Steve McQueen and the making of 'Le Mans'

Stanley Bielecki Movie Collection/Getty Images

If, back in the day, you watched Steve McQueen's movie 'Le Mans' and wondered what it was actually all about, the answer -- or answers, because there are several, as you might expect from this enigmatic actor -- are vividly portrayed in a recently released *DVD documentary.

Viewing 'Le Mans' in 1971 seemed an enjoyable if lengthy experience generated solely for a motor sport audience. It was difficult to reach an alternative conclusion thanks to stunning on-board footage from a specially adapted camera car taking part in the 1970 24-hour classic. Plus the fact that the script, if you could call it that, was as wooden as it was brief.

In fact, as the documentary reveals, there was no story at all. Or, at least, not until the film had gone $1.5m over budget, run three months late, and the director had walked out. It was only when the film company stepped in with a script that McQueen's excesses were reigned in.

That should not give the impression that the movie was the work of a film star with a huge ego created by his roles in 'Bullitt', 'The Thomas Crown Affair' and 'The Great Escape'. For McQueen, a serious amateur racer who had finished second (sharing a Porsche 908 with Peter Revson) in the 1970 Sebring 12 Hours, making 'Le Mans' was a self-confessed seminal moment in his life. In fact, it was an obsession, and a dangerous one at that.

The sole aim was, in his words, "to show rather than explain why a man races cars". Having been there and done it, McQueen shunned artificial attempts to make him appear sweaty, his preference being to drive the car (a Porsche 917 capable of 220 mph), return to the pits and remove his crash helmet and flame-proof balaclava to reveal genuine perspiration and protruding cranial veins that no make-up artist could replicate.

Such attention to small detail was extended to massive efforts to make the racing seem real, to the point where a few of the 40 professional drivers taking part quietly declared that the constant retakes at high speed were actually more hazardous than Le Mans itself. Terrible proof would come when the British driver, David Piper, lost the lower part of his right leg when he lost control of his Porsche 917.

McQueen himself would pay a personal price as his marriage failed during the making of the movie. Some would say this had been a long time coming, accelerated by McQueen rolling a hire car while out with Louise Edlind, his co-star. The accident was hushed up. The Swedish actress and model never made another major movie and turned to politics.

McQueen did go on to feature in other films but, in his view, none of them could match 'Le Mans'. Over 100 million feet of film was used, many of the behind-the-scenes shots woven into the documentary as a perfect reminder of McQueen's unique dynamism and sense of movement, not to mention his passion for racing.

The so-called 'King of Cool' died of cancer in 1980. It not is overdramatic to suggest McQueen would approve of the thoughtful -- if rather relaxed -- manner in which this fascinating story has been put together.

*'Steve McQueen. The Man and Le Mans'