Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

Downhill Racer


We’ve been watching the Vancouver Winter Olympics the last two weeks, so it seemed logical to take another look at this film, which I believe is a classic. Michael Ritchie made two terrific films with Robert Redford early in his career, films that went behind the scenes to tell it like it really is: The Candidate, and this one, which I think is one of the best sports films ever made, and a great film of any category. The script is lean as it can be, with a minimum of dialogue. Redford plays Dave Chappellet, a man of few words, and those are mostly about himself and/or skiing. He’s not a nice man, but I understand a lot of downhillers are not. It definitely takes a certain kind of person—a maniac, in my book—to come down a mountainside at speeds of around 80 mph. This film was the first to really show what it was like. It’s easy to forget now, when in some ski-cross races in Vancouver, all four racers were wearing tiny wireless TV cameras on their helmets, but this was some revolutionary footage. They made the camera as small as possible, but there’s a limit to how small a movie camera can be, and it must have been tough to mount one on a skier’s head back then to get an actual skier’s point of view. The external footage is awesome, giving you a real sense of the sheer nerve it takes to ski down at a 45 degree angle, and around curves banked the wrong way, sometimes into a dense fog or howling snowstorm. The scenes at the top of the hill are masterful, too, with hardly anything being said, just a bunch of men alone in a crowd, totally concentrating on the incredible thing they are about to do. The editing is amazing. On the human side, there are some great scenes. Back home in East Buffalo Turd, Colorado, Dave and his father barely speak. Dad wonders when his son will settle down and do something useful, like work on the ranch. Dave says, “I’ll be famous. I’ll be a hero.” Dad says, “World’s full of ‘em.” And at the very end, at the bottom of the hill, when it appears he has won the Olympic Gold Medal and is surrounded by shouting press and fans and groupies … they have forgotten that there’s one more downhiller still up there, and at the halfway point his time is better than Chappellet’s, and everybody goes very quiet, looking up the hill …