Gear: ‘Steve McQueen: Le Mans In The Rearview Mirror’ Is The True Story Of The Most Beloved And Doomed Movie In Motorsports

‘Steve McQueen: Le Mans In The Rearview Mirror’ Is The True Story Of The Most Beloved And Doomed Movie In Motorsports

By Blake Z. Rong
May 12, 2017

This book is now available in the Petrolicious Shop

On June 23, 1971, the film Le Mans debuted. With a budget of $7.5 million, another $2 million in promotions, and the star power of Steve McQueen, the movie could do no wrong. McQueen was at the height of his powers—the Thomas Crowne Affair had cemented his intangible coolness, while Bullitt reaffirmed his antihero credentials. His motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, a passion project to a motorsport that had defined him, seemingly, more than acting did, cost barely $300,000 to make, yet returned more than $24 million globally.

As early as 1965, the same man had been planning a project around the 24 Hours of Le Mans when Warner Brothers and James Garner beat him to the punch in a sense with Grand Prix. McQueen had nearly starred in it. But now, he was free to make his own tribute to racing. The groundwork was set.

Ultimately, Le Mans was a disaster—it left McQueen bitter and ostracized, bombed at the box office, it was savaged by critics, and destroyed the following: a production company, a marriage, countless friendships, six race cars, two Porsche 911s, a Peugeot sedan, a Hollywood star’s goodwill, and a racing driver’s right leg.

Don Nunley was in his twenties and serving as a prop master for the likes of Paramount, Disney, Warner Brothers, and Universal when he joined McQueen’s Solar Productions for this pet project, and he’s recently co-written a memoir with journalist Marshall Terrill about the experience therein. The way he tells it in Steve McQueen: Le Mans In The Rearview Mirror, a studio executive approached him with the chance to work on McQueen’s next movie, a movie about racing. Nunley didn’t know anything about motorsports. He had never even been to Europe.

“You’ll figure it out,” replied the executive.

As a primer, Solar sent Nunley to the 1970 1,000km of Spa-Francorchamps, as a guest of John Wyer Racing, to watch the Gulf-Porsche 917Ks up close. “It was a grand introduction to endurance racing,” Nunley writes. “Le Mans required close to 20,000 props, including timing instruments, decals, patches, flowers, license plates, clipboards, wrist watches, rings, tires, wine and champagne bottles.”

Much of Le Mans’ footage came from filming the actual 1970 race; Solar had entered one Porsche 908 as a camera car, and somehow between the crushing weight of the recording equipment, a near-crash at 3am, and falling back to capture the race-winning Salzburg Porsche, the camera car wound up finishing ninth overall, second in its class. Not bad. But there was a problem. “Even with all the movie magic we could muster,” says Nunley, “we still had no coherent script.”

Nunley’s task was to sell McQueen directly on specific props. He had to not only know the star’s tastes, but provide enough alternatives (for McQueen’s now-iconic Heuer Monaco chronograph, Nunley had Jack Heuer’s personal assistance). He worked with the star daily and saw the production up close. Solar ultimately needed six writers to come up with the script which is pretty amusing, considering the total spoken dialogue text hardly covers a cocktail napkin. The original script, according to Nunley, was “coherent, serviceable.” But McQueen wanted an “art pseudo-documentary,” more emotion than Hollywood, a personal love letter.

Director John Sturges fought him nearly every day on that ideal. “Some film sets are light and happy,” says Nunley, “Not on Le Mans.” Meanwhile, accidents began happening. McQueen missed a shift and blew an engine, a radio-controlled Ferrari 512 nearly ran over the crew, Derek Bell crashed and suffered burns to his face. In addition, former F1 driver David Piper lost control of a 917 at 170mph, launching over a guardrail into a ditch: “I suddenly found myself sitting in only half a car, surrounded by smoke and dust,” he’d recall later, “and I thought, Good Lord, that is my shoe over there, and my foot is still in it.” A distraught McQueen insisted that the movie be dedicated to Piper, “for his sacrifice.”

During all of this, McQueen was separating from his wife Neile—who flew to France with their two children—and while in the midst of an affair with Swedish actress Louise Edlind, he crashed while driving her back to her hotel at 2 o’clock in the morning, nearly killing her. Nunley: “Steve’s behavior bordered on manic—as if he had to prove his manhood to everyone…I found McQueen’s erratic temperament and behavior emotionally draining and a little obnoxious.”

At one point, the executives even threatened to shut down the project and replace him with Robert Redford.

Indeed, production was shut down for two weeks to reassess the project going forward. When the Le Mans townsfolk discovered they could make 150 francs filling in background seats, the town ground to a halt. And when they found out about the shutdown, they protested by blocking the production office entrance with their cars.

