The Film that Broke the King of Cool

In 1969, when Steve McQueen suggested a film about the legendary 24 Hours of
Le Mans race, everyone thought it couldn’t fail. Everyone was wrong

At the end of the 1960s Steve McQueen had it all. Though it was an era of longhaired peaceniks, this shorthaired toughie had become acknowledged as the King of Cool. He was one of the highest paid actors in the world and his string of box office smashes already included three total classics – The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape and Bullitt.

On top of that he’d been Oscar-nominated for The Sand Pebbles and, in 1970, had just made The Reivers, a gentle period drama that proved McQueen was more than a one-dimensional action man. McQueen had the box-office Midas touch and respect from the critics. The King of Cool, in other words, was hot.

Born to a stunt pilot father and an alcoholic mother, McQueen had a troubled childhood. The tearaway youth became a delinquent teenager and McQueen eventually found himself in a correctional facility. This school of hard knocks was the making of McQueen, teaching him how to focus his maverick spirit and how to handle himself and other people.

But McQueen still had trouble in his blood and for a 1950s rebel steeped in Marlon Brando’s The Wild One, riding a motorbike was the obvious next step. McQueen learned to ride while drifting around the US after a stint in the Marines. And he took to off-roading like a natural, soon graduating to gruelling races on a beloved Triumph, just like Brando’s.

Incidentally, this “the boy just loves to run wild” story was not concocted for the publicity pages. Later, when he was so famous and valuable that the studio banned him from racing, McQueen did it anyway, entering himself in events under the name Harvey Mushman.

McQueen simply loved racing and put himself through acting school with the money he earned in competitive races. And with the beginnings of success after a stint in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive, he added cars to bikes – the D-Type Jaguar XKSS being the first and one of the most loved of an enviable collection of sexy fast vehicles.

As with the bikes, McQueen became passionate about car races that relied heavily on toughing it out. He became a feature at Sebring, at the 24 Hours of Daytona and, eventually, at Le Mans, whether in the crowd, behind the scenes or behind a wheel.

McQueen’s thrill-seeking persona and anti-establishment attitude made him a natural film star. Whether he was riding a horse in The Magnificent Seven, a motorbike in The Great Escape or bouncing a car down the hills of San Francisco in Bullitt, McQueen in the driving seat seemed guaranteed to make audiences whoop and studio bosses forget that he was, in fact, murder to work with.

As he rose to the top, all the while McQueen was working on a plan to make a film about “the greatest endurance race in the world”, as he called it, a film in which silly human stories would be pushed to the background and the cars would get their due as the stars of the show.

In 1965 he nearly managed something like it with his Great Escape director John Sturges. But their Formula 1 project Day of the Champion was pipped to the post by John Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix, starring James Garner. No one, surely, wanted two films about racing?

McQueen persisted and by 1969, at the peak of his powers and with enough clout to tell studios what to do, he set off again with Sturges to make his Le Mans film.

It was a gigantic undertaking. 26 cars, 52 drivers from seven countries, 350,000 extras and 20,000 props. And though Sturges was the director and the studio was in charge of the money, McQueen was calling the shots.

It’s at this point that we should take stock. On the upside we’ve got a star at the peak of his powers, a subject close to his heart, a director who really knows his stuff and enough pedal-to-the-metal glamour to raise the dead.

On the downside we have an actor with money worries (30 staff on the payroll and an extravagant lifestyle can do that to the best of us) and a focus so intense it was beginning to turn ugly.

McQueen had always been an awkward customer – a moody, driven actor who’d work tirelessly to upstage his fellows (look again at the tics and gestures that drove Yul Brynner wild in The Magnificent Seven) – and his normal movie-star paranoia only got worse when he discovered cocaine.

Whether it was the chip on his shoulder, the self-belief, the paranoia, the drugs or a fatal combination of the lot, McQueen’s single-mindedness morphed into madness during the making of Le Mans. Stories abound of seasoned film technicians looking on aghast as McQueen agonised endlessly over the tiniest details – the breed of bug glued to his windscreen, the dust on his tyres and so on.

Nothing got done. Worse, McQueen’s years of labouring on the idea for Le Mans had produced a mere ten pages of treatment which baffled all who read it. In his mind the film was about racing and nothing else.

Pure racing, Sturges warned him, would make for a boring movie. Sturges suggested adding human interest, a love story, anything that would flesh out the characters and involve the average filmgoer.

But what did the director of Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape know about film-making? McQueen got his way and Sturges walked, uttering the classic exit line “I’m too old and too rich to put up with this shit”.

Over the course of the next psychotic months McQueen fired virtually everyone close to him – the producer, long-time colleagues, his agent of ten years. Finally, his wife turned up on set and McQueen “fired” her too.

To replace Sturges, McQueen hired Lee Katzin, a director from TV who he presumably felt would be easy to control. The falling-out was virtually instantaneous, with Katzin arriving on the set, putting out his hand and saying “Hello, Steve. Nice to meet you”. “Mr McQueen,” replied the addled star, grabbing Katzin violently by the tie.

Back in Hollywood the alarm bells were ringing and the concerned studio decided that McQueen had had his length of rope and was quite obviously hanging himself with it.

The suits arrived en masse and took the film back from McQueen, who was forced to give up artistic control and his $750,000 paycheck so as to avoid being replaced by Robert Redford. Anything to stay in the film.

With McQueen out of the driving seat the film, finally, got finished.

The result? Well, race fans loved it, and still do, claiming it’s the most authentic race film ever made. Normal human beings, not interested in the Ferrari 512 or the Porsche 917, stayed away. The film was a flop and Sturges was proved right, as McQueen later admitted.

For McQueen it marked the end of his career as a player. He went into therapy, became a recluse and hit the booze. Though his career did later recover, his time as Hollywood’s biggest star was over.

When he died, of cancer aged only 50 in 1980 McQueen left behind a handful of great work from the 1960s, but also a huge fleet of cars, trucks and classic motor bikes, more than 200 in total.

In spite of the fact that vehicles had delivered the biggest humiliation of his career, Steve McQueen had stayed faithful to his first true love right to the end of a wild life. Now wouldn’t that be a perfect way to bookend a big Hollywood biopic?

Assuming you could find someone who could play the King of Cool…

Le Mans – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2011

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