Le Mans The Movie: Then and Now

Steve McQueen

Want a jacket just like Steve McQueen wore in the move? Go here.

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Filmed in 1970 and released in 1971, the movie Le Mans was not met with favorable reviews by movie critics but it remains one of the classic motor racing movies ever made. Although almost completely devoid of a discernible plot by traditional standards, the film is none-the-less entertaining for sports car enthusiasts because of the incredibly realistic racing scenes and total on-location filming. In fact, racing fans actually point to the lack of a plot as a plus, since nothing interferes with the racing, which is after all how McQueen wanted the film to be in the first place.

What little plot there is centers around the central character played by McQueen, Michael Delaney, an American race car driver who is returning to drive at Le Mans after surviving a serious accident the previous year. The first 36 minutes of the film are without any dialogue from any of the actors. The voice of Lee J. Cobb can be heard in the role of the track announcer, and his commentary serves to explain some of the more arcane aspects of the sport to members of the audience who may not be sports car or racing fans. But even after the main protagonists begin to speak, the dialogue is brief and rather uncomplicated. The race cars and the race dominate the film. As McQueen intended.

To learn a tremendous amount about the making of the movie, the circuit, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the cars, and the drivers, purchase the book "A French Kiss with Death". Not only is it filled with detail about the making of the movie, but it is crammed with mostly never before seen photos of McQueen and the actual locations used for the film.

If you don't already own the Le Mans DVD, buy it. It supports Dolby Surround Sound and the cinematography is outstanding. It's a must-have for Steve McQueen fans, as well as sports car racing fans.

Below are links to images captured from the Le Mans DVD showing the circuit and environs as they appeared in 1970, and links to photos I shot in 2005 and 2006 showing the same locations. In some cases they have changed little. In other cases there have been substantial changes. The Circuit des 24 Heures is still largely in the same configuration it was in 1970, although the entire stretch that passed by Maison Blanche on highway D139 has been bypassed by a curve which takes the race track onto the permanent Circuit Bugatti. While most of the remaining corners and curves have had their radii modified, and the 4-mile Mulsanne straight has had two chicanes inserted to slow the cars, the circuit would no doubt be very familiar to McQueen

Still captures from the Le Mans DVD are copyright © Cinema Center Films, are used with permission, and are included here for review puposes only.

Intersection D92 & D139 Note Signs: Le Mans right and Ruadin 4km behind

Cathedrale St Julien 1970 Cathedrale St Julien 1970

Cathedrale St Julien 2006 Cathedrale St Julien 2006. Cathedrales don't change much.

Flower Stand 2006 The flower stand is a cafe as it was in 1970.

Intersection where Delaney Sees Signora Belgetti 1970 He looks across to flower stand from here.

Intersection where Delaney Sees Signora Belgetti 2006 He looks across to flower stand from here.

Road Delaney takes to Le Mans circuit 1970 Still recognizable although Citroen name is gone

Road Delaney takes to Le Mans circuit 2006 Still recognizable although Citroen name is gone

Paddock 1970 Paddock 1970: Very primitive by today's standards.

Paddock 2005 Paddock 2005: The facilities are better, but still leave a lot to be desired. Renovations are planned for 2007.

Awaiting The Start 1970 Mechanics stand around anxiously awaiting the start of the race with Gendarmes present to keep order.

Awaiting The Start 2005 Gendarmes no longer maintain security, but mechanics still wait anxiously for the start while media people swarm.

Awaiting The Start 1970 The grandstands are packed and the fans await the 4PM start of the race. Team members enjoy the spectacle.

Awaiting The Start 2005 Umbrellas keep the hot sun off the Nomex enshrouded drivers and everyone just waits for 4PM.

Race Start 1970 Standing Start 1970. This was the first year the drivers didn't sprint to their cars. Standing start was still dangerous.

Race Start 2005 Cars are lined up for recon lap prior to rolling start. No more standing starts.

Dunlop Bridge 1970 This was before they built the grandstand.

Dunlop Bridge 2005 The new grandstand is visible but not the new chicane installed to once again slow the cars.

Dunlop Bridge 1970 It was a straight run down to Descent de la Chappelle in 1970 with spetators close by on both sides of the track.

Dunlop Bridge 2005 Spectator areas have disappeared as gravel run-off areas have been installed along with debris fences.

Descent de la Chapelle 1970 Descent to the Church, much more scenic in 1970

Descent de la Chapelle 2005 The Descent to the Church is now mostly gravel run-off and sterile.

Descent de la Chapelle 1970 Descent de la Chapelle 1970

Tertre Rouge Entry 1970 Literally "Red Mound", it was a scenic viewing area in 1970. The Dunlop pedestrian bridge is no longer there.

Tertre Rouge Entry 2005 Safety regulations and gravel run-offs have destroyed the ambience.

Tertre Rouge Exit 1970 Note the white paint on the trunks of the poplar trees to help the drivers at night.

Tertre Rouge Exit 2005 The 100 year old poplar trees are a signature of this corner.

Mulsanne Straight 1970 Known locally as "Ligne Droit des Hunaudieres"

Mulsanne Straight 2005 To slow the cars, which where reaching 240 mph, two chicanes were installed in the straight in 1990.

Hotel des Hunaudieres Open 24 Heures, even during the race.

