The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the most fascinating motor races in the world, so it makes sense why there has been a sudden influx of great new films about the event coming to the fore recently. But I think my new favourite has to be Le Mans 1955.
An animated short film by Quentin Baillieux, Le Mans 1955 is about the infamous Le Mans disaster of that year; it’s also eligible to compete in the 2020 Oscars.
In ‘55, Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR driver Pierre Levegh died in a horrifying car accident on the front stretch of the Circuit de la Sarthe a mere three hours into the race. Mike Hawthorne cut into the pits and missed his pit stall, forcing Lance Macklin to pull across the track in front of Levegh. Moving much faster than Macklin, Levegh’s car rode up the side of the other driver’s Austin-Healey 100S, launched into the air, struck a retaining wall, and sent debris scattering into a densely packed crowd.
Levegh was killed after being thrown from the car. Initial news reports claimed 83 people were also killed after being struck by debris. A Le Mans official later actually noted that it was likely closer to 130 people killed.
Mercedes withdrew from its leading position in the race out of respect for the dead and didn’t return to motor racing for 43 years.
Baillieux’s 15-minute long animated film touches on the subject with the gravity and tenderness it deserves. Most of the film is in English, but English subtitles are available when French is spoken.
The animation is absolutely gorgeous. Its sharp, minimalist style is not only incredible to watch simply for aesthetic’s sake, but it also sets a somber tone right off the bat. This isn’t the kind of subject matter to be treated with ornamental flourish. It’s painful, illustrating all the worst parts of motor racing.
Le Mans 1955 doesn’t get into the history of the event, the significance of Levegh’s crash, how he may have even saved Juan Manuel Fangio’s life with a hand signal letting Fangio know to get out of the way quickly. But it doesn’t really need to. We see Levegh’s teammate John Fitch struggling with being essentially backup for his more impressive teammates, his joy at ending up running ahead of that Fangio/Moss at the start, his pain at the loss of his teammate and friend.
It’s a touching film, treading delicately on the suffering. The crash is never explicitly shown, nor is any gore. The most you see is a dead body being covered with a blanket and the car’s fire raging in the background.
Take fifteen minutes out of your day to watch. You won’t regret it.