fan Steve McQueen went to every effort on set of his homage to Le Mans. But the results fell short for some who witnessed his efforts
Le Mans was the movie Steve McQueen most wanted to make. The ultimate bloke’s bloke was mates with Jackie Stewart and John Whitmore before they were Sirs, he raced his own Formula Junior Cooper and Mini Coopers, came second in his own 3-litre Porsche 908 at Sebring in 1970 with Peter Revson, and even entered a Porsche 917 at Le Mans that year with Stewart as co-driver to gather front-line footage for his movie, only for his insurance company to pull the plug. It wasn’t all ‘brash Yank’ Hollywood with McQueen.
Le Mans would be the 20th movie in his career. His top movies were Bullitt where he drove the lead car action sequences himself and The Great Escape where everyone remembers his motorcycle jump to freedom… except he wasn’t on the bike. He had tumbled in testing and wasn’t allowed to risk neck, reputation and cinema sales by hurting himself.
The 24-hour race at Le Mans had always fascinated McQueen and his experience over 12 hours at Sebring whetted his appetite. He wanted to bring the thrill to the big screen. He used to say that he wanted to make his grandmother in Montana, who knew nothing about motor sport, understand what happened in a racing car on the Mulsanne Straight at night. In fact he never had a grandmother in Montana. It was a figure of speech. “There’s so much about racing that’s real and doesn’t have to be dramatised or invented,” he said. “There’s the memorization of the circuit… driving as far as you can see by the beams of your lights.., the flash in your mirror as the faster car comes by…”
I’ve always felt that the real Le Mans race was probably 22 hours too long, but McQueen was captivated by the challenge of the historic event. On reflection, his movie was probably an hour and a half too long…
We had seen John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix movie and been reasonably appalled at the 1966 portrayal of Formula 1 and attendant intrigues off track. We thought it was awful. But that was before Le Mans. Steve McQueen was the star who would put motor racing back on its international pedestal, combining his motor sport passions with his talent on the silver screen, but he totally overdid it with lots of long, hard silences and smouldering stares.
Frankenheimer was forgiven in retrospect and Grand Prix is now worth another look, if only to recognise the famous racing faces in the background.
Barred from driving at Le Mans with Stewart, McQueen went to the race with a film crew. Shots were taken of him in helmet and race uniform standing in the pits or moving among the crowds. Nineteen cameras were set up at different points around the circuit, filming constantly, and a Porsche was fitted with cameras to get driver’seye-view footage of the race. Over 30,000 feet of film was shot, to be spliced in with the hammed-up making of the movie later in the summer, so that the actual race crowd was shown as a backdrop to the movie scenes.
I had been working with John Wyer and his Gulf-sponsored team at endurance races. Revisiting Le Mans as a journalist and being paid $100 cash a day for being in the filming was a bonus. In fact I never made it to the screen, although it came close on one occasion. They were shooting a pitlane scene supposedly in the rain with sprinklers drenching the car and everyone in shot. We were sitting across from the pitlane, laughing at the mechanics and photographers being hosed-down for accuracy before they went on set. Nigel Snowdon, one of the top photographers, took umbrage at our amusement and suggested to the director that he should have wetted journalists on scene as well. We were called over but I pointed out that if the scene were to be accurate, no journalist would ever have his notebook out in the rain. He agreed and Snowdon stayed wet while we stayed dry.
It was Snowdon who took the famous shot of McQueen giving ‘the fingers’ to an opponent, and it was Snowdon who had to point out that he was doing it wrong. McQueen was gesturing a back-to-front Tee’ like Churchill! That was before the up-yours gesture had gained international acceptance.
McQueen’s own movie company, Solar Productions, owned some of the cars in the movie and hired others from private owners like David Piper, Filipinetti and Jo Siffert. The Ferrari 512 that caught alight and burned out while Derek Bell was driving it back to the start of the filming was owned by Solar. Altogether it rented 37 cars to make the film, shutting parts of the Le Mans track for the action sequences not already covered during the race itself. These included five Ferrari 512s, five Porsche 917s, two Porsche 908s, one Matra V12, one Alfa T33-3, four Lola T70s, four Porsche 911s, one Porsche 914/6, two Chevrons, a Corvette, a Ferrari 312 and a Ford GT40 for use as a camera car.
One of the Lola T70s was disguised as a Ferrari and wrecked, and another was wrecked in the guise of a 917, because Lolas didn’t cost as much as the real thing!
There were 50 racing drivers used during the making of the movie, including Jo Siffert, Brian Redman, Vic Elford, Frank Gardner, Jonathan Williams, Richard Attwood, David Piper, John Miles, Derek Bell, Helmut Kelleners, Toine Hezemans, Jean-Pierre Jabouille, Herbert Muller and Michael Parkes.
Parkes and Piper combined for some fairly hectic sequences as they indulged in a bit of high-speed horseplay with the Ferrari and Porsche. I mentioned to Mike that his gatheringup sequence on the grass looked quite realistic and he assured me that it was. Apparently it hadn’t been pre-planned at all! Bell was burned in an accidental fire and Piper suffered the worst injury during the movie when his Porsche 917 slammed into the guardrail, cut itself in two and David lost the lower part of his right leg.
