Let’s Backtrack: Steve McQueen’s film “Le Mans” turns 50

In a week of appalling news everywhere, I feel guilty for talking about something superficial, but. . . .

“Le Mans” was released on June 23, 1971, and (depending on whom you ask) is the greatest motorsports film ever made.  It was McQueen’s pet project, a film that almost drove him into personal bankruptcy to produce.  His dialogue in the trailer is legendary:

This isn’t just a thousand to one shot. This is a professional bloodsport. And it can happen to you. And then it can happen to you again.

[. . .]

A lot of people go through life doing things badly. Racing’s important to men who do it well. When you’re racing, it’s life. Anything that happens before or after is just waiting.


McQueen plays Michael Delaney, driving for the Porsche team, under orders to ensure one of the team’s cars wins, whether his or another.  After a crash in which his car is destroyed, Delaney takes over for a driver in another team Porsche (which in real life would not be permitted) and continues the race.

The film is remarkable for how it was filmed: during the 1970 Le Mans race as well as post race filming.  McQueen, a competitive driver who finished second at the 12 Hours of Sebring in spring 1970, was a registered entrant at the 1970 Le Mans race in a Porsche 917K.  Much of the film used in the movie came from this and other cars.  Other scenes (crashes, head to head competition against his rival) were filmed at other locations using mock-up cars similar to Le Mans entrants.  The racing and practical effects crashes are some of the best ever filmed and have aged well.

People occasionally post full films on youtube.  The film can currently be seen here until its inevitable removal.



  1. moarscienceplz says

    I can’t say that I share McQueen’s love of the internal combustion engine, and I have seen only a fraction of his films, but I do find him a compelling actor. He could appeal to the same hyper-masculinized audience of the 50s and 60s as John Wayne, but he had a foundation of humor and sensitivity and intelligence that Wayne couldn’t even imagine, let alone achieve.

    • says

      Strangely, the same could be said for the other two actor/racers of the era, Paul Newman and James Garner. Garner wasn’t as good an actor, but still personable.