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Steve McQueen’s Le Mans: A Golden Birthday for a Golden Film

Le Mans the Movie

Can it be?  Steve McQueen’s motorsport magnum opus movie turns 50 this year. 

The film Le Mans was released in theaters on June 23, 1971.  Certainly a heyday on the world stage of motorsport, most particularly big game sports car and endurance racing. 

Le Mans at Cinema
This is the actual 1970 Porsche 911S that Steve McQueen, as Porsche driver Michael Delaney, drove in Le Mans’ opening scenes; it was also McQueen’s “company car” and local transport while on set in France for filming.  Post-production, he purchased the car and brought it home to Los Angeles.  Author photo

Ferrari, Jaguar, Maserati, Mercedes, and others dominated the 50s.  Ford and Ferrari famously duked it out during the 60s.  By the end of the 60s, Ford’s fabulous GT40 had pretty much run its course, Ferrari minted a new line of big gunners called the 512, and Porsche emerged from the ranks of GT level machines with a new 12-cylinder monster called the 917

“Even as he was filming Bullitt in 1968, my dad already had visions of an epic racing film in his head, a super realistic immersive visual experience”  recalls now 60-year-old Chad McQueen, his father Steve’s only son.  

Chad McQueen
Chad McQueen at the wheel of his 2008 Ford Bullitt Edition Mustang. Photo credit: Matt Stone

True enough; about the same time as James Garner was in production of Grand Prix, McQueen, and director John Sturges were in development on a film to be called Day of the Champion, also about Formula 1. 

GP was slightly ahead of Champion production schedulewise, and would have certainly come to market first.  McQueen’s producers didn’t want to be hitting theaters second with a film too similar in nature and concept, so the project was scrubbed. 

Porsche being filmed
Porsche 22 in the pits during post-race action filming. The gent at right is actor Ronald Leigh-Hunt, portraying the factory Gulf Porsche team manager; it is said this character was based on Le Mans-winning team Principal John Wyer.  McQueen family collection
Steve McQueen with Porsche
McQueen sits casually aboard the Ford GT40 camera car, apparently sizing up the next shot.  Even though he wasn’t billed as an associate director or director of photography, his fingerprints (eyeballs and vision) are on nearly every film frame.  The tall gent wearing glasses standing at the nose of the car is director John Sturges.  McQueen family collection photo

It was inevitable that McQueen would revisit the racing film concept when the time was right, and 1969/70 was; McQueen was at the height of his star powers and had by then become a formidable sports car racer.  Instead of another focus on the open-wheelers, McQueen cast his Solar Productions Company’s considerable attention toward international endurance racing. 

His intent went beyond starring in the film – not satisfied to merely talk the talk; he intended to walk the walk by racing at Le Mans, teamed with incomparable F1 champion Jackie Stewart.  Steve McQueen was thoughtful and philosophical about it;

“Well, I don’t know if I’m good enough.  I want to see if I’m quick enough to practice for Le Mans, and if the drivers will accept me, I’d like to run in the [1970] race.” 

Filming Le Mans
Driver change time for #22 917.  It looks as if one of the team drivers is hopping out, with McQueen as Delaney (blue helmet at right) prepares to join the fight.   McQueen family collection photo
Porsche on Set
Rigged and ready; The #22 917 camera car looks ready to roll out for a shot.  You can see rig mounts at the rear of the car and extensively articulated rigging at the front. Brumos Collection photo

It was decided, for a variety of reasons, that McQueen not compete in the 1970 race, and ultimately, Stewart didn’t either. 

John Sturges went on to direct Le Mans and would begin by filming the actual Le Mans race, with story fill-in shots to be captured at the Le Mans circuit after the race. 

As a bit of a compromise for not getting to race at Le Mans, McQueen would instead work as one of the high-speed action and stunt drivers for all of the post-race action footage needed – often at over 200 mph. 

Steve McQueen in Le Mans
McQueen suits up as Delaney, wearing the trademark Heuer Monaco chronography on his right wrist (which was a unique Steve McQueen habit in that even though he was right-handed, he always wore watches on his right hand instead of the more conventional wearing on the left wrist for most right-handed people).  TAG Heuer photo, courtesy McQueen Family Collection

For this, Sturges, McQueen, and Solar assembled a formidable roster of racecars, several of which competed in the 1970 race, and professional racers to drive for the camera. 

McQueen would star as factory Porsche 917 pilot, American Michael Delaney.  Delaney came to the story with outstanding talent and more than a little personal and racing baggage.     

