Dave Chappellet, wind-chapped hero of Downhill Racer (1969), should be easy to root for. He comes with all the trappings of a simpatico sports star. Take his background: Dave is an unknown from Idaho Springs, Colorado. In the wake of another racer’s knee-mangling fall, he is called up to Europe to fill a mid-season slot on Team USA. Decked in shearling and played by a young Robert Redford, he finds himself a blond-man-out among his teammates in blazers. An injury or dud season would land him a one-way back to mending fences and drinking bad water, while the D.K.s and Mayos and Johnnys on the team could tap their old Dartmouth pals for a desk job. Consider also his talent: when Dave races well, he wins. When next-best American Johnny Creech (Jim McMullan) has a good day—as it happens, more often than Chappellet—he comes in fourth. Finally, sit with Dave’s isolation: disparaged by his father, ill at ease around teammates, and jilted by German lover/sales rep Carole Stahl (Camilla Sparv), no one is there to lend him an ear.
Yet in spite of these would-be endearing qualities, Dave Chappellet is hard to root for. His flaws are all the wrong sort. He sulks at bad seeding, brags when he wins, honks his car horn to summon one woman and then silence another, and, upon finding Creech laid up in a hospital room—knee bone sharded in 50 pieces two weeks ahead of the 1968 Olympics—greets him with a blithe “You’ll get them next year.” Neither scrappy nor humble enough to be an underdog, charming nor voluble enough to be an antihero, Dave is just an asshole who is very good at skiing.
The difficult traits of its hero make Downhill Racer a refreshing anomaly in the sports genre, overstuffed as it is with parables on perseverance. These movies fall, somewhere alongside musicals and rom-coms, into the broader “feel-good” category of movies—in part because athleticism inspires reverence in those who know they lack it, but also because of their democratic burnish. The players who work the hardest prevail (even a loss or a draw will pass as a moral victory, so long as the heroes comport themselves well enough). It is the genre par excellence of bootstrappers.
So what to do with a guy like Dave? Can he be compelled to change? The first event poses an opportunity. Given a poor start number that would mean skiing through ruts and over-soft snow, he asks, “What’s the point of even racing?” None, apparently. He sits the race out. A teammate asks why, and Dave shrugs him off. “I don’t know,” he says. Here, viewers might reasonably crave a swift humbling of his ego. But when he snaps into his bindings the next time, still churlish, the camera pulls away and we start watching with him. Through a shaky, proto-GoPro angle, we glimpse what fast skiing looks like: a bouncing zig-zag of gates, wefts of brown grass exposed by the snowmelt, fans and officials seen at a tilt, and the glare of the sun and the snow on one’s lenses. Chappellet is the 79th skier to go down the course. He finishes fourth, his ego intact.
Well, then…Absent the shame of defeat, training is the second-most reliable method for breaking down the intractable. But without a soundtrack supplying the verve, the training montage is subdued. You hear the men breathing and the patter of shoes on a track and it’s all very zero BPM. When a trainer singles out Dave and says, “Give me two more laps,” the line sounds borrowed from another movie—neither Dave’s nor the film’s heart is into the sweat-and-grit shtick. Which isn’t to say he doesn’t work hard. In fact, it’s wholly plausible that Dave works as hard as the next skier on Team USA; though if he does, the camera looks the other way. Those typical onscreen signifiers of work ethic—self-doubt, bodily pain, and setbacks—are nowhere to be found. There are no penalties when Dave ditches practice for a powder day, no fallout when he endangers Creech in a sidelong contest down a training course. Even a talking-to from his coach, Eugene Claire (Gene Hackman), ends at an impasse, with Dave affirming his raison d’être: “I’m here because I ski and I ski fast. That’s all there is to it.”
He is right, of course, and Coach Claire knows it. He stares at Dave with mingled admiration and loathing, a feeling relatable to anyone who has ever worked diligently at something they loved only to be dismissed by the swagger of a superior talent. There is no good reason for Dave to change, or to heed Coach Claire’s guidance to educate himself and foster a “consideration for the sport.” As it is, he wins races.
