DOWNHILL RACER (1969)

  • Director: Michael Ritchie
  • Writers: James Salter, based on the novel The Downhill Racers by Oakley Hall
  • Starring: Robert Redford, Gene Hackman, Camilla Sparv, Karl Michael Vogler, Jim McMullan, Dabney Coleman, and Walter Stroud
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), buy or rent on Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

When Downhill Racer came out in 1969, a young Roger Ebert called it “the best Sports movie ever made, except it’s not really about sports.” The thing is, I think Downhill Racer works as much as it does because it’s about sports. To be more specific, what it seems to understand about what it’s like to be an athlete. It is a succession of anonymous central European hotels and cafes, punctuated by tense waiting and, a few times, the feeling of running down a ski slope, all alone, at first in silence and then with the vague roar of the crowd getting closer. When he isn’t doing direct POV shots, first-time director Michael Ritchie pushes the camera right up in the faces of his actors, keeping us right with whatever they are experiencing. Of the movies in this Summer Games Virtual Film Festival, this is the one with the least actual Olympics. I checked, we don’t even get to the Games until there are less than 17 minutes left in the movie, because the movie is much more interested in the daily grind of getting there.

Robert Redford (this movie came out a month after he ascended to household name status with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) stars as the fictional ski racer David Chappellet, who joins the U.S. Ski Team on the annual European circuit from his tiny hometown of “Idaho Falls, Colorado.” It is less that he is arrogant than that he is so focused on himself that he can’t fathom the point of view of anyone else. It doesn’t spoon feed us anything, but the movie seems to me to suggest that the same qualities that make him insufferable as a human being are the same thing that make him a ski champion. He can’t quite fathom the concept that he might not succeed, to the great consternation of his coach (Gene Hackman, who is given surprisingly little to do).

This quality also applies to Chappelet’s personal life: he seems to assume women will want to sleep with him, and seems angry and confused when they don’t. In the offseason, he goes home and visits his father (Walter Stroud), but because his father isn’t him, they have little to talk about. In one critical-feeling scene, he explains to his father that he is remaining an amateur, so he can compete in the Olympics (i.e. he could be making a bunch of money, but is choosing not to), because “I’ll be famous, I’ll be a champion.” “World’s full of ‘em,” his father gruffly replies. I mean, is it?

Without being one of those movie guys who wishes they’d cut out the kissing to get back to the action, I think that Downhill Racer in particular works much better in its racing sequences than it does when it’s worried about Chappelet’s romantic life. Much of the middle third of the movie is given over to Chappelet’s romance with Carole (Swedish actress Camilla Sparv), a beautiful local girl working for a ski manufacturer. There’s something about the way the movie treats their relationship where I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for it to end in disaster somehow. But in the end she just loses interest, because he has no interest in the realities of the lives of people who aren’t him. He is just flummoxed.

Downhill Racer was shot almost entirely on location, on the actual World Cup mountains in Europe, places like Kitzbuhel in Austria and Wengen in Switzerland. This lends itself to some spectacular location photography. This was the result of a decision to shoot the movie “on the cheap” in Europe, after the former director attached to direct the movie (Roman Polanski, of all people) dropped out. Robert Redford then personally picked out Ritchie, and spent the late winter of 1968 traveling with the actual U.S. ski team in the lead-up to the 1968 Winter Olympics in Grenoble, France, riding around on buses and sleeping in hallways. There is a great deal of discussion over which skier(s) Chappelet is actually based on, but he is thought to include some of Olympic Silver Medalist Billy Kidd from Vermont, as well as Buddy Werner, the first American to win a World Cup race, who had died in an accident in 1964. In the movie, we briefly hear that no American has won the Olympic Downhill before. In reality, this remained true until 1984, when brash upstart Bill Johnson, who had many similarities to the fiction Chappelet, won unexpectedly at Sarajevo.

Ritchie was only 31 years old when he made Downhill Racer, and went on to a long career that included several further interesting sports movies. Probably his most-watched movie today is the kids baseball comedy Bad News Bears. Decades later, he was one of several writers to take a pass at the script of Cool Runnings. Redford, who was more in control of his career than most earlier actors, hired him again a few years after this movie for the politics-themed The Candidate. Downhill Racer also marked the debut of another, bigger star, Sylvester Stallone, who makes his very first movie appearance as an extra in the background of a scene where Redford and Sparv go on a date at a restaurant.

I mentioned yesterday that Jim Thorpe: All-American does almost nothing to bring you into the sporting events, seeming to think such a thing beyond its grasp. Only 18 years later, Downhill Racer feels like a quantum leap forward in this regard. I have never been downhill skiing, professionally or otherwise, but I have seen quite a bit on TV over the years. Yet watching this movie it felt like I was understanding something specific about it that I hadn’t before. No offense to the performances of Redford and Hackman, who are both fine but not particularly showy, but it is that depiction of the experience of the athlete, and the skier in particular, that makes watching Downhill Racer worthwhile.

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