Downhill Racer: Trailblazer

“Well, this isn’t exactly a team sport,” assistant coach Mayo quips sarcastically to star skier Johnny Creech after overhearing him complain about renegade team member David Chappellet. It has been argued for quite a few decades now—and to the point of tedium—whether filmmaking is a team sport or, in the end, essentially an individual event. But in the case of Downhill Racer (1969), one of the best of the many adventurous, probing, and bracing films Hollywood made (sometimes in spite of itself) from roughly 1967 to 1975, it was the fortuitous combination of contributions by three singular talents—actor (and uncredited producer) Robert Redford, director Michael Ritchie, and writer James Salter—that shaped the picture’s flinty personality, questioning nature, and striking physicality.

Downhill Racer is the story of a determined loner from Colorado who, having earned a spot on the American ski team upon the injury of another athlete, single-mindedly pursues the goal of winning, with a total disregard for protocols and personal niceties. David Chappellet is a heel, a good-looking backwoods hick who hides his ignorance and social unease with a defiant impenetrability. In real life, he’d just be a prick; in the film, he joins the plentiful ranks of antiheroes who helped define American movies of the era. Even forty years ago, Chappellet seemed like an icy, recalcitrant character, and his clamped-down, emotionally inaccessible nature no doubt played a part in the film’s commercial failure. But his stubborn antiauthoritarianism was standard-issue equipment at the time—think Warren Beatty in Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde, Dustin Hoffman in Mike Nichols’s The Graduate, Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Hopper’s Easy Rider, Jack Nicholson in Bob Rafelson’s Five Easy Pieces, Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland in Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H—so while his attitudes were purely selfish rather than intellectually worked out, his instinct to buck the system and go his own way did not then seem as extreme as it does today.

The three people principally responsible for the film’s attitude and tone were also strong-minded, creatively hungry, and, not irrelevantly, physically striking men who, at one time or another, would all be film directors. It was Redford—then not yet thirty and still an up-and-comer, having just starred in Barefoot in the Park (1967)—who ultimately brought the other two on board, after the project had already taken quite a bumpy journey. Oakley Hall’s 1963 novel The Downhill Racers was first considered as movie material by director Mark Robson, then optioned by Paramount Pictures in 1966 for producer Steve Alexander and screenwriter Graham Ferguson, whose labors proved fruitless. The project came back to life again when new Paramount production head Robert Evans was trying to lure Roman Polanski to the studio to make Rosemary’s Baby, and by all accounts used the ski project as bait for the young, skiing-obsessed Polish director. For a moment, it seemed Redford would act for Polanski in both pictures (the director was keen for the blond all-American to play the satanic husband in Rosemary’s Baby). But the ski picture was Redford’s priority, and he quickly steered himself away from the horror film to focus exclusively on what was now his pet project, taking Salter out to dinner in New York to entice him to write it and, having done so, introducing him to Polanski and his partner, Gene Gutowski, who signed on to the plan, with an eye toward shooting in early 1968 at the Grenoble Olympics.

A former air force jet pilot whose sharp-edged, Korean War–set first novel, The Hunters, had become a Robert Mitchum vehicle in 1958, Salter worked up notes on the story, which at this point had nothing to do with the novel (Salter hadn’t even read it), apart from the title, subsequent lawsuits over the matter notwithstanding. Salter recalled in his memoirs that “Polanski gave me in a single sentence his idea of the movie. It was to be something like High Noon: the sheriff has been killed—in this case, the lead racer on the team has broken a leg—and they have to send for a replacement. I was impressed by the succinctness.” This remains the film’s starting point, but Polanski, absorbed in Rosemary’s Baby, was soon off the project, which went into limbo when the studio sued Redford for walking away from the starring role in the doomed western Blue. The actor subsequently revived Downhill Racer by taking his case directly to Gulf + Western owner Charles Bluhdorn: Redford would find a director and make the film cheaply in Europe (part of it in Bluhdorn’s native Austria), through a production company he would create, Wildwood.

