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Featured Blu-ray / DVD Review: Le Mans

May 23rd, 2011

Le Mans - Buy from Amazon: DVD or Blu-ray

Le Mans is an auto racing movie from 1971 starring Steve McQueen. At the time of its release, it wasn't particularly well-received by critics, nor did it earn a large amount at the box office. However, 40 years later, there are some that consider it one of the best, or at least purest racing movies of all time. Which side of this divide will I fall on? And does the Blu-ray deliver the goods.

The Movie

Steve McQueen stars as Michael Delaney, whom we meet driving his Porsche down the street. He passes a woman buying flowers, shortly after he pulls over to the side of the road and in a flashback we see that this was the location of a terrible racing accident in which Michael and another driver, Piero Belgetti, were involved. Michael survived. Belgetti did not. Michael has returned to the scene of the accident on his way to the Le Mans race track, the site of the 24 hour endurance race.

For the next 20 minutes or so we see the spectators and racers get ready for the big day with the occasional bit of background dialogue, while the announcer describes the race. It's 24 hours race with at least two drivers per car and whichever car goes the most distance wins. For the fastest cars, it's like driving from Los Angeles to New York in one day. (Maybe closer to Seattle to Miami.) And it's not your typical race, because there are six class and all cars, from the fastest to the slowest class, share the track at the same time. Imagine having to drive at speeds averaging nearly 150 miles per hour while having to deal with cars going half that speed. In the rain. At night.

So far I've described the opening credits. I've described the rules of the race. So what about the plot? That's where things get a little unusual. The movie is 109 minutes long, including credits. It takes more than 38 minutes before any of the lead characters say a word. "Hello." Michael Delaney says that to Lisa Belgetti, the wife of the driving that was killed the year before. She's here with another driver, Claude Aurac, a friend who is a driver for Ferrari, just like her late husband. We do eventually get a few threads that make up the plot. One of the racers, Johann Ritter, is thinking of retiring, which would certainly please his wife, as it's a dangerous sport and they both worry about what would happen to her and their kids if he were killed. But, she doesn't want to be the one to tell him to stop racing.

As the race continues, the weather sours and rain begins to fall. One of the lead cars, which last year broke a record, is knocked out with a blown engine, which means it will likely be another Porsche / Ferrari race, with Michael Delaney racing for Porsche and Erich Stahler, one of the greatest racers in the world and Michael's rival, leading the way for Ferrari. This time it's caused by the rainy conditions, which were expected, but neither the manager of the Porsche team nor the Ferrari team were willing to bring the cars in for an early pit, not with so close a race. It isn't till there is a minor accident that team Porsche blinks and decides to bring them in. This is how much the race means to the managers and the drivers. And with this much on the line and with the people involved willing to push safety to the limits, it's only a matter of time before tragedy strikes.

This film is definitely a niche market film. If you are a fan of auto racing, especially this format, you will be enthralled by the racing action. The filmmakers concentrate heavily on the racing action, the dangers involved and the emotions that generates. On the other hand, if you are not a fan of racing, there's almost zero plot to hold onto. There are rivalries between teams / racers, but even here they are no villains and heroes, just competitors who have real respect for each other.

The filmmakers were really able to capture what it is like to race, which is not a surprise, as a lot of the racing in the film is footage from the 1970 running of Le Mans. There are scenes, especially in the rain, where the dangers of the sport are brought out. The cars kick up so much water, it's like driving in thick fog. When there's a tight string of cars driving down a straightaway, you can't see anything past the third car.

There are a few times where I felt the filmmakers were trying a little too hard when they didn't need to. Slow motion, instant replies, dropping the sounds, and the like were unnecessary to add emotional weight to the film. Also, by 1970 with the safety standards they had, wouldn't it be very unlikely for a car to burst into flames after an accident? Maybe that was still a real danger 40 years ago.

The Extras

The only real extra on either format is a 24-minute making of featurette. The special is hosted by Steve McQueen's son, Chad McQueen, and features clips from the movie, behind-the-scenes footage, and a lot of people talking about the making of the movie and the real life racing. It's a good featurette, I just wish it wasn't the only one.

Because the film uses so much footage from the actual 1970 race, its video quality can be mixed at times. When filming from the perspective of the drivers, the quality level tends to drop considerably. On the other end of the spectrum, there are some interior shots that are as good as one could reasonably expect for a film that's 40 years old. There are a few specs and the odd vertical line, but given the age of the film, these are forgivable and overall it looks great. The audio presents clear dialogue, what little dialogue there is. When it comes to the racing, that's when the audio track comes alive and all 7.1 channels are used. It's a truly immersive experience.

Looking at the price of the two formats, the Blu-ray costs just $18 on, which isn't bad for a catalog title. It's not great either. The DVD, on the other hand, costs just $12.

The Verdict

On the one hand, Le Mans is arguably the best racing movie ever made. It certainly showcases the reality of racing in a way few films even attempt. In most racing films, you could substitute any number of sports and get the same general plot. On the other hand, neither the DVD nor the Blu-ray are exactly overloaded with extras, while the latter costs a bit more than I would like. I am still recommending buying the Blu-ray, but I wish there was more extras so I could be more enthusiastic about it.

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