Imagine a Frederick Wiseman-esque fly-on-the-wall documentary about the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans (albeit much shorter than Wiseman would make) with Steve McQueen parachuted in along with the tiniest sketches of a plot involving him and the wife of a race car driver who died in an accident with McQueen’s character the year before and you have some idea of this bizarre, bizarre film.
The film contains a lot of actual footage from the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans and that is blended pretty seamlessly with the footage of McQueen and the other actors. And the footage of the actual race might be the best film footage of car racing ever up to that point. I have literally no idea because I’ve never seen any car racing documentaries from back then and I don’t believe I’ve seen any racing movies either. That part of the film is likely a landmark and one reason why this film has been reappraised (with some recent reviews hilariously calling it a “masterpiece.”)
In its blending of fact and fiction, the film is avant garde for the time, at times it feels aggressively so. The most avant garde aspect is probably how Steve McQueen doesn’t speak a line of audible dialogue until…oh, I don’t know 20 minutes or more into the film. I didn’t time it, but there is barely any dialogue by any of the, um, “major characters” for the first substantial chunk of the film. It feels aggressively strange for 1971 and this utter lack of character development is one of the biggest problems with the film.
The film cannot decide whether its a documentary, a dramatisation, or an actual film about a racing driver character and his struggles to overcome his previous accident. It’s actually all of those things, at different times, but it pays the least amount of attention to the third aspect, the reason why, likely, most people were coming to the film: Steve McQueen starring as a race car driver at Le Mans.
The plot of that arc is basically this: “He had an accident at the previous Le Mans which killed the husband of this woman. He might want to fuck this woman, or at least help her move on. He also wants to win this year’s Le Mans.” That’s it. Is it an improvement over a documentary about Le Mans that, for example, Steve McQueen narrated? No. (Apparently the film exists because McQueen wasn’t able to race himself at Le Mans in real life, so he got a film made about him doing it in a film role. But why not just narrate the documentary instead? “Steve McQueen Presents Le Mans” or whatever.)
I get why people like the racing footage. I have spent a few years now (more than a few) watching F1 and some racing documentaries and I can say that this footage is legitimately good. But the film around it is very confused and it’s no wonder that a second director was brought in to try to fix the movie. He didn’t fix it, though.