An appreciation of Steve McQueen and some of his films
A video presentation of this material is available here
Why do I like Steve McQueen films?
Maybe the answer lies in the type of character he tended to play.
He was inclined to play an individual in conflict with society or perhaps even himself – a “small” guy who was imperfect but tried his best, and who showed determination and intelligence, qualities accessible to us all. His characters show integrity, are down to earth and are unimpressed by position or wealth. Often regarded as something of a loner, his characters are sociable without being needy, and remain quite independent. In short, he mostly played very human characters who may be flawed but did their best while remaining true to themselves, and thus appealed to the best in all of us.
Is it simply McQueen’s acting?
Although he played a considerable range of roles and they all had various qualities in common (see above), they all benefitted from McQueen’s acting style. Very natural and “spare” (I believe he was actually criticised for how naturally he performed!), McQueen had a tremendously expressive face and managed to convey meaning and reveal feelings with a slight facial movement rather than repeat several lines of dialogue to produce the same effect (or less!). He also managed to imbue each performance with complexity, sympathy, understanding and humanity. This, combined with an underlying humour, created empathy and warmth among the audience who were drawn to him because they could recognise reactions and, more importantly, they liked him because of his character’s authenticity, sincerity and vulnerability.
For all the reasons given above, I consider him one of the best screen actors, if not THE best of them all.
My favourite Steve McQueen films
Naturally, this is a very personal choice which will reflect my own interests and character, but I hope you will find my thoughts and comments of interest.
Although he had relatively small roles in “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Great Escape”, he made a huge impact, especially in “The Great Escape”, and he tends to dominate his scenes in each film. He did much to make each part considerably more than was scripted and came to embody the spirit of each of these films, especially “The Great Escape” in which McQueen took on iconic status as Hilts, the “cooler king”, who came to represent the resilience and spirit of the would-be escapees. Limited though they were, these roles give a taster of some of the brilliance to come.
“The Cincinnati Kid” is undoubtedly one of my favourite McQueen films.
Set during the great depression, this is an existential poker-based drama about luck, following fortune and pursuing fate by way of the talents given to us. It is about confidence, doubt, fear, greed and the path to success.
Eric (the “kid” of the title) is sure of himself – he has “something” and he has talent, but is he equal to the recognised (but ageing) master, “the man”, Lancey Howard (Edward G. Robinson)?
Lancey has devoted his life to winning, and he is about to give young pretender Eric a valuable life lesson that success, or winning, is about more than confidence and talent, and can be influenced by doubt and personal factors outside the game itself. Indeed, “making it” is as much about attitude, determination, principles and sacrifice outside the game as it is about skill within the game.
In the end, Eric is defeated and it appears this defeat has shattered his confidence – he may have lost that “something” when he realised he could be defeated. However, the experience also allows him to see what is important in life and to gain some perspective, even if this is brought about only by losing.
This is the perfect role for Steve McQueen – an intimate drama with an appealing, flawed, human and sympathetic principal character – we feel his pain when he loses to Lancey, yet we are pleased to see there is more to him than just being “the man”.
Success in any walk of life means determination and sacrifice – maybe Eric has learned that sometimes the life of a “loser” has greater value than that of a “winner”.
"The Sand Pebbles" has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it on television in 1976. It is set in 1926 in revolution-torn China, when the crew of an American gunboat, the San Pablo, is called upon to rescue some American missionaries working far up the Yang Tse river.
The widescreen version does justice not just to the sweeping panoramas of the quite breathtaking Chinese scenery, but also to the sweeping events and themes of the story. It is in every way a "big" film, dealing with political and military intervention (clear parallels with Vietnam at the time of release), nationalism, racism, and the horrors of war. Yet for all its heavy themes, it is most successful in the depiction of its very human characters.
These characters are not just the means of conveying the "messages" of the film, or fodder for the gripping and well-staged action scenes. They are individuals in their own right, involved in something far greater than their own destinies. Some are unpleasant and ignorant while others are honourable but lost in the sea of historic events surrounding them. Some, like Jake Holman (Steve McQueen), demand sympathy and respect as they struggle to come to terms with their personal challenges brought to the fore by these historically significant and politically dangerous events.
Robert Wise's direction is strong and emotionally charged, complemented perfectly by Jerry Goldsmith's wonderfully haunting and ominous music. Steve McQueen gives what was probably the performance of his career (receiving his only Academy Award nomination), and he is supported by a wonderful cast including Richard Attenborough, Richard Crenna, Candice Bergen (aged just 19), and especially Mako. But it is really McQueen's film. His very presence lifts scenes and he manages to convey authenticity and gain the sympathy of the viewer with consummate ease. Once again, McQueen has gone for a character at odds with society but who remains true to himself and his friends to the point of self-sacrifice.
“Bullitt” was a huge success for McQueen and still has a considerable following today. Once again, the theme of conflict with society or superiors is highlighted as Lieutenant Bullitt investigates the murder of a witness (while under his protection) due to give testimony at a high-profile trial. All is not as it seems, however, as Bullitt comes under pressure from a self-serving politician who is willing to use Bullitt as a scapegoat for his own failures.
It was perhaps particularly with this film that McQueen gained the reputation for being the “king of cool”. Bullitt remains cool, calm and professional throughout, to the point where, at the end of the film, he may be wondering about his own humanity.
McQueen gives a very controlled, clever, performance playing a consummate professional who never loses his cool and who is persistent in the face of personal and professional threats. Bullitt might even appear rather cold and calculating, but McQueen hints at a humanity and vulnerability not immediately obvious in the script, creating a more engaging character than would otherwise have been the case.
