IN PENINA Spiegil’s 448-page biography of Steve McQueen, the film On Any Sunday rates just one paragraph. It was lucky that it got any ink at all.
The film’s creator Bruce Brown only squeezed funding out of McQueen when he threatened that the star wouldn’t appear in the film if he didn’t cough up. McQueen laughed at Brown’s facetious ultimatum when they first met, saying, “I act in movies, I don’t finance ‘em.” He liked the concept, and called Brown back the next day to tell him he had his funding.
The budget for the film was small, even by the standards of the 1970s – $US300,000. On Any Sunday would be the last film ever made by McQueen’s nascent production company Solar Productions following the disaster of McQueen’s magnum opus Le Mans.
On Any Sunday was widely acclaimed, made money and earned an Oscar nomination in 1972 for best documentary feature. Le Mans was panned, and became a commercial disaster that sunk Solar Productions. It also destroyed many friendships and diminished McQueen’s standing in Hollywood.
The genesis of Le Mans goes back to 1965 when McQueen was one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars. Knowing he could make any film he wished, McQueen’s dream was to produce a movie that portrayed car racing in its grittiest and most spectacular form, and with director and mentor John Sturges, he began scouting locations among the great tracks of Europe. They attended the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix and signed dual world champ John Surtees to drive in their proposed film, Day of the Champion.
They also secured the Nürburgring as a location. McQueen planned to start the project after he finished filming The Sand Pebbles when word got out that James Garner – his co-star in The Great Escape – was also planning to make the definitive race car film. McQueen’s partner in Solar Productions Peter Relyea – who only recently passed away aged 82 – said the race to see who would start their grand prix race project first became “a life and death issue, to the point of personal insults.”
When the news finally broke that Garner would star in a film called Grand Prix directed by the brilliant young filmmaker John Frankenheimer, who was already ahead of schedule, McQueen had been beaten to the punch and the studio aborted Day of the Champion.
Steve was notorious for his temper, but this sent him into one of his worst tantrums.
“He went wild, just nuts,” remembers his publicist Rupert Allan. Four years after Grand Prix, McQueen was determined to fulfil his life’s ambition. He wanted 24 Hours of Le Mans to be an anti-movie with no plot, no love interest and little dialogue.
The famed race would provide the story and all the sound, he argued.
The film was backed by Cinema Center Films, which became a little nervous about McQueen’s prosaic vision for Le Mans, so he compromised – sort of. There are only 145 lines of dialogue in the finished film, and not a word is spoken for the first 30 minutes. There’s not enough space here to detail the many troubles that afflicted the making of Le Mans. Its budget blew out to $US10 million, an enormous sum in those days, and McQueen had to relinquish creative control as part of a rescue package made by the studio. Director John Sturges left in disgust when McQueen began treating him like a “minion”, pushing the respected filmmaker away from the camera to look through the lens.
McQueen’s marriage fell apart, a stunt driver lost a leg in a crash, and another had his face and hands badly burnt.
Although McQueen liked the final cut of the film, and admitted that he had been wrong about it needing a storyline, the critics didn’t agree.
“All we get from McQueen is a series of fierce stares at his competitors and liquid-eyed glances at his potential lady love. He mumbles perhaps 10 lines of cryptic dialogue about why men have to race, then climbs into his big speedwagon for two hours of vrooming and zooming. Not even a star of McQueen’s magnitude can get away with this one,” wrote one reviewer.
TIME magazine’s film critic passed off Le Mans as “petit prix”. Ouch. The film crippled Cinema Center Films, and Solar Productions was shut down – but not before On Any Sunday would go into final production.
A graduate from a boy’s home, McQueen said being an actor made him feel like a pretender.
That is why he loved to race cars and bikes because he thought they were real, noble pursuits.
He insisted on doing his own stunts in Le Mans, driving a Porsche 917 in excess of 300km/h in close quarters with pro racers, some of whom were reluctant to dice with an amateur like McQueen.
During the filming of On Any Sunday he told 1969 AMA Grand National Champion Mert Lawwill, “You’re lucky, you’re national champion. No-one can ever take that away from you. I’m an actor; I’m always playing someone else.” On Any Sunday was released in July 1971, just weeks after Le Mans, but owing to the vagaries of motion picture distribution, the bike film didn’t screen in Australia until April 1973, bang on 40 years ago. The timing could not have been better. Locally, the roadbike boom was in full swing while dirtbike and minibike sales were going crazy.
I saw On Any Sunday with my mum during the ’73 August school holidays at the Balgowlah cinema near Manly. Dazzled by the incredible Technicolor cinematography at a time when all we had at home was a ghosting 60cm Thorn black and white TV, I knew from that moment on that all I wanted to do was ride motorcycles and somehow make a living out of it. I saw the film many times during school holidays up until 1976, and it never got old. It still doesn’t.
Steve McQueen may not have made the definitive car film, but out of the ashes of Le Mans he did help make the ultimate bike film. I, for one, must thank him for that.