In the 1960s and 1970s, cool was defined by two words —Steve McQueen.
He was always the handsome outsider whose quiet confidence, intrepid attitude and contempt for authority gave him a magnetism few stars could match.
McQueen also had a penchant for satisfying fans' need for speed. Whether it was in Bullitt's often imitated, but never duplicated chase scene through San Francisco streets in a Ford Mustang GT, or The Great Escape's harrowing motorcycle flight from a P.O.W. camp on a Triumph TR6 Trophy with German soldiers in pursuit, he literally revved up the action. And though the studios forced him to give way to stuntmen for the most dangerous maneuvers, McQueen spent plenty of time in the driver's seat.
The same is true in Le Mans (1971, Paramount, G, $20; Blu-ray, $25), which has been digitally restored and is being released on Blu-ray for the first time in celebration of its 40th anniversary. The cult classic depicts France's annual 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world's oldest and most famous endurance auto race. McQueen plays a man oblivious to the inherent danger, and addicted to the rush that it gives.
"What's so important about driving faster than anyone else?" McQueen's Michael Delaney is asked by the widow (Elga Andersen) of a driver who crashed and died in the race a year earlier.
"A lot of people go through life doing things badly," responds Delaney, who was badly hurt in the same accident. "Racing is important to men who do it well. When you're racing, it's life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting."
Waiting, it seems, was not in the actor's makeup. McQueen, who died of cancer at age 50 in 1980, spent much of his life racing motorcycles and automobiles. While taking acting lessons in the early 1950s, he supported himself by winning motorcycle competitions. In 1970, he finished second in Florida's Grand Prix-style 12 Hours at Sebring (won by Mario Andretti) with professional driver teammate Peter Revson in a Porsche 908 Spyder that would be used as a camera car during the filming of Le Mans. At Sebring, McQueen — who had broken his foot in six places in a motorbike crash two weeks earlier — drove wearing a cast.
It's no idle boast, then, when the film's trailer (a bonus feature with the new release) proclaims: "Le Mans. The men. The machines. The motion picture. Steve McQueen stars in it. No one else could." Also included is the mini-feature Filming at Speed: The Making of the Movie Le Mans, hosted by the star's son, Chad McQueen (he too is an actor and auto racer, and as a child was on the set). Le Mans was made on the heels of his father's 1968 blockbuster Bullitt, and he said it was Steve's goal to make "the ultimate motor racing movie."
The filmmakers, including director Lee H. Katzin, went to great lengths to get everything right, bringing 20 camera crews to film the 1969 race just to learn how to shoot it the following year when they were making the movie. The first half-hour of the film (which has sparse plot and dialogue in general) doesn't have a scripted word. Instead, it lets you drink in the sights and sounds surrounding the 8.5-mile Circuit de la Sarthe, around which cars hit speeds in excess of 230 mph in the grueling endurance race. The camera takes you into the bustle of pit row, where fans, drivers, mechanics and journalists jostle each other, and to the tent communities of racing enthusiasts along the countryside route. What story there is centers on the fierce rivalry between the Porsche and Ferrari race teams.
There are no CGI tricks at work here, but you can almost feel the ground vibrations and the whip of the wind as the Porsche 917s and Ferrari 512s fly by, swapping paint and navigating hairpin turns. The adrenaline rush is so palpable, the imagination seems to supply the only missing elements — the smells of sweat, burnt rubber and exhaust fumes. You may even catch yourself tamping the brakes as the gap between that guardrail or those tail lights up ahead rapidly closes.