I still remember seeing Le Mans as a kid and, despite the fancy cars I was so attracted to zooming around that legendary race course, found myself falling asleep before the first hour was up. I think it took another three or four attempts as I got older to get through the entire movie, but today it’s one of my favorite racing films. Granted, it feels like more of a documentary of a particular race day that happens to dip behind the scenes to focus on a few people not talking much mostly about a few things that tie into to the overall story being told. Nevertheless, there’s a story that kicks in if you pay attention that works quite well in its low-key way that sets up a pretty exciting final reel.
Of course, this means as a timepiece of a particular period in auto racing history, it’s really an important work. Where the great-looking and innovative 1966 film Grand Prix got too caught up in its romance triangles and some dramatic sections (and had a poor stunt dummy go flying out of a car in one crash sequence that still makes me laugh), Le Mans is purely and primarily about the race.
Sure, it’s also a full-on vanity project for real-life racing fan and driver Steve McQueen, but he so underplays his performance as Michael Delaney, a driver for the Porsche team, that in the parts of the film where he does speak, you’re half expecting someone to walk by and administer oxygen. Then again, this is a movie where there’s not a line of dialogue for about 18 minutes and for the most part, it’s the race and race announcements that tell the story as the 24-hour event progresses. Yes, there’s a quickly teased romantic moment for Delaney and the widow of a rival, but it’s so telegraphed in advance to go nowhere fast that it’s merely a throwaway scene like most of the non-race portions. Basically, the back story here all goes back to the race as it happens, making for a mirror sequence where an old crash nearly emulates one that happens late in the event.
One thing the movie nails is the danger of driving so damn fast on a lovely but treacherous course when the weather changes. There’s a fantastic sequence where rain forces drivers into the pits for a tire change, but not before some minor to moderate accidents take place. The fierceness of the rivalry between the Porsche and Ferrari teams here demands that the drivers literally race for the pits for that tire change despite the danger and insanity of flooring it rather than slowing down purely for safety’s sake. Later on, there are some amazing night racing portions where it’s hard to see a thing and makes you realize that the race drivers of the era were a lot more fearless in what were basically some gorgeous but deadly machines.
The funny thing about the film is how some hardcore fans of it have chopped it down to all race cuts and no down time (an example is above), but there’s a call online for some sort of remake from a few of them. Which, by the way… would probably be worse because you can smell the 15 or so writers foaming at the mouth to add star power and sexy time antics just to get that certain demographic rolling in with open wallets. Add in too much CG, a loud and annoying soundtrack and an expensive marketing campaign that would bring the final cost to whatever it takes to run the actual race and you know the rest of that story, right? Yeah – stick with the original, learn to love it for what it is and you’ll be happier for it, I say…