Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie
It is often slim pickings when it comes to fresh releases in the first week of a new year, and that frequently results in shorter or absent reviews from myself. The month of January will see more new films in the coming weeks, but for now I found my bacon saved in the form Sky’s dedicated documentary channel, the previous home of the previously viewed The Longest War, and usually good for a new educational feature if you are in need of something you can put the number “2021” on.
Which is not to say that this is a throwaway watch at all. You have a combination here of a number of interesting subjects: the titular actor, who so defined the film-making landscape of a certain time; another example of motor-racing on film, to whet my appetite ahead of a resumption of Formula E in a few weeks and Formula 1 in a few months (COVID permitting); and a film about film-making, in this case a very unique film-making rivalry, with archive footage seeing the light of day for the very first time. Was Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie a good introduction to 2021, or a bad omen for a year that yet portends significant disruption for the industry?
In the late 1960’s Steve McQueen was one of the biggest draws in Hollywood, but the man himself sometimes seemed to act as if the starring roles were just a means of pursuing his real passion: motor-racing. With veteran director John Sturgis at the helm, in the mid-60s McQueen aimed to be in the lead for the quintessential motor-racing film, Day Of The Champion, whose production went up directly against a competing film, Grand Prix. It was a race to see who could get their film into theatres first, with McQueen determined to get his obsession on-screen in as vivid a manner as possible.
So, let’s approach The Lost Movie from those three perspectives. Firstly, it is sort of a biopic, a partial one anyway, for McQueen, and for the most part I would say it is quite interesting from that regard. It doesn’t focus so much on the minute details of his early life, or on nearly anything after the events in question (more on that in a bit) but does provide a nice summation of his character and status in the Hollywood machine at the time. McQueen was a man who really did seem to come from absolutely nowhere to suddenly be the epitome of cool in a counter-culture world, whether he was stealing the limelight from Yul Brenner in The Magnificent Seven or jumping over barbed wire on a motorbike in The Great Escape.
McQueen has the look, the charisma and the confidence to be the leading man of the 1960’s and early 70’s, and The Lost Movie gives you a good idea as to how he was able to garner these qualities and use them to forge this perceived status as one of the first major A-Listers of a new Hollywood era. A rough upbringing was challenged by a stint in the military, and while a propensity for hard partying was never far away, McQueen was the kind of quasi-Renaissance Man that you just wanted to see more of, whether it was in a film or on a racing track. One interviewee, Christabel Charlie, sums it up nicely about a car trip they took together, matching the obsession with the admiration: “He was charming, chatty, had wonderful blue eyes…He behaved extremely well.”
When I say “on a racing track”, I mean literally racing on a racing track. McQueen wanted to be that guy, and even competed in some professional competitions for a time, and this is what influenced him to become somewhat obsessed over Day Of The Champion. The Lost Movie does its level best to add to the conversation as to why motorsport is such a draw for people, and while it does not add much new, it still does a good job of getting across how enrapturing the sport can be. The sense of constant danger, of individual driving skill married to the team aspect of a pit crew, of extreme speeds and exact concentration blending together, these are all things that The Lost Movie is keen to get ingrained in your head. The contributions of several key racing drivers of the time, not least Jackie Stewart, is important here, with he busting out the old, but accurate, line that F1 cars of the 60’s had the driver placed in the middle of what essentially an easily breached fuel tank. Drivers could, and did, die in the cockpit with disturbing regularity. It’s the idea of daredevils being married to sportsmen: why wouldn’t you want to make a film about that?
Well, one of the reasons is that is was rather hard to do at the time, if you wanted to do it right. John Sturgis for Day Of The Champion and John Frankenheimer for Grand Prix make significant contributions to this documentary, and any cinephile worth their salt will be interested in how they went about getting footage, how special rigs were constructed for the F1 cars so that the speed and thrill could be adequately captured, how big-time actors weren’t exactly acting as they zoomed around Monte Carlo. The footage captured at the Nurburgring, seen by a wider audience for the first time here, is genuinely mesmerising, and speaks to the commitment of the production team to go the extra mile in placing the audience firmly inside the cockpit of an F1 car, something that simply had never been possible before.