The director, Sturges, quit soon afterward. Lee H. Katzin took over directorial duties, and the McQueen family jetted off to Morocco to try to save their marriage before discovering that he had been targeted by Charles Manson and his Family. Things were not going smoothly.

To add insult to injury, Porsche—which had generously lent a fleet of 917s and 911s to the production—found out that both McQueen and Sturges had wrecked 911s, and asked for its cars back, three months past the deadline. (Outraged at the plot’s Porsche victory, Ferrari declined to help.)

Solar Productions soon folded, never to produce another film. McQueen didn’t even attend the premiere of his dream movie. He never raced Porsches again. 

Nunley fared better. After filming, he went on an all-expenses-paid tour of Europe. Then he went on to work on The Deer Hunter, Damnation Alley, and Hooper, before starting a lucrative business in product placement. Even more lucratively, he held on to three of McQueen’s Heuers. With all that Le Mans memorabilia he kept, Los Angeles collectors began calling.

Alongside the press photography, studio publicity shots, and rare artifacts, the majority of photos in the book were shot by Nunley, using a 35mm Nikon. There’s the conversational and contemplative moments of Pedro Rodriguez, John Wyer, Jo Siffert, and Clay Regazzoni. There are photos of Nunley’s fish-out-of-water experience in small-town France. There’s Derek Bell’s wrecked Ferrari 512, its “blood” on the windshield actually red paint. There are photos of Alfa Romeo 33/3s, Corvettes in the rain, Porsches 917 and 911 and 914 flinging clouds of mist down the Mulsanne Straight. Six seven-page photo blocks do well to break up the text, and all of the captions are well-detailed. The cover design may appear low-rent, but it houses an interior layout neatly arranged and thematically cohesive. McQueen’s quotes sometimes appear on the larger photos, which seems distracting and hackneyed, but there aren’t many.

With the hindsight of decades past, and if not speaking ill of the dead than at least speaking honestly, Nunley finds his own observational strengths: one can feel the star power eroding as the reality of McQueen’s doomed project sets in. As he transforms into a true fan of the sport, he’s aware of how important this movie is to a certain subsection of humanity—namely, car and racing enthusiasts. 

It bears reminding, after all, that despite the assumptions of everyone involved, Le Mans is a fascinating technical document more so than an actual piece of storytelling. For those with no taste for racing, it is virtually unwatchable. Ironically, given its subject matter, it’s laid out in a slow pace even by old Hollywood standards. But it remains the most accurate romp through that heady period, a faithful time capsule never to be remade with such precision again. And as such, the book serves as a worthy, starkly unvarnished complement. With McQueen’s cool on the line, this is usually overlooked. While hawking everything from watches to Porsches to motorcycle jackets, we might forget that McQueen may have been the King of Cool but not always a good person.

After all, he was no Paul Newman.

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3 years ago

You can watch all the car related movies on tea tv app. I watched all car movies on terrarium tv app with HD quality for free. Download tea tv app from its official blog:

Mahha GoGoGo
Mahha GoGoGo
4 years ago

In this, I see a mirror& in this mirror I see myself as a youth & an adult.

When I saw this as a youth, it was a piece of art; the texture of spun aluminum, Plexiglas and fiberglass. I swear I could smell the gas & oil. It was also the pit pass we could only dream of…

As an “informed” adult, I nit-pick the production methods, the plot, the acting…

Sometimes, peeking behind the curtain is less a guilty pleasure & more of a harsh view of humanity. Sad how age corrupts, doesn’t it?

wing nut
wing nut(@wing-nut)
4 years ago

This film is all about the cars! Forget the minimal story, marginal acting and silly script….just listen and stare in awe at these machines. That’s all the script I need. I predict history will be very friendly to this film as already the cars shown in this film have become icons of the sport and millions are paid to own one. The book would be a nice way to augment the DVD. I’m with Mr. Dickerson this film is a reason to celebrate Mr. McQueen’s desire to gift all of us a moment behind the wheel of such epic racers. Turn up the volume and put on your gloves!

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford(@quixotic)
4 years ago

Someone once said that LeMans was very similar to the documentary Koyaanisqatsi. I have to heartily agree. Both are absolutely mesmerizing.

Bryan Dickerson
Bryan Dickerson
4 years ago

We motorheads should be grateful for what we’ve got. The fact that Le Mans and Grand Prix were made at all is a reason for celebration. Even with their sub-par plots and acting they are priceless chroniclers of some of the greatest machinery and style periods ever. I got to see each of those movies once when I was a kid and valued those viewings as cherished memories for years until the advent of DVDs and YouTube. Now I can access them to my hearts content. It’s like having a drawer full of dark chocolate available at any time…. I better watch my weight!

Tim Hüber
Tim Hüber(@tim_huber)
4 years ago

You get it.
“After all, he was no Paul Newman.”

