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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
When Robert Redford delivered this film to the studio upon completion, the
suits weren't sure what to do with it. How does one sell a pensive film
about Pyrrhic victory? Against Redford's wishes, the studio ultimately
marketed the film as a sports movie ("See hottie Robbie in exciting skiing
scenes!"), and confused audiences avoided the film in droves. Redford,
frustrated with the experience, created the Sundance Film Institute as a
reaction to his experiences with "Downhill Racer".
Today, it is for this reason that "Downhill Racer" is best remembered, but one shouldn't overlook the work itself. The film, the first in an unfinished trilogy of films about the price of success (the second was "The Candidate"), is a thoughtful study of competition and competitiveness. Gene Hackman shines as the impatient coach, but Redford gives one of the finest performances of his career as the brooding, singular-minded athlete. Redford's performance is reason enough to watch the film, but the skiing scenes are also quite entertaining, as they fully capture the excitement and exhilaration of Olympic competition. The dark, ironic story, while slight, is still effective enough to make its point.
I shouldn't like to call this film a masterpiece; it isn't. It's a decent slice of cinema that is very unfairly maligned by too many. If you, like those studio executives, prefer a straightforward sports story in which the underdog wins and gets The Girl, look elsewhere. However, if you prefer an intelligent investigation of the human condition, well, you could do worse than "Downhill Racer".
In this film, Robert Redford plays David Chappellet a young man training on a ski team with hopes of making the Olympics. The film is basically a character study of a somewhat narcissistic, shallow, self-centered guy from a simple rural background who dreams of attaining fame and fortune by entering the Olympics as a downhill racer. Throughout the film we see examples of his failure to connect with people. He visits his dad on his ranch and is received with complete coldness and indifference. He pulls into town and picks up an old girl friend, takes her for a ride and they have sex. Afterwards, he completely ignores her when she tries to tell him about her life. He pursues Camilla Sparv who plays the beautiful Carole Stahl. In her, he has met his match. She seems to be someone who also uses people, never lets them get very close and always has an agenda to get what she wants. She works for a ski manufacturer who seems to use her to bait the young up and coming skiing stars that he seeks to groom for product advice and future endorsements. She is narcissistic, shallow and self-centered like him but she is also elusive. This plays to the competitor in him and she knows that. Throughout the film we see Gene Hackman who plays the skiing coach Eugene Claire. We witness numerous scenes where Chappellet ignores his advice and counsel, where the coach calls him on his arrogance and selfish attitude. But in the end, they triumph and seem to be headed for the Olympics. But in the last brief scene, victory and fame seems so fickle, elusive, short lived, it all seems superficial. Redford is wonderful in this and of course, Gene Hackman is just as good. Seeing these two early in their careers, that alone makes this a film worth watching.
Redford gives a low-key performance as a thoroughly unlikable member of the US Ski Team in the late 1960's, and he doesn't become any more likable as the story unfolds. Perhaps that's why the film gets such mixed reviews. The Olympic and racing sequences have an almost-documentary look to them, and for good reason. The story goes that IOC officials refused permission for the film crew to shoot during the actual Olympic events; the producers got around that inconvenience by giving hand-held cameras to cast members so they could shoot crowd scenes and background footage on the sly. It's hard to like David Chappellet, and making him a more sympathetic character might have been easier, but I think it's a much better story as-is. As we know all too well these days, world-class athletes aren't always aren't always the charming heroes we'd like them to be.
The appeal of a ski film to those who ski is obvious. But imagine
yourself innocent of skiing. Can it hold the attention of the rest of
us? Roone Arledge and his "Wide World of Sports" provided one answer,
as Jean Claude Killy and his successors skied into American living
rooms on many winter Saturdays. "Downhill Racer" seconds the motion.