There are lots of moments here worth consideration; James Garner getting into a verbal argument with a Monaco official holding up filming, perhaps indicating some taut nerves from the realities of being behind the wheel; F1 drivers at the time dividing into the camps of either production (some switching the other other side when Sturgis’ film was 86’d so “We got paid twice”); Frankenheimer’s remarkably chaotic manner of filming surrounded by real pit crews and real spectators; and always, the distant figure of Steve McQueen, stuck filming The Sand Pebbles in east Asia, railing against the Hollywood system that was keeping him from his passion project.
Strangely for a film that has his name on it, McQueen is absent for large stretches of the story being told. The Sand Pebbles might have been one of his greatest accomplishments from an acting perspective, but the tortured production ended any pretensions that Day Of The Champion had at beating Grand Prix to theatres: the fact that you may have never head of Day Of The Champion may perhaps indicate how the story ends. Grand Prix is a film that I can actually take or leave really: it’s impressive from a cinematography perspective, but its story and script are fairly humdrum in comparison. It doesn’t hold a candle to the likes of Rush, a curiously dismissed film here, a victim of an epilogue crawl that states no contemporary F1 film has ever been made since Grand Prix, with the false implication being that no F1 film’s have been made at all.
The Lost Movie gives us a sometimes heartbreaking look at how Hollywood was not always a dream factory, even for people as magnetic and well-liked as McQueen. It was a rough-and-tumble business – it still is, I suppose – where studio heads were sensitive to embarrassment and unwilling to indulge the creative types for too long. The people involved being interviewed now seem capable of looking back without too much in terms of displays of emotion, but that might just be the distance: when the final fate of Day Of The Champion becomes clear, it seems like a terrible waste of talent and effort, to be thrown away in a largely manufactured rivalry with an opposing studio.
The Lost Movie can be viewed pretty simply as your standard TV documentary in format. There are very obvious pauses for commercial breaks, summations of what you have seen so far when they are over. Artsy chapter cards give us stylised quotations from the titular actor himself. David Letterman’s narration, something I don’t really think he is the very best suited for, can sometimes come off as a bit monotonous, as if the man himself has very little interest in what he is narrating on: director Alex Rodger, a little known guy who got into this on the back of creating pre-race vignettes for F1, is an unseen figure, though I commend his work on the archive footage, in terms of changing it into digestible chunks here. It’s short-enough, coming in just under the 90 minute mark, and displays a fairly rigid focus on its main premise: once the kerfuffle with Day Of The Champion and Grand Prix is concluded, we are rapidly heading towards credits, with nary a mention of what was left of McQueen’s life. In other words, The Lost Movie’s scope is limited: some may find this admirable, but for me I thought that it could have used just another few minutes to give us further insight into McQueen’s life, how he viewed racing during the rest of the 1970’s, and whether his untimely death carried with it greater regrets over things like Day Of The Champion than might have been immediately apparent. Bullitt and Le Mans are given only brief mentions.
I doubt that The Lost Movie is going to feature in an end of the year Top Ten in twelve months time, or even be my favourite documentary, but it was a reasonably entertaining diversion. It aimed to give us a portrait of McQueen from the angle of his motor-racing obsession: I think it did that, albeit it could have been fleshed out more. It aimed to give us an understanding of why men like McQueen have that obsession with motor racing: I think it did that too. It aimed to give us a look behind the camera and give an insight into the ingenuity of cinematography when the occasion called for it: I think it did that. Parts of the production are a little stilted and I doubt that the film will ever have much more remembrance than as an interesting footnote to McQueen and Sturgis’ career, but The Lost Movie accomplishes the majority of what it set out to accomplish. If you are interested in these topics, and have access to Sky Documentaries, it is recommended.
(All images are copyright of Sky Documentaries).