Sunday, 28 November 2010

Racing is life - Le Mans the Movie

While recovering from a particularly pestulant flu virus last week, I took the opportunity to watch one of my favourite films one that was influential in so much as it inspired me not only to visit Le Mans but also to participate in a lesser 24 hour race in 1990.

The film is a classic among many race fans because it is essentially shot in a documentary style, the first 30 mins is a build up to the start of a 24 hour race with only a brief flash back to interrupt the building tension. We see early morning race day footage of the protagonist Michael Delaney (McQueen) arriving at the circuit, in those days entirely on public roads, huge traffic jams, to me now very familiar scenes from the campsite in the middle of the circuit, teams preparing, drivers preparing and then an increasingly slo mo sequence to the 5 min countdown to the start of the race.

The only discernible voice during the build up is a monologue by the race commentator who sets the scene and describes events as they happen during the course of the race.

Unusually for a film with Hollywood involvement their is no love interest, but there is human interest in the relationship between Delaney who the previous year was involved in a fatal accident with a driver called Belgetti, and Belgettis widow (Elga Andersen) which culminates in the films best known quotation.

The film was shot using a mixture of 1970 race footage a host of original cars and drivers.

David Piper seen above at Goodwood in 2009 gets a credit that reads "And Special Appreciation to DAVID PIPER for his Sacrifice During the filming of this Picture" he lost half a leg filming one of the horrifically realistic
accidents in the film.

The essence of the film is a superbly captured Titanic 24 hour battle between the Ferrari and Gulf Porsche teams. The end of the film focuses on a tight finish which is not unusual at Le Mans all though racing is a non contact sport and some of the driving antics seen at the end of the film are more usually seen at the beginning of the race between novices to 24 hour racing.

There is no Holywood finish to the race for McQueens character Delaney though he does his bit for the Gulf Porsche team, which never won at Le Mans in real life despite dominating almost all sports car races from 1970 - 1971 everywhere else. The Porsche Salzburg team won the 1970 race depicted in the film and the following year. By 1972 the Porsche 917's were banned from racing at Le Mans.

At this time of year, between seasons, race fans love quoting using all or part of the '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.' which is Michael Delaney's response to Mrs Belgetti's question what is so important about racing ?

The quotation is originally attributable to Maurice Trintignant a French Formula One driver.

To sum up a must see film for race fans, if only to see the Le Mans track at its murderous best and to my mind the most exciting sports racing cars of all time, Porsche 917 and Ferrari 512, all captured with inventive camera work and superb editing. The best bit about the film is that the usual Holywood cliche's are by and large missing leaving us with an experience far closer to a documentary than say the Frankenheimers Grand Prix with its rather laboured with plot, excruciating love interest and painfully cliched dialogue.

Hope you enjoyed today's film revue, wishing everyone a relaxing Sunday and I hope you'll join me again tomorrow, don't forget to come back now !


  1. I've never seen any race movie. Your review is intriguing. I actually might watch this some day.

    Hope you're feeling better.

  2. I appreciate the intrigue and interest in this movie, but I must admit I hated it. I went in with a sincere wish to love it, but I viewed Grand Prix (1966) first and Le MANS, in my humble opinion, falls far short of Grand Prix's magnificence. Still, I know I am in the minority among race fans who enjoy movies as Le MANS is often critically acclaimed. But, for my time and money, Grand Prix is the ultimate!

    Thanks, Art!

  3. I watched it about 8 times on Laser Disk (25 years ago).

    I agree with Chief, Grand Prix is awesome!

  4. @ Cheryl njoy !

    @ Chief maybe the themes dealt with in Grand Prix are a bit too adult for me ? I'll watch it again sometime and report back :-)

    @ JC we had a laser disc at school, its probably still their somewhere I remember it being kind of heavy with its built in combination TV :-)

  5. Too much American BS! Sorry! Lemans much better!

    1. Grand Prix had too much BS! ... McQueen knew what he was doing!