New McLaren documentary celebrates the King of the Kiwis

Bruce McLaren was a racing polymath: virtuoso driver, mechanic, designer, engineer, visionary, organizer, leader. Despite a tragically short career, he led a full life, and his legacy still pervades racing. To fit all those attributes into the 92 minutes that comprise the new documentary McLaren without becoming a leaden travelogue, director Roger Donaldson faced a daunting task.

McLaren is a lively recounting of the man’s exploits. It is peppered with interviews, both recent and period, enlivened with period film and still photography, developed with recreated scenes starring Dwayne Cameron as McLaren, and enriched with tape recordings that Bruce made and sent back to his family and friends in New Zealand.

Bruce McLaren won two driver’s and five team Cam-Am championships with his orange cars.
Bruce McLaren won two driver’s and five team Cam-Am championships with his orange cars. (FB Pictures)

An overview doesn’t do justice to the richness of this film, but—spoiler alert—here’s a summary for the unfamiliar. Bruce McLaren developed Perthes disease as a child, which affects the hip and left him strapped to a frame for two years. As a 14-year-old, he began to race in New Zealand under the tutelage of his garage-owner father, Les. He showed speed and mechanical sensitivity in sports cars and then graduated to Formula 2, which in 1958 earned him the first “Driver to Europe” award from the New Zealand International Grand Prix organizers. With it came a position in England with the Cooper factory Formula One team. He won his first F1 race in 1959 for Cooper at the United States Grand Prix. At just 22 years old, he was the youngest Grand Prix winner ever.

Bruce McLaren Motor Racing followed, supported by Bruce’s testing and development contracts with Firestone and Ford. As a winner at Le Mans with fellow Kiwi Chris Amon driving the GT40 in Ford’s 1966 sweep of the podium, sports cars beckoned with the lucrative North American Can Am series. Driving his own cars alongisde Denny Hulme, the duo were dubbed the “Bruce and Denny show” and dominated the early years of the series. McLaren notes the team’s generous prize money—over $100,000—after winning all 11 Can Am races in 1969, an amount that overshadowed the team’s winnings from a fourth-place finish in the Formula 1 constructor’s championship.

While 2010’s Senna concentrates on the career of a virtuoso driver (and still had hours of footage left on the cutting room floor), McLaren tries to focus on a much wider subject. Fortunately the end result renders the complexities of McLaren’s racing clearly and enjoyably. Composition of a film chronicle like this, mixing stills, old film, and recreated scenes into a cohesive whole, is a challenge if it is to be informative, entertaining, and accurate. McLaren flows smoothly as it covers Bruce’s diverse and too-short life.

McLaren is a lively recounting of the man’s exploits.
(FB Pictures)

The movie’s scope is also its weakness: Many important topics are less developed than some fans of Can Am, F1, or Indy might wish. But there’s simply not enough time to expound on every element of Bruce McLaren’s expansive accomplishments.

McLaren led a remarkable life and the telling of it in this documentary is thorough, engaging, and touching. As the tale of a motorsports legend, this is required viewing for anyone who loves automobiles and the pursuit of speed.

McLaren goes into limited theatrical release in the U.S. on August 17. There is a list of current and upcoming screenings at www.mclarenfilmusa.com.