It's sad that the debate over top Hollywood ski films usually comes down to Hot Dog...The Movie versus Aspen Extreme. Surfing has Endless Summer, dirt biking has On Any Sunday, and cycling has Breaking Away. But skiing is more like bowling, whose proudest big-screen moment is Kingpin. Not that a sport shouldn't be associated with bad plots and cheap humor: I'll go to my grave believing the tongue-stuck-to-the-chairlift scene in Dumb and Dumber is a comedic high-water mark. It's just that you'd think a sport as rich as skiing could do better than B-level melodramas and cliche-ridden party flicks.
All due respect to Harkin Banks, it has. A few months ago, I bought a copy of a movie I'd long heard about but had never seen in its entirety: Downhill Racer, released in 1969 and starring Robert Redford. That Downhill Racer is rarely mentioned in the same breath as Hot Dog probably has something to do with its lack of circulation on late-night TV. But, having watched it three times last month, I'd say it just as likely stems from the movie itself: DR is a terse character study about an unlikable jerk. Forrest Gump it's not. And yet, in its own way, DR is damn good. With a punctuated, almost documentary sensibility, it feels voyeuristic and occasionally awkward, like real life. The dialogue is spare but evocative. Redford's character, downhiller David Chappellet, is oddly compelling, though he antagonizes everyone around him. (His hometown girlfriend asks him, post-coitus, for advice on her future. His response: "You got any more gum?")
The movie begins with a close-up of a lift cable against an out-of-focus mountain, and the symbolism is clear: This story is about tension, about a tight wire. The scene then shifts to a race, where a U.S. Ski Team member breaks his leg, and Chappellet gets called to Switzerland to take his place. His journey from the States feels like every skier's first trip across the pond; some of the scenes could have been shot yesterday. The clothes are dated, but everything else is timeless: Chappellet struggles through a crowded train with a big ski bag, cigarette smoke curls, a babble of languages disorients; there's fur, pastries, tiny hotel rooms, bidets, and bad music.
DR is true to Europe and to skiing. Although the movie is more a musing on the price of ambition than on skiing itself, it is grounded honestly in the culture and substance of the sport, unlike so many movies that use their backdrops greedily, without regard for reality. Through DR, you know what it feels like when racers bang their boots to snug their feet into place, you can smell the melted wax in the race room, you shiver when the skiers hunker against the biting wind on a slow double. And the skiing, well, it's pure Franz Klammer at Innsbruck-wobbly, on the edge of control. Yet the movie conveys the bravery and fragility of ski racers, the ragged sensation of high speed, and the vulnerability of going 80 miles per hour on a mountain with no netting or safety gear.
DR also nails skiing's individualism. Chappellet is an asshole and a loner. He disdains his teammates, fights with his coach, is wholly self-absorbed, and in his first race refuses to start when he draws the 88th seed. He is a rippin' skier, though, and he racks up good results despite his alienating posture. At one point, a team member complains: "He's not for the team, and he never will be." A coach starts to agree, but then says, "Well, it's not exactly a team sport, is it?" If that doesn't sound familiar, it should: For the past 30 years, many of the winningest American skiers are those who've clashed with or rebelled against the U.S. Ski Team. I don't know that you have to be a jerk to succeed, but DR understands that once you break the wand and get on course, you're on your own.
The gravitas of the film is a welcome balance to the frivolity of most ski movies. Chappellett climbs his way up the rankings, scoring progressively better seeds, but he's left unsatisfied by the people he does care about, and after a few meager attempts at opening up, he retreats to the only thing he knows: skiing fast. The movie's denouement is the Olympic downhill. On the eve of the race, an interviewer asks Chappellet how he feels. For all his arrogance, he is nervous, a deer in the headlights. "This is it," he shrugs. The interviewer tries again: "What are your plans after the Olympics?" Chappellet turns blank; he's never looked that far ahead. "This is it," he repeats, almost apologetically.
DR slipped into obscurity after its release. Had the main character been more likable, the movie could have been a smash. But Chappellet is unrepentant and so is DR: Prickly and cold, it challenges you to like it. Is it worth the effort? Yes. It might not be inspiring like Breaking Away, but Downhill Racer is one of the few movies that treats skiing with respect, even reverence. I've always believed that skiing deserves a thoughtful, introspective film. Turns out, it's been here all along.