I have a confession to make: I am twenty-three years old and in all my life, I must admit that I really hadn’t known much about Steve McQueen, other than his leading role in “some racing movie.” What’s even worse is the fact that this is not uncommon today, at least amongst my generation.
Luckily, there’s a book that shows the public (and the uninitiated) just how awesome Steve McQueen was in life and how amazing his work remains to this day. A French Kiss with Death, written by Michael Keyser with Jonathon Williams, chronicles not just the movie Le Mans, but McQueen’s career and a history of some of the automakers featured in the races and the movie as well.
It took me a while to get through the book and I was torn between how I should write my review. [Andrew wrote both a short and and a long review. The long review, below, gives much more detail, but does give away a few parts of the book. The short review, at the end of this post, distills things down into two paragraphs while giving nothing away. Read them both, read one or the other, but you should definitely consider getting the book]
The Long Review of A French Kiss With Death
There’s honestly so much I want to say about this book that I’m refraining from writing [it] down so as to keep this as spoiler-free as possible. One anecdote I must share is in the foreword section of the book, the second I read it I realized that Steve McQueen was and will always be the true American bad-ass – Chuck Norris may be known for many deeds but even he can't hold a candle to Steve McQueen, and here’s why:
In the foreword, Keyser explains McQueen’s son, Chad, was in France for the filming of Le Mans, and desperately wanted a ride in one of the race cars he saw his father and other professionals driving. Each time Chad asked his father for a ride, he was told to wait for “When the time’s right.” As a child, it must have been absolute torture, but eventually, he got his wish. One day, McQueen rolled up next to his son in a Porsche 917 after he’d been filming with the cars and told him to climb in. Belted in on his father’s lap, with nothing but the steering wheel to hold onto, Chad was ecstatic. Steve briefly let go of the wheel to let his ten-year-old son drive a Porsche 917 moving in the triple-digits.
Later that summer, there was a terrible accident during a filming sequence that involved a Porsche 917. McQueen tracked Chad down and told him he wanted to show him something. The two made their way to the scene of the horrific remains of the 917, where Steve, after letting his son take in the carnage, told him, “This is what can happen in motor racing. Don’t ever forget it.” Oh, I should also mention that the car’s driver, David Piper, lost his leg as a result of the accident.
A Sunday school teacher using movies such as The Exorcist and Seven to give a class examples of how one might break the Ten Commandments carries more subtlety than McQueen’s lesson plan. I’m willing to bet my insurance premiums that if I’d had an extremely terrible image like that burned into my head at a young age, the points on my license wouldn’t be half as high as they are today, solely out of fear and respect for anything on wheels!
I’m going to say it now so I don’t repeat it with every other sentence: I was overwhelmed with the level of detail in this book! The cover says, “The Man – The Race – The Cars – The Movie” and it delivers in full on all counts. To date, I have not read another book that covered a motion picture as thoroughly as this one. This is coming from someone who spent most of his evenings in middle school overweight and alone; reading hundreds of dollars of allowance money in Star Wars encyclopedias and trivia books. Anything and everything Le Mans fans would like to know that’s remotely related to the film is in this book.
There is also a very informative section devoted to the history of the Le Mans race, which was very helpful for someone whose knowledge on the subject goes as deep as, ‘a 24-hour endurance race that took place in France.’ There is great coverage of the rich history of the Le Mans circuit, including some of its darker years, such as the infamous accident that occurred during the June 1955 race.
Keyser and Williams went above and beyond discussion of the Le Mans, leaving pre-production and post-production notes in the dust with detailed accounts of some of the more personal drama that developed on and off the set.
I haven’t even started to discuss the photographs! A French Kiss With Death has hundreds upon hundreds of photos with descriptive captions that bring them properly into context with each section. The order in which the pictures are introduced to the readers is not intrusive to the main body and as a result I found myself stepping deeper into the story each chapter revealed before me.
Well written, well organized and well worth taking a look at, A French Kiss with Death, written by Michael Keyser with Jonathon Williams, chronicles not just the movie Le Mans gives its readers everything it promises – The Man, The Race, The Cars, The Movie – and so much more!
A Short Review of A French Kiss With Death
If you like auto racing, you should already own this book. If you think you may be interested in auto racing, this book will push you off of the fence and into the driver’s seat. It is a sizable book, and while it will take a while to read cover-to-cover, its chapters break it down into manageable, self-contained chunks.
If I were forced to summarize this book with four words, I would say this: “No stone left unturned.” For a book meant to encompass details regarding the LeMans movie and the LeMans race, there are wonderfully detailed sections about the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring races, to lend context and history to the main subjects. The detailed accounts of Steve McQueen’s life and lifestyle – ethical and unethical bits alike – give this book a stunning personality and reveal a more complex side to the story that some fans might not know much about.
Bottom line, I’ve already said too much about this book, and if I say any more I’ll start recapping each chapter instead of giving everyone a chance to read it for themselves!