Steve McQueen at the 24 Hours of Le Mans

The shooting of an ambitious film

Although Steve McQueen did not take part in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970, the images shot during this edition will be used for the film to be released the following year.

Dans l’évocation cinématographique de cette course prestigieuse, la réalité et la fiction se croisent sans cesse et les séquences réalisées à bord d’une voiture qui a réellement participé à la course apportent vraiment un réalisme incomparable à l’histoire qui est racontée à l’écran. Une impression renforcée par le fait que Steve McQueen, qui interprète le héros du film, est un pilote chevronné et talentueux.

During the shoot, Solar Production uses Team John Wyer's infrastructure in Gulf colors, just like Steve McQueen's team in the film. © IXO Collections SAS - All rights reserved. Photo credits © Flavien Marçais

In the cinematographic evocation of this prestigious race, reality and fiction constantly cross paths and the sequences shot in a car that actually took part in the race really bring incomparable realism to the story that is told on screen. This impression is reinforced by the fact that Steve McQueen, who plays the hero of the film, is an experienced and talented driver.

When he began shooting his 1971 film Le Mans, Steve McQueen fulfilled the dream of his life by combining his two passions, cinema and motor sport. But he could not imagine the difficulties of organisation and financial management that such a project represents. If at first the film did not meet with the expected success, it was to become in a few years one of the most famous film productions on motor sport with Grand Prix by John Frankenheimer (1966) and later Days of Thunder by Tony Scott (1990). Until the release of Le Mans 66 directed by James Mangold in 2019, no film had ever so masterfully evoked the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

The Porsche 917 KH n ° 20, by driver Steve McQueen aka Michael Delaney, was driven by Jo Siffert and Brian Redman during the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans. © IXO Collections SAS - All rights reserved. Photo credits © Archives & Collections

A difficult project 

Steve McQueen often said he didn't know whether he was an actor who drives or a driver who acts in films, as his two passions were closely linked, as evidenced by his filmography. In October 1968, the film Bullitt was released, in which the memorable pursuits behind the wheel of his Ford Mustang demonstrate a fine disposition for sporty driving. McQueen is indeed an accomplished driver who regularly competed in car and motorcycle races. Very disappointed not to have been chosen by Frankenheimer for Grand Prix, he decided to produce his own film on the race, Day of a Champion, with his production company Solar Production Inc. The project falls apart, but McQueen clings to it and aims to tell a story that would unfold during the legendary 24 Hours of Le Mans. The budget is brought together by Cinema Center Film (CBS) and Solar, while John Sturges (who gave him a bespoke role in The Great Escape in 1963) is chosen as director with a script by Harry Kleiner who was credited with that of Bullitt. After some exploration on circuits, filming was to begin in France in the spring of 1968, in the middle of strikes, so the film was postponed ...

Jonathan Williams and Herbert Linge's No. 29 Porsche 908 had to stop at the pit every quarter of an hour to recharge its cameras. © IXO Collections SAS - All rights reserved. Photo credits © Archives & Collections

A colossal organization

During the 1969 24 Hours of Le Mans, Steve McQueen was on hand with a team to record some footage, some of which appeared in the final version of the film. Meanwhile, Sturges, who disagreed with the script, was replaced by Lee H. Katzin. In December 1969, the organisation progressed rapidly and a veritable village with twenty offices was set up to accommodate the 300 members of Solar Production. A garage was also installed in Arnage, where one of the main bends of the circuit is located, under the authority of Andrew Ferguson, the former Team Manager of Lotus, in order to prepare and maintain the 25 or so cars that would be used during shooting. For his part, McQueen also acquired a Porsche 908/2 Spyder with which he competes in several top-level races. So on March 21, 1970, he finishes 2nd at the 12 Hours of Sebring with co-driver Peter Revson! With this fine result, Steve McQueen hopes to be admitted to the 24 Hours of Le Mans and his presence early April on the provisional entry list with Jackie Stewart, the reigning F1 World Champion, at the wheel of his Porsche 908, struck like a bomb.

The film Le Mans is a very realistic testimony to the special character of drivers and to the world of racing. © IXO Collections SAS - All rights reserved. Photo credits © Flavien Marçais

Two-step shooting 

The enthusiasm will be short-lived as the actor's insurer is formally opposed.  Steve McQueen had to give up racing, but the Porsche 908/2 was still on the grid on the day of the start. Wearing n ° 29, it is equipped with three cameras, with Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams at the wheel who will finish 9th. The Porsche 917 KH # 20 in Gulf colors, which is supposed to be Michael Delaney / Steve McQueen in the film, is the car of Jo Siffert and Brian Redman of Team John Wyer. The second part of the shooting begins a week later with its share of difficulties. Several accidents were to be deplored, in particular the one where driver David Piper loses a leg. In addition, the budget is under pressure by the destruction of a Porsche 917 and a Ferrari 512 S. Among the leading cars used for the film, there is the Porsche 917 LH of Vic Elford and Kurt Ahrens   n° 25 who signed the Pole Position in the real race. As Enzo Ferrari categorically refused to lend his official cars, the 512 that we see on the screen are those loaned by Jacques Swaters, the Belgian importer of the brand. No less than 41 professional drivers take part in the filming, including several future winners of the 24 Hours.

Legend or reality?

Steve McQueen was so eager to race at Le Mans and so disappointed that he couldn't finally take part, that a legend began to circulate over time. In the stand of car no. 29 entered by his production company Solar, he would have taken advantage of the night when the official cars were not in action to do a half-hour stint at the wheel of the Porsche 908. Many years after this race, Belgian driver Willy Braillard, who was racing in a 911 S at the time, said that he saw McQueen from his neighbouring pit lane put on a helmet similar to that of Jonathan Williams, one of the team-mates in car no. 29, to succeed Herbert Linge at the wheel of the Porsche. All this was done with the utmost discretion of the whole team and the secret was kept for a long time.

The film

The script of the film Le Mans is very classic and it is above all the realism of the action scenes in the race and pits that will interest the public. And for good reason, most of them were shot during the real event. The story tells the return of driver Michael Delaney (Steve McQueen) to the 24 Hours of Le Mans circuit after a serious accident during the previous edition in which his rival Pierre Belgetti was killed. During the race at the wheel of his Porsche 917 n ° 20 in Gulf colors , he faces the Ferrari 512 n ° 8 of Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch), while a love affair develops between him and Lisa (Elga Andersen), Pierre Belgetti’s widow.

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