Salter and Redford went to Grenoble together in January 1968, traveling with the U.S. ski team on buses, sleeping in corridors, soaking up atmosphere, observing the athletes. The key to the film dramatically was the conception of the central character. At dinner one night in Grenoble, Salter would recount, he allowed that for him the inspiration for Chappellet was the American team’s then-dominant member, Billy Kidd, who had won a silver medal at the 1964 Olympics and was “tough, in all likelihood from a poor part of town,” and also, “in the manner of champions, somewhat arrogant and aloof.” Redford, who had been noting how silent and withdrawn many of the racers were, nodded toward another table to indicate the younger man he had in mind as a model, the little-known Vladimir “Spider” Sabich: “golden, unimpressible, a bit like Redford himself,” observed Salter. Sabich went on to finish fifth that year in the slalom, which points up the big problem European skiers had with the project from the outset: to them, it was inconceivable that an American could win the downhill—it had never happened. Downhill Racer would prove prescient, however: an American finally did take the gold in that event in Sarajevo in 1984, and it was a brash upstart, Bill Johnson, who had had the audacity to predict his own victory. Salter’s original vision of the tense dynamics between skier and coach (so wonderfully played in the finished film by Gene Hackman) remained intact throughout the process, as he wished to show an old-school coach who believed in “strength and humility” getting stuck with a charge “he disliked, even despised, a crude, self-centered Redford.” The chastening ending, however, on which the film’s entire meaning hinges, was ultimately modified for the final film from the writer’s much more blatantly ironic version.

Just as Redford had selected Salter, an inspired wordsmith but inexperienced screenwriter, to tackle the script, so did he handpick the producer, Richard Gregson (then husband of Redford’s good friend and two-time costar Natalie Wood), and director, Ritchie. Even before he died of prostate cancer at sixty-two, in 2001, Ritchie had become one of the forgotten figures of the New Hollywood. He had enjoyed a heady, intellectual upbringing as the son of a Berkeley psychology professor and, at six feet nine inches, could dunk a basketball while scarcely leaving the ground. At Harvard, he directed the first production of Arthur Kopit’s Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mama’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, the success of which led to work on the Omnibus TV series. During the 1960s, his world was television, where he became conversant with cameras and actors while directing on such series as Profiles in Courage, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Dr. Kildare, The Big Valley, and Felony Squad, climaxing with a two-hour pilot for The Outsider.

A television veteran himself, Redford liked what he saw of Ritchie’s work and liked the man as well; it was soon clear they saw eye to eye on the desired stylistic approach, and Ritchie was attracted to the idea of making his feature debut on the fly, away from a studio and all its encumbrances. Resisting Paramount’s insistence that the film be shot in the United States, Redford reaffirmed Polanski’s original argument that a film about World Cup– and Olympic-level downhill skiing had to be shot in Europe, the sport’s birthplace
and perennial home. He also survived last-minute efforts to cancel the project by studio executives, who were convinced the film couldn’t be made for less than $3.5 million; with a stripped-down crew—Camilla Sparv, the female lead and Evans’s ex-wife, did her own hair and supplied her own wardrobe—it came in for $1.8 million. In the end, however, the studio’s disinterest was a double-edged sword: the production’s physical distance from Hollywood guaranteed Redford a free hand to make the film as he wished, but it also resulted in a lack of enthusiastic marketing and distribution support down the line.

Redford’s team arranged to film during actual ski events in early 1969, on famous Alpine locations at Wengen, Switzerland; Megève, France; and Kitzbühel and St. Anton, Austria. Redford, a self-described “upper-ego intermediate” skier before he began preparing for the picture, did some of his own skiing, and a journalistic shooting style would prevail for both the action and dialogue sequences; the numerous scenes depicting interviews and press conferences, for example, were largely improvised.

One of the film’s hallmarks was handheld footage from the point of view of the racers, which had never been done in a feature film before and was no easy matter when the skier was doing upwards of fifty miles per hour and the 35 mm Arriflex camera weighed forty pounds. Joe Jay Jalbert was Redford’s skiing double and also handled the camera much of the time, pointing it down the mountain, just inches above the snow. For its time, the film was remarkable in its evocation of the speed, sound, and tension of competitive skiing. The crunch of the snow, the bone-chilling and muscle-tightening waits on blustery mountaintops for a skier’s turn to come, the inexorable ticking down of the timer, the now-antiquated look of the skis and, especially, the soft boots—all are details captured with deft, short, sure strokes. Ski world experts were unanimous in extolling the film’s accuracy, a rare occurrence in the fanciful world of Hollywood sports movies.

Settling on a documentary-like approach determined to a great degree how the film would look and feel, as did the choice of cinematographer, Brian Probyn, a British cameraman whose most notable prior credits had been two harshly vérité-style works, Peter Watkins’s The War Game (1965) and Ken Loach’s first feature, Poor Cow (1967). Together, Probyn and Ritchie made a sort of interior documentary about Redford’s head, face, and torso, shooting them from perspectives that emphasize their angularity along with their beauty. More than once, Redford pauses to regard himself in a mirror with uneditorialized, what-you-see-is-what-you-get candor.