The late Mike Ritchie, who'd essayed nothing more ambitious than commercials, traveled the World Cup circuit in the 1967-68 winter, accompanied by Aspen novelist Jim Salter, whose screenplay (from Oakley Hall's very different novel) effectively was written in segments the night before each shoot. Almost everything about this production was improvised.
Athletes are not necessarily interesting people. Killy was; stories about him, some even true, are legion. David Chappellet (a young Robert Redford), more typically, reminds one of the astronauts in "2001", with their limited range of expressions and nothing particularly interesting to say. This comes across powerfully in several hilarious interview scenes, with American and European journalists trying in vain to get the young man to say something worth writing down.
Wengen, Switzerland passes for several World Cup race sites. (A Swiss medico wears an armband identifying him as "Arzt", or doctor, at a supposed French venue). The filmmakers also were present in Grenoble for the Winter Olympics, providing a fictional inside look at the Games far different from that of, for example, "Chariots of Fire".
One still doesn't ski, but the pleasures of "Downhill Racer" are undeniable.
For anybody who follows international sports, the characters and
organizations in this movie ring true. Whether you follow skating,
gymnastics, skiing, or any other essentially solo international sports,
you have seen the loners, the chosen stars, the politics, fund raising,
and everything else that goes on behind and in front of the scenes.
This movie captures those people and circumstances exceptionally well. As has been noted in the coverage of the Olympics, the parallels to the 2006 US downhill team are stunning. The fact that this movie was made in 1969, with the film style of the day, makes it quite dated. But it is exactly the dated fashions, music, cinematography, skiing equipment, and attitudes that make it a keeper.
Downhill Racer remains the seminal skiing movie (unless one prefers the slob humor of Hot Dog: The Movie), but it's also about bigger themes. Redford is the quintessential American loner, out for his own goals and not interested in serving the needs of his sport, his team, or the international press. It's a character we've seen a thousand times in real life, and it's one who gets deified or demonized depending on his success in the field of sport.
So, view this very dated movie in today's context. You'll be surprised how relevant it is.
After many years of catching brief scenes of this now semi-cult film, I
finally watched it in its entirety. It is not a great film, but for film
students, and fans of both Gene Hackman and Robert Redford, it's a must.
The opening credits are delivered over scenes of a Super G skier flying down
the mountain and feature a combination of stop action and over-cranked
footage. The film quality is beautiful, and although the techniques now
seem dated, they stand for what was cutting-edge editing at the time.
Watching the opening, you feel like you're in for a great ride but are sadly
let down by a staid script. Having said that, the film can sort of get a
way with this (at least to a certain extent) because you've got such great
actors playing the main roles of skier (Redford) and coach (Hackman). Both
know how to exploit the economy of language and show a lot simply with body
language and expression. (They must have realized they had to with this
script.) Add to that fact, that the character Redford is playing - a
vainglorious Super G racer named David Chappellett, probably wouldn't have
much to say.
Ultimately, the film serves as cinematic commentary on how fleeting success is in a sport like skiing, as well as the shallowness shown by both the press that cover the sport, and the women that covet the skiers.
Downhill Racer is about Olympic skiing, but it's also about American
society, and about how sport gives the illusion of being an escape from
the loneliness of being undereducated.
Dave Chappellet (Robert Redford) grew up in the isolation of rural Colorado, where the career option after high school is working on a ranch or going to Denver to take a hairdressing course. His talent on skis has earned him a call to the US national ski team as a replacement after one of the members fractures his leg in a European race. When he arrives in Germany after what seems to have been his first airplane flight, he meets his new roommate, a Dartmouth graduate, one of several team members from that same Eastern undergraduate world.