Well known for its action sequences, the film also boasts McQueen’s performance, and that of Robert Vaughn who is wonderfully oily and manipulative opposite McQueen’s straight and principled Bullitt.
“The Thomas Crown Affair” is a morally challenging and emotionally manipulative piece. Thomas Crown should, by rights, be a fairly unpleasant and unlikeable character, yet McQueen makes him human and attractive! Of course, this is helped by the entire premise of the film whereby the traditional values of right and wrong in terms theft are challenged – the “jobs” are organised as if in a game. Crown sees each “job” or theft as a challenge to “the system”, to see if he can overcome the substantial measures taken by various banks to protect their money. He feels that no harm is done as banks are compensated by insurance companies who make vast profits anyway. Actually, he would probably have fitted perfectly in today’s markets, and might even have added a little colour!
It is about winning, a challenge, and beating the system in a world where money is simply the means of proving your intellectual superiority. It is another potentially cold and unpleasant role, but McQueen makes it all seem relatively acceptable and human, especially in his romantic dalliance with the insurance investigator. However, is his relationship genuine, or is this all part of his plan?
Dated in places and on dangerous ground as you really end up rooting for no-one, this is a beautiful and playful existential exercise in challenging morality which only works because McQueen charms you into being on his side, until, perhaps, the last few seconds where he makes us doubt our previous judgement of him. Much darker and more thought-provoking than the admittedly entertaining remake.
“Junior Bonner” was McQueen’s least successful film until “An Enemy of the People”. However, it is also one of his most touching and poetic films.
Continuing the theme of conflict with the world around him, we have a new development – being out of kilter with the world, not really understanding (or approving of) developments taking place in society, and trying to find a place in modern life – a place where character and values appear to be replaced with money and “success”.
Increasingly out of place, Junior Bonner returns home to find his home town changing while he and his father (and the values they represent) are left behind.
Lacking pace, energy and much of a plot, this is nonetheless an excellent vehicle for McQueen, and a pleasant lament for a dehumanised world in which business and “success” have become the focus of society, a society Junior Bonner finds hard to accept.
“Papillon” is a hymn to determination and self-belief. This is the story of Henri Charrière, condemned to life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guyana for a crime he maintained he did not commit, his experiences, survival and escape from that penal colony.
Part history lesson, part social commentary and part drama and adventure, McQueen brings Charrière to life, showing us his determination, his suffering, hope, depression, elation, but most of all the strength of his spirit as he faces countless challenges.
Once again, humanity pervades his performance which appears calmly simple opposite Dustin Hoffman as the ever more desperate and nervous Louis. Unlikely to appeal to all, this is nevertheless a powerful and tremendously touching performance.
“Tom Horn” is not, sadly, the film it was meant to be or could have been. A bigger beginning was foreseen to introduce Tom Horn and establish his past and character. Presumably lack of money meant the introduction was dropped and I think this hurt the film as we only ever really hear about Horn’s reputation rather than see and understand his true standing in the West.
That said, it remains a most engaging film and the role of Tom Horn fits perfectly the type of role McQueen liked to play – a professional who doesn’t see eye to eye with society or his “superiors”, but who may be used for society’s or his superiors’ benefit, and usually to his own disadvantage. Again, political ambition rears its ugly head as Horn’s actions threaten the aspirations of his employers, to which he himself will fall victim.
Refusing to buckle to their threats, Horn faces trial for a murder he claimed he did not commit, but is found guilty – another example of traditional values being out of kilter with “modern” society focused on profit and political ambition.
While hardly uplifting, this is nonetheless a solid and worthwhile film which tells its story simply and clearly – and would likely have gained the approval of Tom Horn himself.
McQueen’s performance is entirely natural and appears effortless. However, closer examination reveals considerable variety and colour within the confines of this naturally quiet and principled hero of the frontier. There is much more going on than a first viewing might suggest.
“The Hunter” was McQueen’s last film, and he knew it. Already quite ill with cancer when he made “Tom Horn”, McQueen was apparently breathless after takes when making this film. As a testament to his courage and determination alone, this film bears watching, but McQueen also managed to imbue his performance with vigour and humour – something largely missing from his last few performances, and which he undoubtedly wanted to revisit in what would be his last outing.
Here he has come full circle, repeating his role as a bounty hunter (“Wanted Dead or Alive”) in this relatively small, undemanding but entertaining and fairly personal film.
The theme of not fitting is once again revisited, though this time largely due to age and fear of change. The characters and episodic style of the piece are familiar and are clearly meant to be treated as light entertainment, though light comedy is mixed with some more serious points.
McQueen gives a very good and relaxed performance which contains all his usual elements, though more focused on comedy this time. There may even be references to previous roles – the theme of taking on responsibility and accepting change, the card game in his home in which he refuses to participate, and of course the frequent jokes about driving. This really was a personal McQueen film – there would have been no film without McQueen.
I also found the final scene (laced with comedy) very touching, as he holds his baby who sneezes and he says “God bless you” – he might just as well be passing the message on to his many fans and the younger generation as a whole.
I would mention two other Steve McQueen films, one I have seen (many years ago), and the other I am keen to see – “Love with the Proper Stranger”, and “An Enemy of the People”.
I remember thoroughly enjoying “Love with the Proper Stranger”, but I cannot find it readily on DVD – a strange omission from the McQueen catalogue. I am delighted to say, however, that I recently found “An Enemy of the People” on DVD at amazon.com and have ordered it.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page – I hope you found it of some interest, and I would be delighted to hear from other Steve McQueen fans. I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.