So, the Olympics have come and gone and we’re left strangely bereft of the chance to spend all day watching obscure sports we don’t normally care about. On the plus side, it does mean that it is now easier to catch up on some motorsport. Although, despite nearing the end of the traditional summer break, any racing action is surprisingly thin on the ground at the moment.
Annoyingly, this lengthy quiet period has allowed me to undertake certain chores I would otherwise have avoided like the plague, like sifting through a stack of unread emails that have been sat gathering digital dust over the past few months.
There I was, frantically bashing away at the delete key in a fashion not seen since the days of Daley Thompson’s Decathlon on the ZX Spectrum, when I stumbled across a press release from the organisers of the Footman James Classic Motor Show. Not a monumental event, I’m sure you will agree. But what made this pseudo-news story all the more interesting was the announcement of the brand new Classic Film Festival.
In the run up to this year’s event, film buffs and motoring fans are being asked to vote for their favourite automobile-related movies of all time, with the most popular being shown at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema – the oldest working cinema in the UK – before the show begins in November.
Where’s all this heading? Well, there is one film that – much to my dismay – will no doubt feature high on people’s list, and that’s Steve McQueen’s homage to the most famous endurance race: Le Mans.
How is it possible that someone who professes to have a passion for motorsport not like Le Mans?!? It’s the ultimate racing movie! Sacrilege!
Well, let me explain…
Le Mans was the movie McQueen was most desperate to make. A self-confessed petrolhead, he wanted to bring the thrill of racing to the silver screen – to the casual movie-goer – saying that he wanted to make his grandmother in Montana, who knew nothing about motorsport, understand what it was like to race down the Mulsanne Straight at night.
Of course, McQueen never had a grandmother in Montana; it was just a figure of speech. “There’s so much about racing that’s real and doesn’t have to be dramatized or invented,” he was quoted as saying, and such ill-formed logic saw the film spectacularly bomb at the box office.
The main problem with Le Mans is that it is almost completely devoid of any human interest or discernible plot, and what traces there are of one is terrible.
Writing a plot will always be a monumentally difficult task for any racing movie. Write one that reflects what really happens in and around the world of racing and people will be bored to smithereens (see Le Mans). And if you write one that’s completely over-the-top, nobody will believe it (see Driven).
McQueen, it seems, tried to resolve this problem by making what you initially think is a silent movie. Nobody says a single word for the first 37 minutes, and when he meets a lady in the pitlane, the scintillating dialogue goes something like this:
Lady: You made a good start.
McQueen: Thank you.
Lady: Are you okay?
The aforementioned lady goes by the name of Lisa Belgatti – played by the rather attractive Elga Andersen – whose husband Piero died in an accident at the previous 24 Hours of Le Mans, an accident that involved McQueen’s character, Michael Delaney.
Why a widow would feel inclined to loiter around the pits and paddock of an event that took her husband’s life, I know not. And then, for some inexplicable reason, she begins lusting after Delaney. Possibly because she’s become accustomed to the racing lifestyle, possibly because… Well, who knows?
Some will suggest that the wafer-thin plot is what makes Le Mans so special, allowing it to concentrate on the seemingly endless race for almost the entire duration of the film in a quasi-documentary fashion.
Yes, the cinematography and attention to detail is impressive – bar the last lap oddity where McQueen somehow closes down a 30 second gap – and, by motorsport enthusiasts at least, it will be seen as historically important.
In reality, Le Mans should have been the movie that put motor racing back on its international pedestal, combining McQueen’s motorsport passions with his talents on the big screen, but he totally overdid it with lots of long, hard silences, smouldering stares and some preposterous racing sequences.
I therefore have this theory that the only reason why Le Mans is so revered is due to the lack of any decent competition in the motorsport movie department. Try naming a possible contender. I’ll save you some time – you can’t.
Interestingly, Sir Stirling Moss wasn’t overly enamoured with it either.
“I thought it was a ghastly film. To me it was a great letdown. I’m surprised it ever got past him (McQueen),” he told Malachy McCoy for his book Steve McQueen. “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.”
An eloquent assessment of Le Mans, and one that sums up McQueen’s attempt at trying to transfer his personal interest in motor racing onto the big screen. A bold effort but one that did not work, in my view.