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A Hollywood story

Steve McQueen (Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis/Getty Images)


A Hollywood story

A new documentary about American actor Steve McQueen’s conversion to Christianity goes only skin-deep

Christian film producers Jon and Andy Erwin made a wise choice retitling the documentary they based on a biography written by Pastor Greg Laurie from Steve McQueen: The Salvation of an American Icon to simply Steve McQueen: American Icon. I haven’t read Laurie’s book, but the film, showing in theaters Sept. 28, seems far more interested in the icon part of McQueen’s story than the salvation part.

Exploring the spiritual formation of a public figure could be a compelling topic if it does what the best celebrity documentaries do—that is, take us behind the star persona to reveal a real, relatable human being.

After all, as Paul points out in 1 Corinthians 1:26, Christ’s church tends to be mostly made up of the non-influential and non-noble, so we’re naturally curious to hear the rare stories of eye-of-the-needle conversions at the height of wealth and fame. But despite one or two insightful interviews and audio tapes, American Icon fails to plumb depths that even an E! True Hollywood Story would manage.

A brief review of McQueen’s early life and success is certainly in order, but the film goes beyond this to engage in something close to hero worship. About the first 50 minutes is little more than a highlight reel of McQueen’s noteworthy roles, with a series of commentators, including Laurie, Mel Gibson, and McQueen’s former girlfriend Barbara Leigh, counting off reasons the actor was every bit as cool as his reputation.

“He knew the power of the lens,” Gibson opines. “He did what no one else could do,” Leigh gushes. Taken together, it gives the feeling of watching an “In Memoriam” tribute at the Oscars rather than a piece of journalism, which, of course, is what a documentary should be.

As the narrator briefly glosses over McQueen’s time in the military and at the Actors Studio in New York, you can’t help but wonder why Laurie and the Erwins couldn’t find more sources who knew the star before he was famous to provide more grounded observations.

Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images

McQueen in a scene from the film ‘Bullitt’ (Sunset Boulevard/Corbis/Getty Images)

Laurie, neither fully host nor interview subject, jumps back and forth between the two roles to awkward effect. Certain sequences—like Laurie in tight jeans, leaning on muscle cars with flinty gaze—seem to promote the imitation of McQueen rather than encourage careful reflection on his life. It’s a shame, because the glimpses we get of the real McQueen are enough to make us want more.

The most compelling parts of the film are recordings where McQueen himself appears to be trying to dispel his title as “The King of Cool” and talks quietly and humbly about the pain that led him to Christ.

There’s an echo of regret over sins this documentary fails to delve into but that have been widely reported elsewhere—his serial philandering and spousal abuse that once included pointing a gun at his wife’s head. By glossing over McQueen’s failures, the film undercuts the power of his conversion.

Interviews with believers who witnessed to McQueen—his stunt driver, his flight instructor, his pastor—are also frustratingly superficial. McQueen’s pastor tells us the actor had many questions about Christianity, but we don’t learn what they were. Traditional milestones on the path of following Jesus go unaddressed: Was McQueen baptized? If so—when, where? If not, why?

In a recent story for, Laurie wrote of interviewing McQueen’s son for his biography. Laurie recounts Chad McQueen telling him, “I think Dad was finding his way to go to the next place. I remember, he would wake me up at seven in the morning to go to church, which never happened before he got ill.”

This story, not mentioned in the film, is exactly the kind of detail Steve McQueen: An American Icon needed.


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  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Mon, 09/25/2017 04:31 am

    I have often noticed this problem in articles (documentaries?) about celebrities.  It seems we have trouble believing they are only men and women with the same fears, insecurities, and weaknesses we all have.  I wish we could stop making people into celebrities.  It is not good for them or for us.  

  •  BosLarJazz's picture
    Posted: Tue, 09/26/2017 11:08 pm

    The movie Steve McQueen; The Man and Lemans  is probably a better choice for finding out biographical information and getting a sense of his troubled life, but there is no mention of conversion especially in the excerpts of audio from interviews while he was receiving treatment in Mexico. He lived large, lived for himself, and was his own undoing, and if he did in fact come to Christ at the end of his life, one has to wonder if it was a foxhole conversion. Why are we only hearing about it now? I hope it was a real conversion. He was a troubled man with a troubled upbringing abandoned by his father and had a mother who wasn't really there for him. Perhaps he found the Father of Heaven to embrace him and welcome him home.

  •  JesusWorldview's picture
    Posted: Fri, 09/29/2017 08:06 pm

    Steve McQueen Movie.

    I saw the movie last night Megan. While not an edge of the seat narrative, it did keep its promise to show the arc of McQueen's life to Christianity in a way I had never heard before. I was a kid in the 60's and he really did leave an impression with the Great Escape and Nevada Smith. No exaggeration in the documentary on that score.

    Something bigger, though Megan. You made a fairly superficial observation (rare for you):

    "Traditional milestones on the path of following Jesus go unaddressed: Was McQueen baptized? If so—when, where? If not, why?"

    And yet you missed the most striking message of the movie. Two weeks before his death, McQueen says he wants to tell people - wants them to know about his relationship with the Lord. But suddenly he dies and it goes unnoticed...until last night. 37 years later, his wish is fulfilled. How many people get that opportunity? That was the message of the film for me, Megan.  And there was indeed enough "new" background material to give me pause - this guy who had everything, lost it, and still kept looking with humility - until the right combination of people and events led him to Christ, just in time. That is an amazing story, Megan, and I think you missed it.

    Always enjoy your insights, keep on writing!