Steve McQueen's Icarus Flight of Fate

in 68th Cannes Film Festival

by Mario Abbade

When Icarus rebelled against Daedalus, his father, and flew too close to the Sun, he ended up having the wax that glued his wings melt and fall into the Aegean Sea, and he was drowned. This page of Greek mythology teaches a simple lesson: we should not fly higher than our wings allow us, for there is the risk of falling. From that story there is also the expression “Icarus Flight”, which could have been a good title for the documentary Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans.

Directed by Gabriel Clarke (who also was responsible for the screenplay) and John McKenna, the film is a pertinent message about how an obsession can make us fail, taking as an example the case of Steve McQueen, who in 1971 was the most famous actor in the world: he had won twice (in 1967 and 1970) the Golden Globe Henrietta Award, a prize given to favourite actors (World Film Favourite Male).

McQueen had several subsequent successes, both at the box office and with the critics – The Cincinnati Kid (1965), Nevada Smith (1966), The Sand Pebbles (1966, for which he was Oscar-nominated), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Bullitt (1968). With Hollywood kneeling before him, “The King of Cool” decided on a career as a producer and aimed to exert total control over his films, with final cut and overall artistic view of his projects. With a blank cheque in his hands, he decided to put together both of his passions: cinema and car racing – McQueen was an aficionado, showing talent in several professional car and motor-bike contests since the beginning of 1960.

In 1962, he began to dream about the possibility to make a film about the sport, with the project Day of the Champion, but in 1966, Warner Bros closed down the enterprise, after Grand Prix, starring James Garner was launched in the same year. The Garner film was like a soap opera, and very different from the one that McQueen wanted to develop: to transport the spectator inside of the vehicle during the race, in order to make him feel all the adrenaline. His desire was to make a definitive essay on the subject, in which he would be not only the actor, but the author as well.

Nine months before initiating the filming, McQueen missed attending a party at Sharon Tate’s home due to an assignaton with a blonde (he never could resist  a woman). This saved his life, for at the Tate house Charles Manson committed the famous massacre and McQueen was the first name on the psychopath’s death list. The actor became so paranoid that he got a permit to carry a gun for all his travels. Such mania and perfectionism grew a lot during the filmmaking.  He gathered many professional drivers and the best technical crew on the subject to produce the traditional and charming 24 hours of Le Mans, focussed around the Endurance World Championship of FIA (a competition organised by the International Federation of Car Racing) and considered the biggest race in the world. The race over 24 hours has been contested annually since 1923, at the Circuite de la Sarthe, Le Mans (France).

In the same way as director Francis Ford Coppola conceived Apocalypse Now in 1978, McQueen built a villa in order to mount the infrastructure needed for the making of the film, close to the Le Mans race-track. As was usual at the time, he began making the film without a written script. There were weeks and weeks spent taking spectacular images of the cars on the race-track, with an apparatus that even today is used by productions eschewing special effects in CGI. Everything was made in the most realistic way possible. No other film about car racing was able to capture in a better way what really happens during a race. After six weeks, the director John Sturges, responsible for the hits The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Great Escape (1963) both with McQueen, abandoned the production because he had been unable to film scenes with dialogue or any kind of drama. 

Sturges said at the time that “he was too old and too rich to put up with that shit”. He never wanted to work with McQueen thereafter, and they never spoke again. After an overrun budget and without a written script, the studio recovered control over the project. In spite of everything, it is still very impressive – the multi angles of the cars, drivers and the race track.  There are several different “stylish angles”, the majority made at 330km per hour – not only what was being captured, but also the vehicles that are capturing such images.

The big question concerning the new film signed by Gabriel Clarke and John McKenna is: why did something that looked so promising go so wrong? The film is a failure in every respect. Clarke and McKena undertook accurate research work, after finding almost four hours of unseen footage in the United States and in Europe. They interviewed all the people involved at the turbulent time of shooting, which lasted an impressive six-month period. These conflicting statements are illustrated by actual images as well as ones taken at the time, and there are McQueen’s own declarations, in a recovered interview, which drive the narrative. A few happenings were dramatised and told by those that were there; all planned down to the last detail and edited, with several stories from previously unpublished documents. Clarke and McKenna completed the blank spaces with an approach rich in detail. 

At first glance, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans looks like another documentary about the shooting for the initiated and fans of the subject. But the ones linked to the layers of meanings read between the lines will detect that the mote is a mere conductor for something deeper: like the behaviour of the obsessed, the one that has a fixed and persistent idea which determines his conduct.

The origin of the word obsessed, from the Latin, “obcaecare”, indicates a state of blindness – an idea that accumulates thousands of examples in the history of humanity, teaching us that to proceed without limits generates a total disaster instead of success at the accomplishing of goals to be achieved. 

To not know how to deal with frustration of the defeat or downfall provokes non-healing wounds. And the shooting of Le Mans left wounds and scars on all the people involved in one way or another. McQueen never participated in another car race. His disillusionment was so deep that he decided to turn his back on the sport that once was his first passion.  And he became more and more reclusive. At the end, Steve McQueen lost his wife, his family and his passion for cinema. 

In spite of McQueen going back to the top of his  career one year later with The Getaway (1972) and to stay on top with Papillon (1973) and The Towering Inferno (1974), the resentment was so painful that not even these victories brought back his recovery. The fact that his biggest dream was never accomplished ended up being one more factor for the advance of the cancer that took his life in 1980 along with the smoking and the asbestos (cause of his intoxication in the Marines, and it was also a component in his fire-proof jumpsuit worn as a driver).

Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans is a necessary settling of accounts in respect of the artist and the visionary film-maker.

Edited by Richard Mowe