Steve McQueen: A Beginner’s Guide To The Icons Icon

Steve McQueen has been involved with some of the best films ever made, and you need to be familiar with him
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Steve McQueen has been involved with some of the best films ever made, and you need to be familiar with him

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There are certain icons that transcend the idea of ‘celebrity’. In the music business there are the likes of Paul McCartney and Robert Plant. In sport, there’s Muhammad Ali, and (although it pains me to admit it) David Beckham. When it comes to cinema, the golden age of filmmaking was (for me) the 1970s. This was a time of risk-taking, of story and character development over explosions and sex scenes (if you turn a blind eye to a certain J-Bond’s work). Even Star Wars emerged with heart, a quality I find lacking in the prequel trilogy.

The 1970s was a time for outlaws in cinema, when films like The Godfather, Badlands, Vanishing Point, Rolling Thunder and The Man Who Would Be King came out, focusing on the bloody business of adventure and not worrying about happy endings or BBFC classifications. I wasn’t born in the 70s, I was born in the 90s, and the fact that these films still mean a lot to me is testament to their great endurability.

Along with these classic films emerged many acting icons. DeNiro, Pacino, Hoffman, Nicholson, Caine, Connery all did some of their most interesting work during this decade and secured their places in film history. Steve McQueen is such an icon.

To say McQueen’s best work happened during the 70s might be reductive, especially as he continued acting until his death in 1980, but it’s easy to see that McQueen embodied the true rebel spirit of 1970s film making. It’s easy to look back with golden glasses and revere McQueen as a genius, but, in the same way Kurt Cobain will never grow old enough to cash in with cheap reunion tours, McQueen never got the chance to dilute his brilliance with roles in awful comedies like Meet The Fockers (yeah, I’m looking at you, DeNiro).

If you’re not familiar with McQueen films outside of The Great Escape, you need to be. The selection below will teach you a little bit about what filmmaking is all about.

Papillon (1973)

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Papillon is a brilliant epic of imprisonment and escape that clocks in at two and a half hours. McQueen takes on the title role whilst Dustin Hoffman appears as Louis Dega, a wealthy criminal who promises to make Papillon’s life in prison comfortable if Pappy will help Dega escape. So begins a fantastic adventure as the pair begins an ambitious escape from Devil’s Island, a prison off the coast of French Guiana. It’s The Great Escape with malaria and exactly the sort of film you want to find yourself curled up in front of on a Sunday afternoon.

The whole thing is based on the (loose) autobiography of Henri ‘Papillon’ Charrière, who found himself send down for murder in 1931. It’s a great read and is, right this second, on sale in HMVs nationwide for £2, so get moving.

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Bullitt (1968)

Bullitt is arguably McQueen’s most famous film after The Great Escape, featuring one of the most famous car chases of all time. If you haven’t already seen it, it’s probably on your list of films to catch up on, so hopefully this will make you bump it up to the top.  The plot centres around the murder of a key witness against the mob and political corruption, who Bullitt had been charged with protecting. From then on, Bullitt dives into the hush-hush corruption and attempts to blow the whole thing wide open.

The film has enjoyed a long legacy: In 2007 The Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry and in 2008, the Ford Motor Company produced a Bullitt Mustang for the 40th anniversary of the film. Also, naming your hero ‘Bullitt’ is a brilliantly ballsy move that just lingers on the right side of the line between cool and camp. You don’t get that with ‘Pussy Galore’.

The Cincinnati Kid (1965)

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As Cormac McCarthy knows, ‘The Kid’ is also a badass name. McQueen’s Cincinnati Kid isn’t roaming the desert collecting scalps, or selling Milky Bars to cowboys, instead he’s trying to establish his reputation as one of the best poker players in Depression-era New Orleans.

Casino Royale showed us that a film centring around a poker game does not have to be boring and The Cincinnati Kid stays true to this idea. There’s a lot more going on than just two of a kind and straight flushes. Really, it’s a film about integrity, about proving yourself as a man and facing the consequences of your actions.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968)

Pierce Brosnan’s 1999 remake is a pretty good film, but somehow fails to capture the style of the original. Much like the remake, the 1968 film focuses on a wealthy business man’s attempts at diversion through criminal activity. It’s hard to feel sorry for rich people, ‘Oh, you’ve got all that money but it couldn’t buy happiness?’ but McQueen pulls it off with that rough charm and the twinkle of cinema stardom in his eye.

It’s a fantastically stylish movie (just look at McQueen’s suits. Jesus) and as well as being a terrific thriller, it’s also the film that made chess sexy (as parodied by Austin Powers).

The Getaway (1972)

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However, if you’re after style, you should look no further than The Getaway. It’s yet another film that begins with McQueen behind bars, however, this time he’s lucky enough to be paroled. There’s a catch though, (isn’t there always) and this catch is that McQueen’s Carter ‘Doc’ McCoy must take part in a bank robbery for the nice fellow who’s arraigned his parole. As you’d expect, the robbery goes south, McQueen is double crossed and must head for the border in El Paso if he wants to stay alive and free.

The rest of the film is a straight up chase movie with Doc and his wife Carol running from the criminals and the law. Along the way they only stop so Doc can pick up a shotgun which he makes use of in one of the finest scenes in cinematic history.

As you’d expect, McQueen looks sharp enough to shave a statue throughout, resplendent in a great black suit and gold watch combo. And don’t even get me started on the final hotel shoot out. Just go watch this movie. Now.

The Films That Could Have Been

Will Smith as Neo in The Matrix? Tom Selleck in Indiana Jones? Some things were just never meant to be. For Steve McQueen the films that didn’t happen all turned out to be solid gold classics, but just imagine what could have happened with a piece of McQueen!

Amongst McQueen’s missed roles are: Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Apocalypse Now, A Bridge Too Far, Dirty Harry, The French Connection and Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (because McQueen could not agree with Paul Newman over who would get top billing). So, there you go, even the films McQueen didn’t make are some of the best movies ever shot. Go get familiar with the classics he did make and let’s hope another McQueen comes along soon (looking at you, Gosling, Fassbender).