Chappellet remains cautious and defensive as he tries to navigate the manners, attitudes, and values of the team and of the European civilization he encounters. He's made even more prickly by the code of team play which he's required to accept from his demanding coach, Eugene Clair (Gene Hackman). Clair believes that good sportsmanship and team solidarity are the basis for success in international skiing, and that's important because success is what will achieve financial support for the team from American business. But Chappellet refuses to play the sportsmanship game - partly because he knows he can't speak the Ivy League language his teammates have mastered, and partly because he knows that winning is the only way he'll stay on the team, and Clair's concept of sportsmanship won't help him win, any more than would the attitude or values of Chappellet's embittered father back in Colorado. Dave Chappellet know he's going to have to ski his own race, always.
Downhill Racer features a variety of exciting ski races filmed and edited with great skill, and they reveal very powerfully that, in the midst of all the thousands of spectators, each skier is alone on the mountain, and that winning comes from a combination of relentless focus and arbitrary fortune. With this truth presented so clearly and compellingly, Chappellet's refusal to play his coach's game is validated. On race day he has to ski faster than anyone else. No one else can help him. And neither will membership in the right club (or school, or social background). He has to do it on his own.
But being on your own is very lonely. Chappellet begins to want to belong, and chases after a kind of club membership in Europe, pursuing the very attractively worldly Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv), executive assistant to a German ski manufacturer. He catches her because he's becoming famous, and thus useful, but discovers that he's not important to her. He's a pleasant diversion, but he can be discarded as easily as a pair of gloves. He receives praise from his coach, but only after winning races. Until he wins, he's the target of Clair's angry lectures about not thinking of the good of the team. Hackman's strangled speech and look of frustrated disgust as he berates the uncooperative Redford for having taken an unacceptable risk after practice create a high-water mark in American film acting, as does the surly self-centredness of Redford's response.
At the end of the movie, narrowly dodging defeat in the most important race in his career, Chappellet is hoisted on the crowd's shoulders in a frozen moment of apparent triumph. But only one value exists - winning. And his win is already history. There's no love in it, no acceptance more profound than his coach's praise, the crowd's shouts of excitement. And tomorrow's winner is already eyeing him in an unspoken challenge. Dave Chappellet is going to be skiing down this mountain alone for the rest of his life.
Looking back across nearly forty years to watch this excellent film, we can already begin to hear the question asked by Robert Redford's character in The Candidate, "What happens next?" The answer may be bleak - more competition, more loneliness - but the film helps us discover the answer in a fascinating way, because it puts us on those skis, rushing at impossible speed down the mountain, in a cocoon of our own heartbeats, our own laboured breathing. We're forced to ask ourselves, "Would we make the team? Would we win? And if we did, would it mean anything?"
Cocky loner Redford joins Hackman's Olympic men's ski team, ready to set the world on fire. I don't agree with the lead comment that there isn't enough action in this movie, but there is something else that's missing, not sure what - maybe it's that the presentation is very simple and almost bleak. It could be considered a character study rather than an sports movie, except that the reason for Redford's enigmatic behavior is never really explained. Hackman and Redford are both excellent in their respective and often adverse roles. Worth a view.
Gene Hackman is the coach; Robert Redford the star skier looking for Olympic Gold and himself. This is a wonderful character study of a man who wants to succeed above all else. Hackman is wonderful (as always) as the coach who tries to manage a team of individuals who are trying to break through into big time international skiing. Redford was brilliant in playing complicated introspective young men... Three Days of the Condor, Jeremiah Johnson, The Candidate. These set the stage for his later great work in Out of Africa and even Havana (another very very good movie panned by the critics). Even the ending is perfect. Enjoy.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
After reading the several pages of comments, I wonder if some of the
other reviewers really 'saw' this film. I grew up loving the sport of
skiing and when the movie came out, I was almost obsessed with skiing.
Unfortunately, I'm from the flatlands and so had to content myself for
most of the year with vicarious experiences like Warren Miller films
and marginal movies like Killy's 'Snow Job' and 'Hot Dog The Movie'
('Better Off Dead' was a much better film from a skiing standpoint).
