Steve McQueen started filming Le Mans — his 1971 racecar movie to end all racecar movies — with a broken foot. By the end of the on-location, way-over-budget shoot, he had broken friendships, a broken marriage, and a broken dream to match it.
If Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna’s exhilarating documentary, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, were merely a testament to McQueen’s stubbornness and irascibility, it would still be a damned entertaining portrait. After James Garner’s racing pic Grand Prix beat Le Mans into production, McQueen took revenge on Garner, his neighbor, by pissing in his plants. McQueen’s insistence on dangerous action shots, one of which rendered pro drag racer David Piper an amputee, drove away initial director John Sturges. And a drunken joyride nearly killed his co-star (and sometime mistress) Louise Edlind; she complied with his wishes to keep the incident a secret, only to watch her role drastically cut down in postproduction.
We’ve seen many an insider doc about films destroyed by their creators’ chutzpah (Overnight, Lost in La Mancha), but what’s most wrenching here is McQueen’s displays of vulnerability and tenderness. He was deeply scared, for instance, by his and his family’s inclusion on Charles Manson’s death list (the shoot coincided with the mass murders). And he begged Le Mans‘s backers to give all film proceeds to the injured Piper — to no avail. (Piper, Edlind, and many other past collaborators are on hand to, surprisingly, defend McQueen’s flights of fancy and singular vision.)
Racing enthusiasts still regard Le Mans as blissful eye candy, and deservedly so, given the thunderous behind-the-scenes driving-sequence footage here — never before shown and recently unearthed by McQueen’s son, Chad. But it lacked a script and left mainstream audiences cold, something this thoroughly researched, gripping documentary certainly won’t.
Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans
Directed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna
Opens November 13, Village East Cinema