Downhill Racer is spare, cut to the bone, as fine as dry powder. Had Hemingway ever written about competitive skiing, this would have been the right style with which to handle the adaptation. Many of the film’s suggestions of character and emotion go unstated, remaining beneath the surface unless selectively summoned. David Chappellet is a man of few words who won’t give an inch, and the film often cuts away just when it seems he’s going to be forced to say something, to be a bit more human than he is ever shown being. He’s seen to his fullest during his visit home to Idaho Springs, Colorado, an actual town in the Rockies not far west of Denver. His father, a solitary old-timer, is a man of even fewer words than his son, and the gruff, resentful, and selfish attitude he expresses toward David’s good fortune reveals all one needs to know about why David is the way he is. In the picture’s most quoted exchange, the father (played by the nonprofessional Walter Stroud) begrudgingly asks why David is skiing if it doesn’t bring in any money. “I’ll be famous. I’ll be a champion,” David answers, to which the old man replies, “World’s full of ’em.”

Rolling through town, David picks up a former flame (Carole Carle, in her only film role) just to have sex with her. This interlude perfectly sets up what takes place back in Europe between David and the elegant Swiss beauty Carole (Sparv, quite perfect in the part). A user of an infinitely sophisticated sort, Carole takes advantage of the unworldly David in the very way he has done with the naive girl he left behind at home.

But Chappellet doesn’t let her cavalier treatment bother him on the slopes, and Downhill Racer avoids all the trappings that would typify American sports films by the time Rocky appeared seven years later; it’s tough-minded, unsentimental, rigorous, understated, and refuses to manufacture unearned excitement. The film is daring in anchoring itself to a character as unlikable as Chappellet, and Redford never softens to reassure the viewer that he, the actor, may be less arrogant and self-centered than the man he plays. Chappellet is a total hard-ass, and while Redford would play hollow men again, he never did so quite this compellingly, with such hunger fueled by the flame of youth.

The themes of Downhill Racer are clear, having to do with the nature of competition and the cost of success. The famous final line of Ritchie’s second film with Redford, The Candidate (1972)—“What happens next?” uttered by Redford’s politician just after being elected—is implicit in the ending of Downhill Racer, and it’s curious that so many of Ritchie’s twenty-two films have to do with the vicissitudes of the sporting life—The Bad News Bears (1976), Semi-Tough (1977), Wildcats (1986), Diggstown (1992), The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom (1993), The Scout (1994)—or with the vagaries of other forms of public competition, notably The Candidate and Smile (1975). It’s hard to know whether this came from some deeply rooted interest on Ritchie’s part, since the theme is not developed with significant or evolving complexity over the years, or was simply because it worked well for him at the outset of his career and he was typecast after a fashion, either by the film industry or in his own mind, or both.

Be that as it may, Ritchie enjoyed a pretty good run through the 1970s, having and conveying fun with colorful actors and putting his casual, unforced style to good use on respectably commercial films. Starting in 1980, however, with the calamitous The Island, and for a dozen years thereafter, his reputation suffered a precipitous decline. It was only in 1993, with the comic effrontery of The Positively True Adventures, which was made modestly for television and was borderline caricature but brandished a marvelous cultural specificity, that the director relit the spark that had animated his work twenty years previously. Ritchie tended to explain his ups and downs with comments about the need to work and being limited by the scripts offered, and his attempts to advance his own projects were generally thwarted. He loved to cite David Niven’s advice—to “treat success and failure as the twin impostors they are”—as a way of dealing philosophically with career disappointments, and the comment resonates harmoniously with the central impulse behind Downhill Racer and The Candidate.

A study could be written on how, for many of the young American directors who broke through in the late 1960s and early 1970s—Rafelson, Peter Bogdanovich, John Milius—their initial promising pictures proved to be their peak achievements; in the cinema, as in literature, music, and other arts, this is not an uncommon phenomenon, and Ritchie was unquestionably an example of it. At the same time, many top Hollywood directors, in any era, truly flourish for only a decade, and Ritchie exemplified that too. Like some athletes, he enjoyed his blaze of glory at the very beginning of his career and was able to show only flashes of this talent in subsequent seasons. Former downhill specialist Chad Fleischer once said that downhill racing is all about being “100 percent in control of being 100 percent out of control,” and there is no question that, on Downhill Racer, Ritchie, Redford, and Salter maintained stunning control of what was, by its nature, a very risky and treacherous undertaking.

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