Less parable, more portrait of an athlete as a young man, Downhill Racer reminds us that our yearning for a moral arc of sport is just that: a yearning. The race clock preordains nothing. Its language is numeric, and tells only the time elapsed as one travels from the top of a hill to the bottom. It has no Christian sense of justice, and can neither punish poor sportsmanship nor reward inner goodness. The fastest racer always wins. Their work ethic matters, insofar as no one can win a downhill without a harmonized bulwark of quads, glutes, and core, honed through countless laps down the mountain. But happenstance, talent, and mindset matter, too.
But then—that “luck matters” or that “talent matters” or that “fortitude matters”—these are hardly revelations, or notions confined to sport. The same could be said of painting, the flute, and quantum physics. And just as you don’t have to design couture to delight in Reynolds Woodcock’s snide punctiliousness (Phantom Thread), or compose to absorb Salieri’s envy of Mozart (Amadeus), you don’t need to ski to marvel at Chappellet’s gall. You only need to want to be good at something. Films about striving allow us to graft the pathos of others’ pursuits onto our own. And most of them—aforementioned examples aside—opt for a particular pathos: the thrill of the striver beating the odds. In doing so, they reflect a longing, old as the Mayflower, for a linear relationship between work ethic and outcome. Downhill Racer portrays the cold, un-American truth: the Dave Chappellets of the world usually win.
To those of us born without the “it” of excellence, who must by default fall into the “hard work” and “consideration for the sport” camps, Dave’s success can sting. We might look in the mirror and see a Johnny Creech, a Coach Claire: someone in love with their vocation who knows that, no matter how hard we clamp down our doubts, we’ll never be as good as a Dave Chappellet (or a Mozart, a Woodcock, a Williams sister, a Woolf). We might perform respectably. We might even harbor private hope that, one day, an internal shift will vault us to the level of those who inspire. It’s not impossible, we say to ourselves, reciting the names of late bloomers in a talismanic chant: Morrison, Cézanne, Darwin, and Drogba…Morrison, Cézanne, Darwin, and Drogba. We might be afraid to speak these feelings aloud, lest our words cement us forever on the side of the jealous, or the lesser-than. Because if you’re not a Chappellet, the inevitable question will surface: what is the point in going on, in topping out at fourth, in knowing your limit? Self-awareness is no reward in itself. To go on requires a belief in work ethic, diligence, and perseverance.
What makes a Chappellet a Chappellet is that he would never think that way in the first place. Scenes away from the mountain are telling. In the off-season, Dave hitches a ride back to Idaho Springs. His white USA windbreaker gleams against the backdrop of the Colorado foothills, but it doesn’t stand a chance against all that dust. On arrival, he finds his father at work on a chicken coop. Dave announces himself, but no display of warmth is to be had from his father, who mutters several terse jabs without pausing his chores. Before long, Dave is climbing the stairs to his childhood bedroom, where he can watch his old man from the safe distance of a second-story window. His expression is flinty as ever, but what Dave is thinking is obvious in its universality: I don’t want to end up like him. Later that evening, defending a lack of income between spritzing mouthfuls of crackers, Dave tells his father, “I’ll be famous, I’ll be a champion.” His infantile affect would be comical if it were anything less than sincere, but the screenplay, written by novelist James Salter, is deft. Dave’s drive is so elemental there is nothing there beyond a desire to win and not be like Dad.
On the race course, his shallowness dissolves into strength. The downhill, the least technical and most dangerous of all events, is won by the skier who takes the fastest, straightest line down the pitch. In other words, it’s won by the skier most able to act without thinking too hard about what he’s doing and how it might end.
In showing things as they are, Downhill Racer runs counter to our more puritanical expectations—and what a relief it is to watch someone who is not morally “good” be exceptional at their endeavor! To watch Dave is to disconnect, for at least two hours, from the concept of deservedness and the self-flagellation it so often entails. It is a sports film for adults. But any good solution will create a new problem: in this case, that “things as they are” can be somewhat plotless. Some films wrangle in a historical moment to fill out the drama, but for a story set in Europe in 1968, Downhill Racer is an achievement of insularity. Only the personal remains to be mined.
