Halfway through Michael Ritchie's 1969 film Downhill Racer, David Chappellet, a brash young skier from Idaho Springs, Colorado, wins a downhill event on the European circuit. When one of his fellow U.S. Ski Team members congratulates him later and tells him he ran a good race, Chappellet agrees, happily reporting that he only missed one turn—he took it too wide. Traveling from mountain to mountain in Europe in order to skitter down icy slopes on two slivers of wood hardly seems the kind of thing one could be perfect at, and Chappellet's suggestion that he was nearly there is too much for Crich, the team's other top skier. "All right, he's good, and he's fast, and he wins a couple races," Crich complains to the team’s assistant coach, "and I’m the first one to admit that a good racer turns everybody on. But he’s not for the team and he never will be." The coach, played by a young, straight-shooting Dabney Coleman, offers a matter-of-fact response: "Well it's not exactly a team sport, is it?"
The question of what, if anything, a talented individual owes others arises again and again in Downhill Racer. It helps greatly that the talented individual in question is embodied by a fresh-faced Robert Redford, and that Gene Hackman fills the role of the team's head coach, a man who believes not only that downhill skiing is indeed a team sport, but also that Chappellet might be the U.S.'s best chance at a first Olympic gold medal. Hackman has always been a master of the small pause, during which he assesses the person he's speaking to—he often smiles while doing so, as a cover for the fact that his gaze has gone coldly analytical. That gaze—and Redford's return of it—brings an energizing frisson to their scenes together. The two men need each other to fulfill their individual goals: Hackman wants to be the coach who brings the U.S. ski team its first Olympic downhill gold; Chappellet wants to be better than every other person. Though they want the same result—that gold medal—it’s also clear that they’re too similar to ever really like one another. They don’t even really bother to try.
Depending upon which source you consult, Downhill Racer was either a victim of a distribution hang-up at Paramount, or was possibly just rejected by audiences expecting the charming Redford they'd just seen in Barefoot in the Park rather than the aloof version he was giving them as Chappellet. Either way, the film fell into a cultural void until a Criterion Collection edition returned it to view a couple years ago, and it now seems to slip nicely into what has been a tough position to fill: Among the formidable wave of American films and directors loosely referred to as "The New Hollywood," where is the movement's take on the sports film? Most critics suggest The New Hollywood spirit starts with Bonnie & Clyde, expands throughout an exhilarating era of filmmaking that includes titles like Five Easy Pieces, M*A*S*H, Dog Day Afternoon, and dozens of others, and is then savagely annihilated by Steven Spielberg via the invention of “the blockbuster” in the person (or fish, I suppose) of Jaws. The era includes other sports film candidates, of course: The Longest Yard, Rollerball, or maybe something scruffier, like the Jack Nicholson-directed college basketball counterculture film Drive, He Said.
But Downhill Racer, viewed from the perspective that forty-two years provides, seems the best of these films that had the luxury of existing pre-Rocky. Though the rags-to-riches, pulling-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps narrative Rocky milked was hardly invented by Sylvester Stallone, the impact Rocky had, and continues to have, on American sports films shouldn’t be underestimated. The procedure of having an underdog do well, encounter difficulty, train hard to a pop-music assemblage (Q: “Hey Sly, how do you stay in shape?” A: “Montage”), and then vanquish his opponent in a rousing final battle hadn’t been as strictly formalized as a money-making formula before Rocky as it would be afterward. Rocky itself doesn’t follow the pattern correctly, of course, since Rocky (spoiler!) loses at the end, which is why if no sequels had ever been made, Rocky might be esteemed as highly as On the Waterfront or Raging Bull. Instead, of course, we have a tradition that includes not only Rocky’s II-XXIII, but also wrestling Rocky’s, arm wrestling Rocky’s, dog Rocky’s, hockey Rocky’s, and kid hockey Rocky’s, to name just a few. Or several.
Downhill Racer, though, isn’t a film that uses sport to extol the virtues of love, teamwork, or the human spirit. It is, instead, a film whose characters are suspicious of clichés about love, teamwork, and "the human spirit." These people are interested in winning, and that's it. The result is a film about skiing that resists attempts to be about anything other than winning at skiing.
There's a semantic issue here, of course: it's possible that Downhill Racer does say something about the human spirit, it's just that the human spirit referenced isn't what we usually refer to as "the human spirit." In other words, rather than promoting fairly conservative social virtues—and by conservative, I just mean traditional and safe, since no one is going to argue against teamwork or friendship or love or whatever other noble qualities heroes usually learn and then utilize in order to win their championship—Downhill Racer is about human beings focused on the pursuit of individual excellence. Chappellet, for instance, doesn’t appear to have or want any friends. He picks up an old girlfriend on a break in Colorado, and falls into bed with a European beauty, but neither relationship is feasible as something beyond the moment, and he doesn’t seem motivated by women—he needs no Adrian who, after difficult childbirth, tells Rocky to "Just win," and for whom Rocky then works mightly (in montage) to just win. In fact, director Michael Ritchie—who would later debase the homilies of Little League baseball by presenting foul-mouthed, cigarette smoking kids in The Bad News Bears—presents Chappellet as someone whose pursuit of excellence isn't instrumentalized in any of the ways we almost always see excellence instrumentalized, i.e. by someone who does it for God, for parents, for a spouse or a kid, to score with women, or to get rich. What probably alienated viewers of Downhill Racer is that in most Hollywood movies, the hero's acquisition of a skill is used as a means of achieving a goal. Redford's Chappellet, however, doesn’t want to be the fastest skier in the world in order to vanquish a dragon, defeat a personal demon, or win a damsel. He just wants to be the best in the world so he can know he’s the best in the world.
