It would be a fine thing for Alpine ski racing, an American must admit, if Dave Chappellet were real. The reason for this is that Chappellet is a handsome, cocky lad out of Colorado who looks like a winner, and U.S. skiing is unaccustomed to those. Unfortunately, Dave is only a movie hero who schusses toward glory in a new film titled Downhill Racer. This is the first feature movie ever attempted about ski racing and, although the plot is thinner than a slalom pole, the film succeeds by capturing most of the moods of the sport—from the dashing glamour of a Jean-Claude Killy to the combustion and frustration that surround a Bob Beattie.
The man responsible for the film and the one who portrays the American racer are the same: Actor Robert Redford, who may be more familiar to moviegoers as the subtly humorous sidekick of Paul Newman in the new Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Before Redford ever became a gunman who frolicked off to Bolivia with Butch Cassidy, however, he was a ski nut who went off to Europe in 1968 to study Alpine racing at the major slopes, including Grenoble during the Winter Olympics.
Redford had been a good recreational skier ("an upper ego intermediate," he says) for some time. But he had never been around racing on a world level. He did not know the Bob Beatties and the Billy Kidds, the Killys and Karl Schranzes. All he knew was that he liked skiing, understood the dangers of a downhill—the top event—and was determined to make an authentic documentary-type motion picture about it.
Redford got to know the sport and the people in it pretty well, right down to the silent, withdrawn nature of most racers. This was largely due to the initial aid of Beattie, who was then the U.S. Alpine coach. Redford discovered the underside of the sport, and much of what he saw and overheard that winter comes through in his characterization of Dave Chappellet, a combination Billy Kidd and Spider Sabich (says Redford), and in the portrayals by the film's other actors.
Insiders of ski racing will see a great deal in Downhill Racer that is familiar to them, which is a tribute to Redford's doggedness. He deals in realities: his movie racers all act like real ones, and their schusses and crack-ups are shot on the very downhills where they race—the Lauberhorn in Wengen and Hahnenkamm in Kitzb√ºhel. There also are the realistic huckstering and rash promisemaking of the coach (Gene Hackman) to raise funds, the shallowness of the pretty European snow bunny (Camilla Spary) who changes male companions the way she changes discoth√®ques and the overriding theme that ski racing is something of a suspect team sport at best and that racers think very little about their futures beyond the next Olympics.
Skiing people will have fun trying to figure out who Redford had in mind for all his characters, once they do or do not recognize Kidd and/or Sabich. Some are easy: there is a broad parody of ABC-TV's Jim McKay, and the assistant coach was patterned with Gordi Eaton in mind. Schranz is in there—obviously—but there is no Killy anywhere, and Gene Hackman's conception of the coach is as far from Beattie as one could ski. As for minor flaws, one scene takes place in a car up in Wengen and, of course, you can't get a car up in Wengen unless you build it there. There are only scattered spectators at Redford's climactic Olympic downhill instead of the thousands who would line the course.
Still, the speed and danger of the sport are beautifully conveyed by the photography, especially on those shots where cameras take you headfirst, flashing and curving down the Lauberhorn and Hahnenkamm. And the sound is shattering.
But in all, perhaps nothing embraces the truth of the sport more than one scene between Redford and his father, a hard-working, nonskiing farmer back in Colorado. It goes roughly like this:
"I'm on the U.S. ski team," says Redford.
"Do they pay money for that?" asks the father.
"Well, no," says the downhill racer. "But there's the Olympics. And if I win, well, then that'll come later. I'll be a champion."
"World's full of those," the father says.
Indeed it is. But it is not full of ski movies. And the thing that makes Downhill Racer a champion in its class is that it is getting critical acclaim on a dual level: from skiers, who would like it anyway, and from critics, who see it as a good movie that happens to be about skiing.