It might not have the nutso stories behind the making of Apocalypse Now and Fitzcarraldo (depicted in the terrific making of documentaries Hearts of Darkness and Burden of Dreams respectively), but as an exploration of one man’s headspace and the trouble in bringing his vision to the screen, The Man & Le Mans is a fascinating documentary.
Hot off two hits, Bullit and The Thomas Crown Affair, Steve McQueen in 1970 was 'the king of cool'. But he wanted more control. Having fallen in love with race car driving (McQueen proved himself to be a skilled driver), he was determined to bring a ‘real’ racing movie to the screen, something a lot more authentic than the John Frankenheimer/James Garner 1966 vehicle Grand Prix. He settled on the gruelling twenty-four hour race, Le Mans.
However, there were problems from the off: there was no script, his marriage was falling apart, McQueen and his Magnificent Seven/Great Escape director John Sturges clashed, the production company threatened to remove McQueen from his executive position, and shooting at race speed put the drivers in real danger. Driver Derek Bell was badly burned in a fire and David Piper lost his right leg below the knee; the latter accident came from the lack of script as one scene had to be shot with two different outcomes - it was shooting the second outcome when Piper hit the wall.
The lack of script was a big bone of contention throughout the four month shoot, with some of the crew calling it “the most expensive documentary ever shot.” It may have had the speed and the authenticity but "what the film doesn’t capture is dramatic storytelling." Bullit and Crown Affair writer Alan Trustman was drafted in to put a shape on the story but his pitch was rejected (Trustman states here that he never wrote again). Louise Edlind, pencilled in as a romantic interest, was in a crash in a car driven by McQueen, an accident that was covered up in the press.
Wife at the time, Neile Adams-McQueen, joining other cast and crew, is quite candid about their relationship, confessing during the shoot to cheating on her husband, which made the increasingly nervous McQueen even more paranoid. Son Chad, whose life as race driver began on this shoot, speaks of his father in glowing terms, however.
Directors Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna have a scattershot approach, possibly to underline the haphazard fashion the shoot unfolded. The Man & Le Mans jumps around a lot, back and forth in time (there would be a heavy racing sequence before a cut back to the Manson murders ten months earlier), and petering out of an ending may mirror the ‘mixed reviews’ Le Mans received when it was finally released in 1971. McQueen fans will however gobble up the previously unheard audio interviews with their favourite actor.