Hotel des Hunaudieres 2005 In 1970 you could sit here, eat a meal, and watch the cars whiz by at over 200 mph with no armco or debris fencing.

Hotel des Hunaudieres 2005 Today there is substantial barrier material and catch fencing in place, although you can still eat on the patio

Kink 1970 This corner is taken flat-out

Kink 2005 Not quite as severe as in 1970, but at over 180mph I'm sure it gets a driver's attention none-the-less.

Mulsanne Corner Entry 2006 Turn-in point, looking back up the Mulsanne Straight

Mulsanne Corner Exit 2006 Spectators are not allowed here any more.

Mulsanne Corner Exit 1970 Probably one of the most famous corners in road racing.

Mulsanne Corner Exit 2006 What used to be a spectator viewring area is now a parking lot.

Mulsanne Corner Exit 1970 Spectators could get a lot closer than they can today with no debris fences to obstruct the view and photography.

Mulsanne Corner 2005 The corner has been much improved over the years and is now much safer for the drivers.

Mulsanne Corner Exit 1970 Spectators could watch from a viewing mound which is no longer there.

Mulsanne Corner Exit 2005 Called Mulsanne because if you go straight you go to the village of Mulsanne. Clever, huh?

Mulsanne Corner exit 2005 Road sign indicates the traffic circle which is bypassed for the race. Old signaling pits on left.

Signaling Pits 1970 Before radios were used in racing, crews would telephone to signalers here who would hold signaling boards out for the drivers.

Signaling Pits 1970 Mechanic Holds Signaling Board

Signaling Pits 2005 The signaling pits are no longer used.

Corbe du Golf 1970 Literally "Curve of Golf or Golf Curve: The road passes a golf course

Corbe du Golf 2005 This view is heading toward Indianapolis corner

Indianapolis Entry 1970 This corner hasn't change much at all since 1970.

Indianapolis Entry 2005 Run-off area was greatly enlarged here (looking in the direction of travel)

Indianapolis Exit 1970 Virage Arnage is visible in the distance

Indianapolis Exit 2005 Looking back towards Indianpolis from Arnage corner, the same view you get on SpeedTV

Virage Arnage 1970 Called "Arnage" because if you go straight instead of turning right you go to the village of Arnage

Virage Arnage 2006 The huge dirt barrier is erected for the race as a safety precaution

Arnage Apex 2005 There is normally a stop sign here 362 days a year: Note the large earthen barricade

Arnage apex 2005 Note they removed the stop sign

Arnage Exit 2005 Looking toward the Porsche Curve.

Maison-Blanche 1970 Literally "White House"

Maison Blanche 2005 The course no longer passes here as it was just too dangerous.

Signs Give Braking Distance To the Porsche curve, a right hander that leads onto the permanent Bugatti Circuit, bypassing Maison Blanche

The Ferris Wheel in 1970 A lot smaller then and farther from the track.

Ferris wheel 2005 As with most everything else, much larger in 2005

Ferris wheel 2005 Bigger and closer to the race track.

Ferris wheel 2006 Relocated to outside of track in 2006

Chicane 1970 Installed to slow the cars on the grandstand straight after the 1955 accident which killed driver Pierre Levegh and 80 spectators.

Ford Chicane 2005 is actually two back-to-back chicanes now. The large building in the right middle background is ACO race control.

Chicane 1970 Two 90 degree turns connected by a very short straight stretch slowed the cars substantially.

Ford Chicane 2005 This shot shows the Ford Chicane Grandstand as well as the chicane itself. Note the gravel dragged onto the racing surface.

Grandstand Straight 1970 Note that there is no separation between the race track and the pit area and no garages.

Grandstand Straight 1970 They had VIP viewing areas even in 1970 over the pit stalls, but they were lower and smaller than today.

Grandstand Straight 2005 In 2005 the VIPs are housed in air conditioned comfort behind tinted glass with the less fortunate in covered seats above.

Grandstand Straight 1970 With no separation between the racetrack and the pit area, the people on the right of this frame are very vulnerable.

Grandstand Straight 2005 The grandstands are now higher (ten stories) and now on both sides of the track

Start/Finish Line Sign 1970 Simple but effective

Start/Finish Line Sign 2005 High technology affects every aspect of the race

Pit stop Porsche 917k 1970 Note that no one is wearing Nomex except the driver

Pit stop Aston Martin DBR9 2005 Note that all the crew members are wearing Nomex fire suits and balaclavas

The Hump 1970 The Infamous Hump. It was completely removed in 1989 after a Mercedes became airborne here.

Pit Lane 1970 There was no real pit entrance in 1970 and no separation bewteen the race track and the hot pit which was dangerous

Pit Lane 2005 The pit lane is separated from the grand stand straight by two concrete walls with the entrance back before the Ford Chicane

Pit-Out in 1970 There was no real pit exit in 1970 which was dangerous

Pit Exit 2005 Note the stop light on the left. The building in the right middle foreground was demolished in November 2005.

Ferrari crash at Indianapolis Note the dirt embankment which only served to launch the car

Crowds Flood the Circuit 1970 The fans with general admission tickets flock to the track

Crowds Flood the Circuit 2006 This is a tradition at Le Mans going back to 1923

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Creation Date: Monday, April 17, 2006
Last Modified: Monday, April 17, 2006
Copyright © 2006 Ray Smith