Directed by Lee H. Katzin, the 1971 film Le Mans remains one of the most outstanding motorsport films of all time. Starring Steve McQueen, it features footage from the actual 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans auto race.
The film is today still popular among race fans as it is a relatively accurate depiction of the era, with a lot of racing but very little dialogue. Due to this, and partly to the American market's general low awareness of the Le Mans 24 Hour race, it was only a moderate success at the box office there. It followed in the wake of the similar 1966 film Grand Prix.
McQueen had intended to race a Porsche 917 together with Jackie Stewart
, but the #26 entry was not accepted. Instead, in the movie, he was shown starting the race on the blue #20 Gulf-Porsche 917K, which in the real race was driven by Jo Siffert
and Brian Redman. The race-leading white #25 Porsche 917 "Long tail" was piloted by Vic Elford
and Kurt Ahrens.
Main parts of the film were filmed on the circuit during the 1970 24 Hours of Le Mans race
. The Porsche 908/2 which McQueen had previously co-driven to a second place in the 12 Hours of Sebring was entered by Solar Productions
to compete in the race, equipped with heavy movie cameras providing actual racing footage from the track.
This #29 camera car, which can be briefly seen in the starting grid covered with a black sheet, was driven by Porsche's Herbert Linge and Jonathan Williams. It travelled 282 laps (3,798 km) and finished the race in 9th position, but it was not classified as it had not covered the required minimum distance due to the stops to change film reels. It did, however, manage to finish 2nd in the P3.0 class.
Additional footage was shot after the race using genuine racing cars of the day, mainly Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512 models, painted like the real competitors which staged the main rivalry in the 1970 season and the film. According to the rules, 25 of each sports car had to be built, so enough were available, compared to few if any of the prototype
class. In the crash scenes, cheaper Lola T70 chassis were sacrificed, disguised with bodywork
of the Porsche and Ferrari.
Despite the film's lack of success, the film now has a large cult following as it is considered difficult to replicate realistic racing scenes with the use of CGI and without an over-dependency on stunt doubles. Also the film tends to be used as a referencing point by motorsport and car media, when referring to the race itself. For example, at the time of the film’s release, a pitwall was added for the safety of pit crews as other circuits already had similar set-ups. Although the pit lane has been commonly used as a referencing point in the film, it was unpopular with both drivers and pit personnel for being cramped as well as difficult to get cars in and out of the pits, even when repairs were needed. It wasn't until following the 1990 race that the outdated pit lane was demolished in favor of a modern complex which is still in use today.
The Porsche 917 which McQueen drove (chassis 022) would later be sold to a privateer for its last competitive year driven regularly by Reinhold Joest and Willi Kauhsen, before later being sold to race driver and film participant Brian Redman. Redman then sold it to Richard Attwood, the 1970 winner and another film participant, who referred to it as "his pension". Attwood then resprayed it to his 1970
winning colour of red with white stripes as well attending numerous shows with it. He later sprayed it to the Gulf colors for promotional purposes and auctioned the car off at RM Auctions during the Monterey Historics weekend for less than £1 million in 2000. The car was then sold to Bruce McCaw, and was stored at Vintage Racing Motors in Redmomd, WA. Later, it was moved on to the hands of its current owner, Jerry Seinfeld.
There is very little plot; the movie entertains primarily by providing the sight and sound of Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s, iconic racing cars with lots of visual and audio appeal to racing enthusiasts; the cars sound as if they are running with an almost human desperation, as if running for their very lives. There are however some elementary plot elements. There is the race itself as a plot, the fierce competition between the Porsche and Ferrari teams. Since this is a 24 hour race and the cars must have two drivers each alternating driving duties, there is time for drivers who are resting to have some human interaction. The main character, Michael Delaney (McQueen) has a very strong rivalry with Ferrari team driver Erich Stahler. Delaney was involved in an accident the previous year at Le Mans, an accident in which a driver named Piero Belgetti is killed. Early in the movie Delaney happens to spot Belgetti’s widow Lisa buying flowers. He then drives to where the accident occurred and has a flashback. Lisa is at the race because of her new relationship with a driver named Claude Aurac, although it appears that they are at the race together because they are friends, rather than them having any romantic link.