Steve McQueen getting into Porsche
McQueen’s unbridled joy is evident on his iconic face as he prepares to mount up Delaney’s first ride in the film, PGulf Porsche #20.

Critically important was to authentically and dramatically capture the racing action’s sound, feel, speed, and sensation.  To facilitate this, the camera crews used a variety of camera/sound equipment and innovated the specialist rigs, mounts, and equipment needed to get the cameras and mics up close and personal with the cars, drivers, and the competition. 

Three camera-carrying cars were employed; Among them were McQueen’s own ex-Sebring 908 Spyder, which, equipped with three different cameras, actually ran the ’70 race.  Its bodywork was configured to shield the cameras, fore, and aft.  No matter, the tidy 908, ably driven by Herbert Linge and Johnathan Williams, kept up with the action, stayed clear of trouble, and finished an amazing 9th overall. 

Porsche 917
Talk about 917 heaven.  The Porsche garage during filming shows the three 917s that Solar Productions had at its disposal; the company, thus Steve McQueen, owned the #20 machine, which today is the crown jewel in the collection of serious Porschefile Jerry Seinfeld.  McQueen Family Collection photo

Among the trio of Porsche 917s that Solar Productions had under its command for post-race filming action, one of them served as a high-speed camera car, fitted with an innovative articulated camera rig that could be swung from side to side, allowing the cinematographers to capture high-speed action with the fastest of the cars. 

Today this sort of rigging is common for action filming; it was unheard of for 1970.  The Solar crew also used a reconfigured GT40 to chase down and photograph the panoply of Porsches, Ferraris, Corvettes, Matras, and others that appeared in the post-race action sequences. 

Fiming while driving
This big-block 427 powered Ford GT40 was more than capable of keeping up with the action.  Being a right-hand drive car, it left the balance of the now wide-open cockpit open for a camera and cinematographer.  Note the Solar Productions sticker on the door and that the door openings were taped shut.  McQueen Family Collection photo
Filming the movie
Rarely, any camera car is as fast as the car(s) being filmed, but that was certainly the case of 917 on 917.  McQueen was likely aboard the #20 as it’s being filmed down the Mulsanne Straight.  McQueen Family Collection photo

It’s a bit of a miracle that the film was ever completed, given that the production was over budget, and behind schedule. 

Filming began with a pretty thin script, so scenes were being written and rewritten every day, on the fly.  McQueen and director Sturges were constantly at odds, so much so that one day, Sturges called a halt, and quit.

Lee Katzin replaced him.  Amid the background noise was that McQueen’s marriage to first wife, singer/dancer/Broadway star Neile Adams, was disintegrating.  Le Mans was completed and released primarily due to Steve McQueen’s sheer force-of-nature will and commitment to the project. 

Stage production of Le Mans
This gives you an idea of the intricacy of the 917’s fully articulating camera rig.  That little “chair” at the back is, of course, for the cameraman, who had to be a committed and brave individual to sit in that “hot seat” and speeds of around 200mph.  McQueen Family Collection photo

Of huge significance is the roster of then current pros who served as action and stunt drivers in the production; they include 1970 race winner Richard Attwood, Jurgen Barth, Derek Bell, Paul Blancpain, Vic Elford, Masten Gregory, Jacky Ickx, Jean-Pierre Jaouille, Gerard Larrousse, Herbert Ling, Herbert Muller, Mike Parks, David Piper, Brian Redman, Jo Siffert, Rolf Stommelen and Johnathan Williams, to name most.

Chad McQueen remembers every minute of his summer in France, with his family on the Le Mans set, surrounded by so many great cars and legendary drivers. 

“My dad put me on his lap in the 917, and he of course shifted and worked the pedals, but I had my hands on the steering wheel, with his hands just ‘ghosting’ mine.  I was guiding the car, but he was right there ready to step in if needed.  We ultimately hit 100 mph, and I’ll never forget the sound, smell, sight and feeling of that moment, driving a Porsche 917 with my dad.            

Chad and Steve McQueen
A 10-year-old Chad McQueen gives dad as Delaney a lift around the Le Mans set during that memorable summer of 1970.  McQueen Family Collection photo

Five-times Le Mans winner Sir Derek Bell summarizes the film succinctly:

Le Mans is a bit like a bottle of really good French wine – it may have been a bit tart when first vinted, but has grown and aged memorably with time, thus great to enjoy over and over again.” 

[Photography Matt Stone and Courtesy of the Brumos Collection, Porsche Werekfoto, and the McQueen Family Collection]