Steve McQueen could do no wrong in 1970. Known as the King of Cool, McQueen ruled the box office thanks to such memorable films as 1963’s “The Great Escape,” 1966’s “The Sand Pebbles” — for which he earned his only Oscar nomination — and 1968’s “The Thomas Crown Affair” and “Bullitt.”
It was in 1968 that McQueen, a well-known car racing fanatic, headed to Europe to begin work on his passion project revolving around the legendary 24-hour car race, “Le Mans.” But everything went wrong.
“He was a good man who lost his way,” said Neile Adams, who was married to McQueen from 1956 to 1972. “He lost everybody.”
A new documentary “Steve McQueen: The Man & Le Mans,” which opened in theaters Friday and arrives on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on Dec. 1, explores what happened during the making of the film, which was met in 1971 with mixed critical response and disappointing box-office returns. “Le Mans,” though, has grown in reputation over the decades.
British directors John McKenna and Gabriel Clarke utilize vintage audio and film interviews with McQueen, who died in 1980, combined with new interviews with Adams, son Chad McQueen, several of the drivers who appeared in “Le Mans” and rare behind-the-scenes footage that the filmmakers unearthed.
Neither McKenna or Clarke were that familiar with “Le Mans” when a producer they just finished working with told them the story over a drink.
Intrigued, McKenna began reading up more on the troubled production. “What an incredible story,” he said. And when both filmmakers discovered no one had made a feature documentary on “Le Mans,” it “became a real ambition of ours if we could tell the story in a unique way.”
McQueen had formed Solar Productions with Robert Relyea, a producer who had worked with the actor on several films, in 1966. They scored a huge success with “Bullitt” and were hoping to do the same with “Le Mans.” John Sturges, who had directed McQueen in three films including 1960’s “The Magnificent Seven” " and “The Great Escape,” was reuniting with the actor for “Le Mans.”
But there was no finished script. “They had six or seven trailers,” said Adams, who has never seen the 1971 feature. “Each one had a writer. They were writing scripts trying to come up with something that Steve liked.”
Clarke noted McQueen was in a “King Lear"-type position because of his obsession to make the film. “He was essentially untouchable and not even those closest to him could get through to him,” Clarke said.
But when Adams finally arrived on the set in France with with Chad and daughter Terry, the women vanished. “I called them the bimbettes,” Adams said. “The heavy drugs stopped. He was on to grass.”
Eventually, Reylea and Sturges left the production. “John said I’m too old and too rich [for this],” said Adams.
Cinema Center Films, the short-lived feature arm of CBS that was making “Le Mans,” ultimately put its foot down. Lee H. Katzin, who was primarily known as a TV director, was hired as the new director.
Adams remembered one day seeing executives from the William Morris Agency and Cinema Center telling McQueen “we are taking the picture away from you. You are not allowed to do anything. It’s over and out. We are getting a new director. We are going to close down for two weeks until we have got everything together and the director comes in. Everything was taken away from him.”