One of the major plot lines develops in the thirteenth hour of the race, just after 5am on the Sunday morning. Erich Stahler spins his Ferrari at Indianapolis Corner, causing his Ferrari team-mate Claude Aurac to veer off the track and suffer a major accident. Delaney is distracted by the flames of Aurac's car and suffers an accident of his own. He tries to avoid a slower car and collides with the crash barrier, writing off his Porsche. It is announced that Porsche number 20 and Ferrari number 7 have been involved in an accident. Although they were separate accidents, they were so close in time and place that it appears to the spectators, the pit crews and notably Lisa Belgetti, that the accidents are linked. Delaney and Aurac survive, however Aurac's injuries are far worse than those of Delaney. In the hospital after the crashes, Delaney consoles Miss Belgetti and rescues her from the forthright questions from the media. After he puts Miss Belgetti in a waiting car, a journalist asks Delaney whether the accident involving him and Aurac can be compared to the accident involving him and Lisa Belgetti's late husband. Delaney stares the journalist down and does not respond.
There is a little sub plot involving Johann Ritter and his beautiful wife Anna. He senses that she would like for him to stop racing and take up other employment. He suggests doing that, thinking she will be overjoyed. She probably is, but she doesn’t want to make it seem like he has to do this for her, and says she would like it only if that is what he would like. He kids her a little bit about not being entirely honest, since he is certain that she would like nothing better than for him to quit. Later on, this decision is taken out of his hands when the team manager replaces him for not being “quick enough.” Anna tries to comfort him, reminding him that he was planning to quit anyway.
Meanwhile, Lisa Belgetti seems strangely drawn to Delaney, the very man involved in the accident that killed her husband. She seems to greatly wish that he would quit racing because of the danger. However he says that the thrill is just too addicting for him to even consider quitting. During their conversation, the Porsche team boss enters the room and asks Delaney whether he would consider taking over the driving of Ritter's car, to which Delaney agrees.
The last lap has two Porsches and two Ferraris competing very closely. The Porsches are driven by Michael Delaney and Larry Wilson. One of the Ferraris suffers a flat tyre
and is out of the race, leaving just one Ferrari driven by Delaney’s arch rival Stahler. Wilson is in the lead, but looks likely to end up in third as his car seems to be the slowest of the three.
Since Stahler had caught up with Wilson, and Delaney had caught up with both, it would appear that Delaney’s car is the fastest among the three. Were the road wide enough to permit easy passing, the race would end with Delaney coming in first, Stahler second, and Wilson third. Delaney suddenly sees slower traffic ahead in his lane, (the right lane) and he must slow down, let Stahler pass him, and then go to the left lane to follow Stahler around the slow car. Then they both catch up with Wilson. One would expect Delaney to remain in the left lane and follow Stahler around Wilson and then try to pass Stahler.
However, he takes actions that seem to be designed to gain both the top two positions for Porsche rather than narrowly focusing on coming in first himself. Rather than remaining in the left lane to follow Stahler around and go for first, Delaney switches to the right lane and inserts himself behind Wilson and alongside Stahler. Before Stahler can move ahead of Delaney and alongside Wilson, Delaney bumps Stahler’s Ferrari two or three times, causing him to slow slightly because of going partially off the pavement. Then he causes Stahler to drop back further to third place by coming at him in a way that seems certain to send Stahler into the guard rail, forcing him to hit his brakes
to avoid that fate.
Although Delaney doesn’t win the race, he beats arch rival Stahler and ensures that Porsche takes the top two positions, relegating Ferrari (and Stahler) to third. Racing driver David Piper lost part of his lower leg in a crash during the shooting. The very close finish in the movie is unusual, but not unrealistic. The 1969 race was decided by a few hundred yards. The movie's most memorable quote is by Michael Delaney: "A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well.When you’re racing, it... it’s life. Anything that happens before or after... is just waiting." Some version of this is acknowledged to have first been said by 1950's French racing driver Maurice Trintignant. Another memorable line was team manager David Townsend's very succinct guidance: "Michael, I want you to drive flat out. I want Porsche to win Le Mans."