Claus Targa
Claus Targa(@claus-targa)
4 years ago

Talking about Le Mans…

there is a new movie celebrating 45 Years Le Mans !

“Remember Le Mans”

It is a documentation about the movie itself featuring interviews with people involved in producing the movie, tracing the tracks of McQueen and his team in Le Mans etc. You bet that there are stories to tell about the production process “in situ”, giving as well interesting insight into the character of Mr McQueen.

The trailer of this Austrian-produced movie, directed by gifted and experienced Christian Giesser (of Cinecraft Production fame)
can be found on Vimeo.

4 years ago

True legends. When saw first this film I never want to see nothing like fast & furious with artificial nonsense…RIP Steve McQueen and Jo Siffert. Octane Greets from Switzerland

4 years ago

I love this movie. Didn’t appreciate it until I was older, but the authenticity of the racing has never been matched in any Hollywood movie. Grand Prix is not bad, but in reality the soap opera story in that film, while a requisite of most Hollywood dramas, is just a little sappy.

Like a lot of films and literature, often it takes the passage of time for greatness to be realized. LeMans might not be the Great Gatsby, but as a period timepeace where driver ankles sat ahead of the front axles and super fast straightaways and 12 cylinder engines ruled, this film captures the brotherhood as well as competition among racers like no other drama ever made via a Hollywood studio.

Doug Anderson
Doug Anderson
4 years ago

Movie,motor racing, sound, scenery, Europe, I’m all in.
Bla , bla , bla the dialogue stinks in all of them. The stars are stilted as bad as their driving/racing skills.
But come on race fans, you got something better ?
Get a few $$ together , call up your video making you tube wanker friends and
make something better. Quit your bitchen and enjoy the films , with all their flaws.

Dan Graff
Dan Graff(@horrido)
4 years ago

We watched this movie so many times with our at the time small children that we too wore out a VHS tape. Our kids came to know all of the (admittedly few in number) actors lines. Those were good times and great memories.

Nicolas Moss
Nicolas Moss(@itsnicolas)
4 years ago

I saw the movie when I was a wee tike and just starting to fall in love with cars and motorsports. It put a bug in my brain and heart that has never left. I will always love this movie, Gulf blue, and 917s.

Alex Sobran
Alex Sobran(@alex-sobran)
4 years ago
Reply to  Nicolas Moss

Similar story with me—our VHS copy eventually kicked the bucket from too much time in the player!

4 years ago

Ahhh … no … sorry .. but though ” Lemans ” is appreciated enjoying an element of iconic status [ due mostly to McQueen’s ‘ star ‘ presence not the film itself ] .. is not the most beloved motorsports movie . Far from it in fact . That title falls firmly upon ‘ Grand Prix ” .. due in no small part to the inane script in ” LeMans ” .. the substandard acting across the board .. as a genuine lack of audience appeal

Suffice it to say ” Grand Prix ” was a fantastic and iconic film that just so happens to be about motorsports … whereas ” LeMans ” is at best a mediocre rendition of a motorsports film that remove McQueen’s name .. would of been relegated to obscurity .

e.g. Read the history and the facts.. not the myth being perpetuated of late by the McQueen estate in order to extend his earning capabilities . ” LeMans ” … was a LeMon ..

4 years ago
Reply to  GuitarSlinger

Seems like on the rare occasions when I bother to read the comments here, I always find “GuitarSlinger” attempting to correct the record. If nothing here ever satisfies him (or her?), one wonders why he (or she?) doesn’t just read a website that he (or she?) might find more agreeable. Maybe something on guitars. Or something on slinging.

Also, you don’t mean to say, “would of,” you mean to say “would’ve.” It’s a contraction of “would have.”

For the record, I agree that Grand Prix is a better film, but Le Mans is also a classic in its own way, especially to fans of motor sports. Anyway, it’s all a matter of opinion. Until a scientific method for measuring “belovedness” is established … relax, GuitarSlinger.

Dennis White
Dennis White
4 years ago
Reply to  GuitarSlinger

Grand Prix a better movie? Are you kidding?? That Hollywood melodrama has dated worse than 70’s clothing styles! Talk about hokey dialogue and terrible forced love interests. I do believe that for every time you watch Eva Maria Saint over-act in the Montand death scene you lose 100 years of your stay in purgatory in the next life! Give me Le Mans any day with far superior race action and minimal chat.

wing nut
wing nut(@wing-nut)
4 years ago
Reply to  GuitarSlinger

My dear friend the Gunslinger. You’ve become the lightening rod of response to Petrolicious and all it has to offer. I ponder if you’re not actually employed by the ‘licious to promote the responses that you do. I hope not. I celebrate you sir/madame as you do indeed make my morning tea break a much more interesting time. Carry on sir with your acidic tones and comments as I for one enjoy your posts if for no other reason then to make my day that much more interesting.