The first thing to know is that Steve McQueen, noted cinematic cool guy, loved cars. Loved 'em to pieces. One of the jewels of his collection was a Porsche 908 race car, which the actor drove to a second-place finish on one of the world's great endurance courses, the 12 Hours of Sebring race in Florida. This race, historically, has often been viewed as the best preparation for the most intense, notorious endurance race in the world: the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, a grueling test of an automobile's ability to withstand nonstop driving. And indeed, McQueen had some hope that he would himself be able to race at Le Mans, and managed to build a whole motion picture around that dream. Though insurance concerns meant that McQueen himself could not drive in the race (though rumours persist...), his 908 did, taking 9th place in the 1970 Le Mans event, which was filmed with documentarylike precision (by cameras mounted in McQueen's 908, among other camera cars) and released under the simple title of Le Mans in 1971.
I am no Steve McQueen, no matter what you may have heard to the contrary, and certainly I do not love cars, but even so I must concede that Le Mans is an inordinately fascinating motion picture. "Documentarylike" I said but a few lines ago, and yet the film blurs the line between documentary and fiction in ways that would make Werner Herzog nod in appreciation. The race at Le Mans on display in the film, after all, is the real and actual race that occured on June 13-14, 1971; and in a wild bit of serendipity, the same model which the screenplay called out to win (the Porsche 917; McQueen was a Porsche man, though and through) just so happened to win the actual race, though in life it was not a movie actor driving the victorious car. This is however nothing but a nifty bit of trivia, and should not get in the way of the film's greater triumph: Le Man presents what may very well be the most direct representation of a car race in cinema history. It is, at any rate, the most impressive race movie I've ever seen, though there are not many of them. It is not likely that you have heard of the film's director, Lee H. Katzin (he replaced the better-known John Sturges after that man had a fight with McQueen), nor of its two cinematographers or three editors, but the filmmakers nevertheless achieved, in this instant, absolute greatness: they captured the Le Mans race from angles almost inconceivable to mortal man, and then assembled it in an unfussy way that results in one of the most wholly coherent races ever put on screen.
A good thing that the race is so very easy to follow, because there really isn't anything else to the movie. It opens as the racers arrive; it ends moments after the first-place winner is crowned. In between, there is the rudiments of a plot involving McQueen as Michael Delaney, driving on the Porsche team, his friendly rivalry with Erich Stahler (Siegfried Rauch), driving for Ferrari, and his guilt over his part in an accident from the year prior that left a good friend dead, leaving behind a widow, Lisa (Elga Andersen), whom Delaney feels responsible for. If I say that none of this plays out in the way that you would probably anticipate, that is not a sign that the film is eager to bust open clichés - it is rather that the film is eager to abandon its narrative at every available moment.
Instead of thinking of Le Mans as a routine sports movie, with underdogs and arcs and villains and triumphs, it's better perhaps to view it as a visual poem about cars in motion. Not a poem, maybe. A concerto. For Le Mans is a remarkably musical film, both in the sense of the 1920s French idea that cinema editing is an inherently musical process, and in the sense that it has an especially wonderful score by Michel Legrand, arguably the finest composer in the history of motion picture soundtracks. There are moments in the film, primarily in its first third, where the combination of music and speeding cars blend into an abstraction that places the movie squarely in the company of something like Koyaanisqatsi, rather than The Fast and the Furious.
In fact, for something whose appeal is theoretically limited primarily towards gearheads - I use the term affectionately, or at least I mean to - whose knowledge of film esoterica is probably limited, Le Mans proves to have a remarkably artsy construction. The essential lack of a plot or character hooks - i.e. drama - I have already mentioned; but there is also the film's insane opening gambit, which places it squarely in territory marked, in 1971, primarily by Tarkovsky and 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the first 37 minutes of Le Man, there is not one single line of dialogue, and none of the characters are defined in any way other than their flashbacks to the 1969 crash. Oh, there are a few announcements over the Le Mans public address system, but I'd hardly count them as "dialogue". Which means, for those keeping score at home, that the first 35% of the film is practically a silent movie (albeit a silent movie with a brilliant score and a very well-designed race car soundscape). And as I reflect on that, it occurs to me that 2001 nor the corpus of Tarkovsky can boast any films with a solid 35% stretch of their running time entirely without dialogue.
It's no coincidence that the opening is the best part of the movie, the part where it is devoted entirely to the passion for speeding metal that led McQueen to spearhead the project in the first place (the auteurist in me can't help but regard this in every respect as his movie, though he neither directed, wrote, nor produced). Racing is reduced to an abstraction, but an eminently physical abstraction, if that makes sense; we never forget that the cars are massive objects, but they cease to seem like cars, e.g. metal boxes that carry people about. The phrase "poetry in motion" springs to mind, although that's probably not what the phrase was coined to describe.
At any rate, the film spends most of its time at the beginning and the end dedicated to such visions, but the middle is absolutely prosaic and forgettable. Frankly, McQueen himself is palpably disinterested in the middling dramatics; his interest in the project begins and ends with the spectacle of the race itself, and damn the rest. I do not blame him, really; the racing sequences in Le Mans are unadulterated Art, while the plotty bits couldn't have worked even if the lead actor committed himself body and soul to the drama. So let us not be harsh on the film's flaws, for its successes are great, and to my experience, unique in all the annals of car movies for their on-the-ground immediacy.