On-car cameras were in their infancy then. Camera mounts were important as much to eliminate camera shake as from a safety point of view. Two cameras weighed about 361b and this had quite an effect on the handling of the 917 on a mount 6ft behind the rear wheels. To counter this, lead weights weighing 66lb were bolted onto the nose!
To avoid risking life and limb the film special-effects men rigged up a radio-controlled steering mechanism on pensioned-off Lola T70s disguised as Ferraris or Porsches. The car had an 80mph bottom gear and a fixed throttle, but you couldn’t stop the car or cut the engine once it was under way. In early morning shakedown tests of the arrangement without the watching eye of the cameras the man with the little black box realised the car was on a slight veering course, so he tweaked the control switch. A little too much apparently, because the car turn sharply into the guardrail and wrecked itself.
Later when the scene had been set for a proper shunt with cameras strategically planted everywhere, trees partly sawed through to add realism and the track watered to simulate Le Mans weather, everything looked ready. The man in charge checked out all the cameras and gave the go-ahead. Almost immediately he changed his mind to reposition one of the cameras, but by then it was too late. The car was on its way. When it hit the wet patch of road it lost control of itself and walloped the guardrail. And apparently not a camera rolled. It became even more embarrassing because while they were getting another car and reorganising the scene, the partly-cut trees started to fall! In the best Hollywood tradition they were hauled back into position again and propped up. And the props were painted green…
The Le Mans people were recreated as well as the scenery. McQueen was fascinated by David Yorke’s seemingly understated control as Wyer’s team manager. Face to face, Yorke and actor Ronald Leigh-Hunt didn’t have more than a vague resemblance, but on set Leigh-Hunt (David Townsend in the script) was an authentic Yorke to the brim of his Laurel Valley Golf Club hat. He wore the Yorke uniform from Le Mans — a white open-necked shirt, grey cuffless trousers and black shoes. The film people tried to copy the blue hat but it didn’t work to McQueen’s satisfaction, so they had to track down the actual hat Yorke wore during the race.
Leigh-Hunt studied Yorke’s pit pacing during the race and copied this in all his mannerisms. “When David bends, he bends from the waist and not from the knees,” he said. “He stands in front of the car when it comes into the pits and waves it right up to his shins. It might be all right doing that with real racing drivers, but when you’re doing it with actors it’s a bit dicey even when they’re only pushing the car into the scene.”
Attention to detail wasn’t just a McQueen whim, it was important because the film action shots of the race were spliced in with the scenes acted and shot on location after the event and everything had to match up. It worked well and it was hard to tell where the film set stopped and the real race started as a Ferrari made its pitstop and burbled back out.
McQueen had entered his own 908 Porsche for Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams to drive in the race with a couple of cameras in the nose and another in the tail. They lost time during a camera change in the pits when the starter overheated, but despite that they were running eighth at the finish. The film had run out and the film crew wanted to bring the car in for a change of cameras so that they could shoot the finish, but the racing department didn’t want the car to stop in case the starter overheated again and they missed out on their hard-earned eighth place.
Long-time Lotus team manager Andrew Ferguson was persuaded to go from the real thing to the celluloid recreation at Le Mans and Alan Levine looked after the day-to-day running of the film behind the scenes. There was a permanent staff of between 150 and 200, and in crowd scenes the extras could bump this figure close to 1000. It cost £10,000 a day to run the operation and filming was scheduled to take four months. ‘Solar Village’ was the name of the prefabricated settlement in the circuit, hired for $30,000 from a Swiss company. This incorporated offices, a toilet block and a busy restaurant and cinema. McQueen had offers for the village from the North American Racing Team (NART), which wanted it as a European base for its Ferrari sports cars, and from the local Gendarmerie to use as a permanent base during the actual race.
I wanted Le Mans to be the ultimate motor racing movie but on reflection it wasn’t. We had slated Grand Prix, but it became apparent that Frankenheimer had set out to make an epic about racing, whereas McQueen, being a racer himself, had insisted on racing authenticity to the exclusion of any Hollywood gimmicks. I saw the preview of Le Mans at Indianapolis in 1971. James Garner, who had starred in Grand Prix, was there and I asked for his opinion. He said why didn’t I ask Steve what he thought of Grand Prix. Peter Revson said he liked the music.
The plot was the weakest part of the movie. But it’s probably the most difficult part of a racing movie. If you wrote a plot about what really happens in and around racing, it would be yawned off the screen. And if you wrote a super-lurid plot, nobody would believe it. McQueen tried to solve the problem by making what you began to think was a mute movie. Nobody says anything for nearly 20 minutes, and when Steve meets a lady behind the pits, the dialogue goes like this:
Lady: You made a good start.
Lady: Are you well?
Stirling Moss didn’t like Le Mans at all. He liked the man but he didn’t like the movie. Stirling told Malachy McCoy for his book Steve McQueen (1974): “I thought it was a ghastly film. To me it was a great letdown. I’m surprised it ever got past him. Absolutely abortive. It had neither passion nor emotion — utterly unrealistic. A very bad film in my opinion. One takes part in the sport because of the passion and the humour. Racing drivers are a special lot — great fun. But none of this comes over in the film at all.”
Which just about sums up Steve McQueen’s best efforts at putting his personal excitement in racing onto the big screen. It didn’t work.