When Dave returns to Europe for a second season, his rise is unimpeded. He may be inconsistent, but he is never mediocre, and in the winter evenings he strides, hands in pockets, into the heart of Alpine nightlife: the tavern. On one such evening, he spots pretty Carole Stahl, with lips so bowed they belong atop a gift box. It turns out she’s employed by a ski manufacturer, Machet (Karl Michael Vogler), but what does she do exactly? No matter. Carole travels on the swanker side of the circuit, and brings Dave into the world of fast yellow Porsches, sex in hotel suites, white-tablecloth dinners, and pairings of wine—all presumably paid for by her boss. But Carole has a product to sell, and Dave isn’t buying it. By the time she spurns him for the next season’s up-and-comer (who, for her sake, we must hope is a more willing consumer), the Olympics are nigh, and any sense of loss, humiliation, or heartbreak he might have felt is superseded by the competition.
Therein lies the problem with a realistic hero, who will never care for anyone as much as he cares for himself. Tension is too fast to fizzle. Dave is not the wallowing type, and the romance may as well have never happened as far as his character is concerned. He doesn’t even use Machet’s skis (“too stiff”). The Carole episode is less of a drama than a digression—an aesthetically pleasing way for the film to kill time off-mountain as it sets the stage for the final race—and it flows like the Alps edition of a luxury travel magazine, a spread of comely villages and must-see events.
Without a backdrop of capital-H history, or the “two steps forward, one step back” choreography of a parable, Downhill Racer offers a naturalistic take on sport. The main source of tension comes from the mountain itself. The light is flat, glaring, gray, or bright, and the snow is packed, wet, weightless, or windblown. We hear the violent tear of skis on ice, and watch the hook of a chairlift glide along cable. We feel anticipatory tension in our own locked jaws as, at the top of a race course, skiers stretch and swing their legs, warding off jitters and warming cold muscle, each helmet a palimpsest of scratches from runs gone awry. When racers fall, the snow plumes, hiding their graceless contortions. They sail downslope like rafts on a river, walloped by their own equipment, bodily tributes to the sport. The skiing is beautiful—but then, skiing is not for everyone. Naturalism is a strange project. Its appeal depends entirely upon the appeal of the subject itself. To enjoy Downhill Racer, you may have to enjoy the aesthetic of the sport on its own terms.
In the second-to-last scene, we find Johnny Creech in the hospital and his teammates against the walls of his room, dispersed by the centrifugal force of another’s bad luck. Delivering a line of doublespeak meant to at once console Creech and chasten Chappellet, Coach Claire tells the men that the “justice of sport” is “sacrifice without end.”
Sacrifice without end…What does it mean? As a maxim, it doesn’t counter the idea that the fastest racer always wins, but suggests that somebody else will eventually come along and get closer. Maybe we take our own aspirations too seriously. Maybe becoming “a champion” or “famous” or “great” or “a star” would feel hollow, were we ever to arrive. To see a venture through this lens means elevating the downhill over the racer, the symphony over the composer, the dress over the designer. And to believe in this form of justice is the only true solace. Creech made his sacrifice to the sport, and that is all there is to do, whether you’re good, like him, or great, like Dave. In place of a narrative arc, there’s an asymptote, an infinite approach of the limit.
On the morning of the 1968 Olympics. Dave wakes up at dawn, wets and combs his hair, and tries to eat breakfast. He waxes his skis in a hush. Coach Claire warns that the snow is “grippy,” and accompanies Dave to the top of the hill. The race begins, and an Austrian pulls into the lead. A favored Frenchman falls. “Chappellet,” says Claire, “you can win.” Here, we might do well to remember the first scene of Downhill Racer, and find that it opened with an omen: an American skier planted his poles in front of the start gate, bobbed in rhythm with the countdown, and took off, but his pre-race ritual was for naught—midway through the course, he caught an edge. He had to be helicoptered, semi-conscious, to a Swiss hospital, and what must have felt like a promising morning ended under a morphine drip and a knife. An unknown named Dave was called up to Europe to take his place.
Maybe that’s the true moral of Downhill Racer: one man’s bum knee is always another’s lucky break. At the Olympic start gate, Chappellet enacts the skier’s ritual. He shakes out his goggles, plants his poles, shuffles his skis, and mouths an indecipherable prayer. He may as well be the same man he replaced at the beginning of the film—except he wins. There is a perfect moment, in the aftermath of Dave’s apparent victory, when another racer flies down the course, on track to beat him. Coach Claire’s smile fades, but the racer blows out near the bottom of the pitch, securing Dave a bathetic victory. The justice of sport…sacrifice without end. Is Dave’s win earned? Wrong question. Does he dazzle as a skier? He does.