Downhill Racer (1969) Poster

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Decent, fairly enjoyable film.
Donny_Stay20 June 2004
Warning: 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".
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Downhill Racer is a character study.
MICKEYGORMAN22 May 2001
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.
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An unpolished gem
oldskibum216 May 2001
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.
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A good film that could have been great
jaguarxke22 January 2002
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.
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Skiing Into Your Living Room
directoroffantasies3 November 2004
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.
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7/10
Timeless because it's dated
roy_imdb13 February 2006
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.
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8/10
The pursuit of success - this time, on the mountain.
malcolmi12 October 2007
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?"
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6/10
Missed opportunity
james_lane-117 October 2014
There were some curious choices made when this movie was put together. There seems no reason why the film couldn't have been much more successful if it had wanted to be. It has some fine actors, the skiing is great and the plot is basically the same as "Top Gun".

Robert Redford is one of the most charming and charismatic leading men of the modern era, but here he plays an unlikeable loner. In fact, almost everyone in the film is more likable than Redford, and you really wish someone would beat some sense into him. So we don't really care that much if he wins or loses.

The film isn't helped much by the jazz score, which would work for some noir detective flick, but hardly for the high adrenaline sport of downhill racing. Pity.
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9/10
Spartan sports flick
RNMorton1 January 2003
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.
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10/10
What it's like when you get what you want...
wronglead4 May 2002
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.
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