Some might label obsessive pursuit of personal victory a brand of narcissism, and fair enough—the issue is certainly in play. But the beauty of the film—and especially of James Salter’s adaptation of the Oakley Hall novel The Downhill Racers—lies in the degree to which it dramatizes the contradictions bound up in the pursuit of excellence. Even though Chappellet pursues racing just for the sake of racing, the purity of this focus doesn’t result in any kind of beatific or inspired openness on his part, and in fact seems to push him only further from others. His teammates enjoy a sense of camaraderie, but Chappellet doesn’t share it. A crucial difference might be that the team's other members come from well-defined social backgrounds. When a teammate explains that he's from Dartmouth, Chappellet repeats the word quietly, as if it's from another language: "Dartmouth." Chappellet is from nowhere, of course, and though he has built his whole world around nothing but downhill skiing—the film begins when an injury to another skier results in Chappellet getting called up to the team—he nevertheless remains entirely alienated from the actual world of downhill skiing. The things he takes joy in—feeling he was almost perfect in a race, for instance—are the exact things that cause others to keep him at a distance.
When Chappellet goes home to visit his father (there's no mention of his mother or what became of her), we see that the man actually lives outside of town, in a rundown house that is, for lack of a better term, just up there in the mountains. Chappellet is keenly aware of class—or perhaps it's the film that is keenly aware of class, while Chappelet is only vaguely and suspiciously aware of it—possibly because there is no word he can say (“Dartmouth”) that will immediately convey to others the context of his background.
And yet, despite this discussion of Chappellet as alienated and absent a mother, he's not antisocial, and is hardly ill at ease. Rather than making him a young man wracked with class envy, Salter, Richie, and Redford craft a character aware of class, but who doesn't have any particular point to make about it. For Chappellet, rather than being some totalizing social concept that one can never escape but must endlessly struggle against, class is just one of many obstacles that threaten to mire one in a plane somewhere beneath the exalted realm of excellence. He doesn't hate class, he hates mediocrity.
It's easy to satirize this kind of character. Adam McKay and Will Ferrell have a great time doing so in Talladega Nights—"I piss excellence," Ricky Bobby intones—but Ricky Bobby wins race after race, so what's depicted as "pissing excellence" is a position of total dominance. In the first thirty minutes of Downhill Racer, on the other hand, we see all of one David Chappellet race. In fact, there's an entire sequence devoted to Chappellet being given the 88th starting position in the first race he's entered in after joining the team, and he's so annoyed that the course will be too destroyed by that point for him to possibly win that he declines to race. He just skips it. When his Dartmouth teammate naively asks why he didn't race, Chappellet says, "Well they had me seeded about 150, so I told 'em I didn't want it."
And then after all of this build-up, when we finally get to see Chappelet race at Kitzbuhel, he wipes out. This isn't handled in a melodramatic manner in which Chappellet made a crucial error, or there's some skill he doesn't have but desperately needs. We just watch him racing...and then he crashes. Afterward, when he struggles to explain to Hackman that it wouldn't have happened if he were given a better starting position, Hackman cuts him off. "You just weren't good enough, that's all," Hackman says. We've seen Hackman's character make the rounds raising support and money for US Skiing by suggesting that victory will follow funding, so Hackman, too, is there to just win, and meets Chappellet's flatness with his own: "You just weren’t strong enough." So Hackman's character is driven, Chappellet’s teammate Crich is driven, the woman Chappellet chases in Europe is driven—this is the world of driven individuals, and regardless of what they say, none of them appears to actually live for some notion of team glory. Each person believes he or she is the hero, and there is no story other than skiing.
The narrative’s leaps and elisions of time are unexplained—you pick up the contours of the relationships from the way in which the characters speak to one another, or from other cues. A night scene of Chappellet walking alone through town seems strangely devoid of other people until you realize that it's Christmas, and he's alone in Europe. He has wanted everything in life to be about success in the field of skiing, and thus finds himself enduring a world in which everything is about success in the field of skiing. Play—the innocent practice that begins most pursuits of excellence—is no longer allowed. "Nobody races unless I say so," Hackman tells Chappellet at one point. The screenplay is not always this direct, though. At one point, a ski manufacturer hoping to outfit Chappellet looks at him and says, "The skis are stiff—it gives them much more stability." It's clear that the man is attributing Chappellet's personal qualities to the merchandise.
Films like Dodgeball mock the old Rocky conventions, but Downhill Racer reveals the degree to which a filmmaker can simply walk away from those conventions, if he or she desires—the film unmasks the conventions not just as ridiculous, but as unnecessary. "Isn't it stupid, how we used to talk about the justice of sport?" Crich laments late in the film. When a journalist asks Chappellet what his plans are after the Olympics, he has no answer. "This is it," he says almost glumly. The race sequences throughout the film feature no conversation, no talking, and precious little explanation of who the other racers are. Even late in the film, we enter sequences by being dropped into the middle of things, and the characters, too, seem to be trying to keep up. "Chappellet—you can win," is all Hackman says at one point. He delivers the sentence at normal volume, in the tone of one reporting a surprising development rather than offering any particular encouragement.
One of the film's early shots of Redford finds him squinting against the light as he pauses to look at the peaks that surround him. His insignificance—the transience of one human being when measured against the grandeur of epic mountain ranges—is smartly translated to the level of sport in Downhill Racer's conclusion. At that level, it isn't the drama of man versus nature, but instead the ephemeral, time-bound quality of any achievement made in competition with others. After all, just because you might actually win doesn't mean the game will end. There is always a next race, just as there are others pursuing excellence as intensely as you are. Failure is never more than a fraction of a second away. Ω
Dan DeWeese is a founding editor of Propeller. His novel You Don't Love This Man (Harper Perennial) was published earlier this year.