‘Steve McQueen: Le Mans In The Rearview Mirror’ Is The True Story Of The Most Beloved And Doomed Movie In Motorsports
Review by Blake Z. Rong
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.