Classic Musings: Downhill Racer (1969)

In an interview recorded about the making of Downhill Racer, Robert Redford is quick to address the gray-area focus on victory and sportsmanship in his late-'60s depiction of competitive skiing, emphasizing that the idea of it not mattering whether one wins or loses, instead how they play the game, is wrong. Not as an idealistic creed to follow, but in how those around the competitors ultimately perceive the outcome of their efforts, where tact and teamwork matter little unless they're standing atop the winner's podium. It's a contentious message within a culture that perpetuates the balancing act between maintaining etiquette and rewarding those who come out on top, whether we're talking about professional sports or the entrepreneurial and political arenas. Under the direction of Michael Ritchie, challenging ideas rush at the audience in a wobbly but viscerally triumphant portrait of a speed-based, individual sport that's tough to dramatize without crashes, trumping its generally shallow plotting with nuanced comments on the game itself and a calculated performance from Redford.

Following an injury to a member of the US skiing team while abroad, coach Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman) calls up competitors for their moment to shine in the big league, giving them enough time to gain their bearings and develop some winning momentum before the Winter Olympics in two years. David Chappellet (Redford) is one of those replacements, a largely unknown racer from the small town of Idaho Springs. His humble roots don't detract from his confidence, though, easily interpreted as arrogance, which distances himself from the rest of his team as he vies for a more desirable spot in the rankings. Downhill Racer follows the peaks and valleys in Chappellet's career -- both figurative and literal -- as he garners the attention of the media, of product sponsors, and of the women drawn into his chilly charisma and daring spirit, progressing forward to the arrival of the Olympics and whether he can hold onto his victorious drive and his shaky relationships with his teammates until then.

The intensity of the races and the snowy atmosphere of Europe propel Downhill Racer with engaging cinematic experiences, elevated by shaky camera movement and natural streaks of motion that take great strides towards emphasizing the solitary nature of Chappellet's sport. Typically, sports movies thrive on either head-to-head competitiveness or the dangers involved with the game, but these are >difficult to emphasize in a situation where the contestants race by themselves amid time trials, in situations where a crash instantly breaks the suspense. Director Ritchie employs an almost-documentary style of filmmaking that captures the beautifully realistic tension of those rickety blitzes downwards, making the audience feel as if they're seeing and feeling what the racers are experiencing in a tense, twisty blur of blue and white. These sequences offer a window into the vigor of the sport itself and, by association, into Chappellet's composure while tackling each course, becoming a facet of the film's examination of his character just as much as making audiences appreciate a sport that they may know little about.

Chappellet isn't an easy individual to navigate, either, a reserved yet arrogant athlete whose lone-wolf attitude makes him a rather unlikable force among the skiing team. Loosely adapting from the novel "The Downhill Racers" in a secondhand fashion, screenwriter James Salter doesn't offer a particularly complex or involving progression of events surrounding him, driven by a chain of races, smug outbursts, and cliche speeches from his coach -- sturdily buy dryly played by Gene Hackman -- that blur together into the small-town skier's largely predictable meteoric rise. When filtered through a callous demeanor by Robert Redford, however, they're given weight as the conditions ignite his frustrations and fuel his ego, communicated through the actor's terse body language and angry glances. His behavior adds a new layer of depth to commonplace happenings in the athlete's life, from his hollow and discouraging return home between sessions to his vague romantic endeavors with Carole (Camilla Sparv), a beautiful and free-spirited employee for a ski manufacturer whose motivations remain unclear.

That sobering depiction of Chappellet's rigid self-focused attitude shifts Downhill Racer towards a subversive look at the trajectory leading towards victory and successfulness, the ultimate payoff for a competitor's invested time and energy. Director Ritchie's understated perspective glides towards comments on the fleeting, fickle attention of the media and sponsors alongside the damage done by Chappellet's lack of graciousness or teamwork mentality, but it merely brushes against these themes without tackling them head-on, letting the athlete's coarse reactions speak for themselves. By sticking to this examination of his flawed and unlikable traits, the film cleverly asks the audience whether they actually want to see him succeed once Downhill Racer crosses the finish line, undercutting the traditional mind-set of rooting for the underdog. Chappellet overcomes obstacles, rising above his small-town origins and earning his moment in the spotlight like other conventional sports dramas, yet the film's complicated power ultimately rests in deciding whether he deserves it after witnessing how he played the game.

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