By Brett Yates
Editor’s note: The following is the first in a short series of reviews of mostly older films whose narratives prominently feature skiing and ski resorts.
The opening shot of “Downhill Racer,” the 1969 Alpine drama starring Robert Redford, initially registers as an abstract composition: a dark, diagonal bolt against a white backdrop. After a moment, the taut bounce and ribbed weave of the black line look familiar, at least to the skiers amid the audience—we’re looking at a chairlift cable, and the lift is running, and the whiteness behind it is a snowy mountain in the distance.
The ski-movie subgenre, with all its lowbrow, straight-to-video tendencies, didn’t yet truly exist in the 1960s, but from a contemporary perspective it feels right that director Michael Ritchie, in his debut feature, should announce his sober artistic intentions before divulging his sporty subject matter. It must be noted right away that “Downhill Racer” is no slopeside romp: nearly half a century after its production, it remains the only genuinely serious cinematic depiction of the skiing life—a little too serious, maybe. At the time of its release, a zealous young Roger Ebert proclaimed it “the best movie ever made about sports.”
Redford, fresh off his breakthrough to stardom in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in the same year, plays the downhill racer in question, a young daredevil named Dave Chappellet who finds an opportunity to join the U.S. ski team when another American is injured in an FIS competition. Chappellett quickly makes a name for himself on the European circuit: he takes risks and rarely finishes in the middle of the pack—for him, it’s either the podium or a crash. His dream is to win Olympic gold.
Chappellett’s coach (an indisputable Gene Hackman, evincing as much authentic instructional devotion to the sport of skiing as he would later bring to the basketball court in “Hoosiers”) scolds the rookie for his cocky attitude and sense of entitlement. His teammates find him aloof and self-involved. It’s not clear whether Chappellett notices their disapproval.
Like “Whiplash” (2014), “Downhill Racer” is a story of singlemindedness and of the dark side of obsessive ambition. The main difference between the two is the reserve with which “Downhill Racer” regards its protagonist, whose will to succeed is not presented as a dramatic point of decision. Chappellett doesn’t forgo (either heroically or foolhardily) some other potentially healthier destiny—he’s just a limited person, who’s not interested in much except skiing. He has two brief love affairs, in which he says little, and the only time a woman tries to speak more than a handful of sentences to him, he’s forced to honk his car horn at her in frustration. He’s a great athlete, but his courage on the race course has no moral or inspirational component.
Within the universe of sports movies, the character conception of “Downhill Racer” may qualify as an insight—even so, it’s a slim one, and it leaves the film with a static, unengaging hero. Whatever strong interest it nevertheless possessed in 1969 must have lain within the edgy New Hollywood stylings of director Ritchie, who imbues the movie with the jangly, anxious energy that typified the period in which it was made. For a period stretching from “The Graduate” to “Five Easy Pieces,” alienated young men—standing in for hordes of disaffected Vietnam-era youngsters—dominated the U.S. cinema, exerting a fascination that now mostly seems unearned. Their angst, however, demanded a new look and mood for American movies, which learned to borrow from the French New Wave and, at least in this particular depiction of the loneliness of the downhill skier, from the Angry Young Man period of British cinema.
Yet the jagged editing—the jump cuts and freeze frames—of “Downhill Racer” reflects primarily the aesthetic concerns of the late 1960s, not the inner world of its character, who, after all, has none, however “alienated” he may be. The film’s nervous energy is not his own, and thematic source of the oddly tragic sense of irresolution that accompanies the conventionally happy ending is not totally traceable. Seven years after inventing the sports movie as an art film, Michael Ritchie would direct “The Bad News Bears,” inventing the sports movie as it would actually come to be in virtually every incarnation since.
What interest “Downhill Racer” maintains today (it’s still occasionally cited as a classic) derives from its realist documentation of 20th-century ski racing—both the sport itself and its ancillary, social facets of fundraising, sponsorship, and travel. For the most part, the races shown in the movie were not faked by stunt doubles; Ritchie instead filmed actual World Cup events in early 1969, which gave him access to an array of thrilling athletic feats and plenty of useful shots of brutal, limb-twisting crashes. His sped-up body-cam footage, too, is surprisingly exciting, considering how boring today’s GoPro videos tend to be. I loved watching the valiant, hopping efforts of earlier ski racers on their jittery, overlong skis, when turning was not the sleek business we see today.