Two years ago at the Cannes Film Festival, a documentary by a pair of British filmmakers caused a mild stir as one of only two features from the UK chosen for the event’s official selection. Their effort, Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans, is a story of epic failure – how legendary actor McQueen gambled his career on the 1971 movie Le Mans, based on the famous 24-hour endurance race in northwest France. He was starring in and producing the film, made by his own company, Solar Productions.
It was meant to be the start of his own movie-making empire, allowing McQueen to make bolder choices, but ended up being a commercial and critical flop, hampered by tales of onset feuds, real-life car crashes and a production way over budget. Le Mans did change McQueen’s career, but not for the better – his production company failed (along with his first marriage), he refused to attend the premiere, and despite once being a keen racer in real life vowed never to compete again. He also opted for roles in much safer studio projects from then on, until his death from cancer in 1980.
But was the time making the film really that bad? In a new book, Our Le Mans: The Movie, The Friendship, The Facts, German actor Siegfried Rauch gives his own account, revealing fonder memories. Rauch played Eric Stahler, the Ferrari driver who shares an intense onscreen rivalry with McQueen’s character, Porsche’s Michael Delaney. While the two have an epic duel on the track at the movie’s close, away from the cameras they were great friends, with McQueen even becoming godfather to Rauch’s son, Jakob.
Now aged 85, Rauch explains how their friendship came about. “There were about 300 people on the set, with the actors and production team, and everyone wanted to talk to him,” he says of McQueen. “He was the biggest movie star in the world at that point, riding high on the success of The Thomas Crown Affair and Bullitt. But I just thought he would be too busy to talk to me. Then one day he stopped me and asked why I had been avoiding him. I explained, and he liked it that I showed him such respect; it was refreshing for him. He asked me where I was from and about my life in Bavaria, as he had filmed The Great Escape there. He called me Siggi, and from that point on we started hanging out together.”
Le Mans was filmed entirely on location in France, in the same town as the actual race. McQueen’s production crew had initially turned up in the summer of 1970 for the event that year, mounting cameras on the cars competing, so that authentic footage could be spliced into the completed film. “The cars had two, sometimes three cameras mounted on them during the race,” Rauch recalls. “Nothing like this had been tried before in movie making. When they pulled in for a pit stop, as well as the tyres being changed, the production crew would swap the film. I don’t think the drivers were too happy as the cameras changed the aerodynamics, making the cars harder to control.”
McQueen had originally hired John Sturges to direct Le Mans, who had worked with him on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, and Alan Trustman to write the script.
However, the troubled production and McQueen’s own quest for perfection saw the actor firing both. Hollywood company Cinema Center Films, which had provided much of the funding until that point, was forced to intervene, appointing Lee Katzin (“Steve hated him,” says Rauch) and Harry Kleiner as the new director and writer respectively – they even considered replacing McQueen with Robert Redford, just to get the movie finished.
Rauch is quick to defend McQueen, however, saying that if the actor was difficult, it was simply because he was passionate about the subject matter. “He really was a good driver, really talented,” he says. “He was a big Porsche fan, and he drove a 911 to and from the set every day. He was staying in an old castle about 45 minutes away, which he said he liked because it gave him more time in the car. ‘It corners so well,’ he would say.”
McQueen’s enthusiasm lead to Rauch developing his own interest in cars, with a former racing driver on hand to teach him how to drive his Ferrari. “The set was like a huge workshop, with cars constantly being worked on, but none of them were as safe as they are today,” he says. “We’d use a stunt driver for anything really dangerous, but even then one guy had to have part of his lower leg amputated after a scene went wrong. For the really big crashes we operated everything by remote control, with a dummy sat behind the wheel, and for the cars that caught fire a cheaper chassis was used, made to look authentic, with the real vehicle parked safely somewhere else.”
But even with the various onset difficulties, McQueen would always tell his actors not to worry, and Rauch admits he even learned a few things from the star. “He would say to me, ‘Siggi, let the others quarrel, you have your own job to do,’” the German recalls. “And he knew about camera angles and how to make yourself look good onscreen. In one scene we had together, he played it back and noticed I was slightly taller than him. He didn’t like that, as he felt it gave him less presence, and after all he was the star.
“He told me about a scene he did with Yul Brynner in The Magnificent Seven, where the two were sat in a carriage with no dialogue between them. Steve still wanted to make himself the most memorable out of the two, so he pulled out his cartridges, one after the other, shook them and loaded his rifle. It was unscripted, but it was Steve’s way of stealing the scene. Brynner refused to work with him after that.”
When filming in France eventually came to an end, Rauch says that McQueen was visibly upset that their friendship might be over. “I said to him, for fun really, ‘If you want to see how I live and eat good sauerkraut, come to the baptism of my son in Bavaria and become his godfather,’” he recalls. “I couldn’t believe it when he said he would.”
The book features many of Rauch’s own personal photos, taken on the set of Le Mans, but also at his parents’ house during the visits of McQueen and his family. “My wife, Karin, and I still lived with my mother at the time,” says Rauch. “My mother loved him coming to visit with his own wife and son, and he enjoyed our family life. He would always tell me, ‘I never had this,’ as his own upbringing was quite lonely. We would go hiking in the mountains, which he liked, and after a short trip to Switzerland with his family he came back to Bavaria in his 911 to attend my son’s christening and become his godfather.”
If their friendship had continued, could McQueen have helped Rauch forge a career in Hollywood, rather than continue only in German film and TV? “We wrote to each other for a long time, but he died 10 years later,” Rauch explains. “He did return the favour, and invited us to Hollywood to see how he lived, but that was when I saw it wasn’t right for me. The industry there can destroy lives as well as build careers, and Steve had his own problems with his divorce and so on. A lot of Hollywood stars are unhappy, but I live in Germany and can honestly say that I enjoy my life.”
While the experience of Le Mans was clearly not a highlight in McQueen’s career, Rauch is happy to have been part of it. “It’s funny, even though so many years have passed, I can clearly remember every day of shooting on Le Mans,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had that with any other project.”
The film has gained a cult following over time, mainly due to the race footage, with it capturing so much of the 1970 Le Mans event, and in such a dramatic way. “Nobody had made a film like that before,” says Rauch. “And if you were making it today, you would use CGI and green screen. It wouldn’t be authentic.”
Die-hard racing fans admire it, but for general audiences its lack of dialogue and plot can still pose a problem. According to Rauch, McQueen was never really a huge talker anyway, on and off the screen, so in many ways the film accurately portrays the actor’s personality. “He didn’t say much,” Rauch confirms. “But you could trust every word he said.”
Our Le Mans: The Movie, The Friendship, The Facts is available now from ACC Publishing, price $32. See www.accpublishinggroup.com