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Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie, Sky Documentaries review - the classic motor racing film that never was | reviews, news & interviews

Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie, Sky Documentaries review - the classic motor racing film that never was

Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie, Sky Documentaries review - the classic motor racing film that never was

How fate conspired against the car-crazy star's Formula One movie

A pensive Steve McQueen dreams of racing glory

The motor racing passion of movie star Steve McQueen is well documented, from his motorcycling exploits in The Great Escape to the rubber-burning car chase around San Francisco in Bullitt to his weird but mesmeric sports car odyssey Le Mans. Less widely known, however, was his plan to shoot a movie about Formula One during the mid-Sixties.

This would have been called Day of the Champion, was to be built around specially-shot footage from races in the European F1 season, and would be based on photojournalist Robert Daley’s book The Cruel Sport (1963), which probed the dark side of a glamorous occupation which killed far too many of its participants. McQueen proposed to team up with director John Sturges, with whom he’d worked on The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.

The snag was, John Frankenheimer had almost the same idea, based on the same book and filming the same F1 events. Frankenheimer even wanted McQueen as his star, reckoning that with McQueen aboard, the resulting Grand Prix would have been “bigger than Jaws.” Unfortunately the proposed pairing collapsed after a disastrous meeting between McQueen and Frankenheimer’s producer Edward Lewis, which prompted the star to walk away from the project. As an interview with McQueen’s friend and Hollywood neighbour James Garner reveals, after Garner landed the lead role of Pete Aron in Grand Prix, McQueen wouldn’t speak to him for 18 months.

The Lost Movie, energetically narrated by David Letterman, charts the course of the rival productions, which ran so closely in parallel that both units attended the 1965 Monaco Grand Prix to carry out preparatory work. Ironically, it was McQueen’s booming star status that led to Grand Prix eventually taking the chequered flag. He'd been cast in a lead role in Robert Wise’s The Sand Pebbles, a sprawling epic of the Chinese civil war of the 1920s. Shooting was supposed to last nine weeks but instead stretched out to seven months. Thus while Frankenheimer, Garner and the Grand Prix crew were busy filming during the 1966 F1 season, a frustrated McQueen (pictured below with Sturges) was stuck in Taiwan as the prospects for Day of the Champion slipped away.

Even though The Lost Movie features no scenes of McQueen driving an F1 car, director Alex Rodger has assembled a fascinating and frequently thrilling documentary, bristling with treasurable archive footage and resonant with famous names. In a new interview, Jackie Stewart recalls how he and Jim Clark signed up to assist on Day of the Champion because “McQueen was bigger than Frankenheimer”. After Warner Bros boss Jack Warner ordered Sturges’s production to shut down, because Frankenheimer was plainly going to have Grand Prix finished first, Clark and Stewart were hired by Frankenheimer “so we were paid twice”.

Famous racers including Jack Brabham, Dan Gurney, Hills Phil and Graham and Stirling Moss (Sturges’s technical consultant) pop up regularly, while the Holy Grail for motorsport buffs is some scintillating footage from the 1965 German Grand Prix at the Nurburgring, shot by Sturges to get a feel for the challenges of filming F1 cars at something like racing speeds. This material hasn’t been seen for 55 years and was unearthed by archivist Richard Wiseman, who also worked on the 2015 McQueen film The Man & Le Mans. For the planned movie, Stirling Moss drove both single and two-seater camera cars, and the richly-textured 35mm film of Lotuses and Brabhams jinking through the woodlands and hedgerows of the famous old circuit is fabulous stuff. The icing on the cake is an actualité shot of Jim Clark on the winner’s podium, clinching his second world championship.

Wishes didn’t come true for McQueen though, who would have to sit and watch while Grand Prix took three Oscars at the 1967 ceremony, while his own Best Actor nomination for Sand Pebbles didn’t bring him the statuette (it went to Paul Scofield for A Man for All Seasons). Even the greatest racers can’t win ‘em all.

  • Steve McQueen: The Lost Movie is on Sky Documentaries at 9pm on 7 January and is available on Now TV
While Frankenheimer and the 'Grand Prix' crew were busy filming during the 1966 F1 season, a frustrated McQueen was stuck in Taiwan


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

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Nice write up, but it’s Phil Hill, not Hills Phil.

Thanks Craig. When I said "Hills Phil and Graham" I meant that both Phil Hill and Graham Hill appear in the movie. World champions both!

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