Miller's films were fine, but those other two movies were trash. Of
course, none of them, not even this one, could compete with 'Ski the
Outer Limits' and 'The Moebius Flip', but those were in another league
So, we have Downhill Racer . the biography of Bill Johnson. OK, not really, because Johnson could give great interviews. But the brash American who believed only in himself, well, I guess Bode would now also fit. The humor in the movie was that when it was made, the European skiing community scoffed. Not that it was a good or bad movie, but they could not accept a plot where an American!!! could win the Olympic Downhill Gold. Remember this was before 1984 and Bill Johnson.
Being an avid skier (even club racing) and reading everything I could find (several mags and two newsletters, besides many books), I had an awareness of some of the lesser known stories. And there was certainly some leeway taken in how the movie was presented. For example, at that time, World Cup skiing was pretty much amateur for the Americans and fully professional for the Europeans, although totally under the table (Avery Brundage the last Olympic commissioner to have an absurd fantasy belief in amateurism - couldn't control the Europeans but he ruled with an iron fist over the Americans).
Often, quite competitive American skiers were left at home because the National team budget didn't have enough money. Or how Karl Schranz (sort of who the character, Max Meier, was based on) was robbed of the Downhill medal in 1964 by Jean Claude Killy (or rather by the judges at the French resort where it was held). And that the American ski team was more than just male downhillers (oh, yes, with women barely mentioned in the movie during that interview with the rather naïve American reporter), when in reality it included slalom and giant slalom racers, some of whom raced in the 3 disciplines available then (the Cochrans, the Palmers, the Mahres are easy examples).
The irony of the final scene in the movie, is that here, after all that David Chappellet put into winning the Olympic gold, by the time he did, he is no longer the young brash new skier on the block. The kid that almost beat him, was in reality a younger, brasher, newer version, that, looking at both as the one skis off the course and the other again accepts the accolades that had almost dried up, makes us think that at the height of his fame and glory, poor David Chappellet is now washed up, a has been, for the skiing community is about to move on to its next wunderkid.
One or more of the other reviewers here erroneously wrote that the competition was a Super G. Well, since the Olympics allowed all comers (sort of, remember the Jamaican Bobsled team and Eddie the amateur ski jumper), they regularly 'dumbed' down the Olympic downhill courses so they became what we think of as today's Super-G. The Europeans knew that the real yearly races like the Hahnenkamm or Lauberhorn were the true tests of downhill racing. Also, the yearly winners of the World Cup as well as the World Alpine Championships were held in much higher regard by the racers and cognoscenti than Olympic winners, unless it was one of the chosen Europeans who won the Gold, of course.
Redford, in an interview, said he especially liked the scenes that his character had with his father back home (in Idaho Springs, Ida no, Colorado) during the off season. I found those dreary at best. It reminded me of that scene in 'Love Story' where the hero, who was ONLY captain of the Harvard Ice Hockey Team was sneered at by his father who had been an OLYMPIC competitor. Of course, I did get a little hungry for some Ritz crackers while watching Redford. I'm not sure how you can live in the mountains, that kind of setting, and not know anything about competitive skiing, or at least the Olympics. By the 60's thanks to Jim McKay and Wide World of Sports, most people had heard of Killy and were now commonly confusing Billy Kidd with Jean-Claude. Such is the price of fame.
For a ski movie, the race scenes were riveting, the acting of people like Gene Hackman and Dabney Coleman was quite adequate, the beauty of Camilla Sparv was eye pleasing. It was a decent movie, but still confined to a certain time. Better to watch the movie as a part of a series in the career of Redford Downhill Racer, Little Fauss and Big Halsey, ending with The Candidate, where he began to play larger characters. He was still the loner, but in a bigger and often more important setting. At least here he had broken out of his 'silly' movies 'Inside Daisy Clover', 'The Chase', 'This Property is Condemned' and the like, even 'Barefoot in the Park' in some ways, his first starring movie. Of course, it was 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' that completely changed the way we looked at Redford, both past and present.
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