Criterion releases DOWNHILL RACER

Most sports movies will try to convince you that it’s not about winning, it’s about how you play the game. Not DOWNHILL RACER (1969). In fact, one of the primary reasons Robert Redford struggled to get this film made was because no one had made a sports movie with a protagonist whose amorality and arrogance had no effect on his winning streak. He chose to center the narrative around downhill racing pretty much because baseball and football were already taken.

Redford plays David Chappellet, a backwoods kid from Colorado whose raw and untrained talent for downhill skiing lands him a spot on the US team with a shot at the Olympics. After he first makes a name for himself he goes home to stay with his dad, who’s more interested in mending the fences on his ranch than in hearing about his son’s travels. He can’t understand why David would try so hard at something he’s not even getting paid for (yet). “Because I’ll be a champion,” David earnestly replies. “Yeah,” his dad says. “The world’s full of them.” Things aren’t much better back on the team, where David’s stubbornness and lack of emotion has managed to isolate him from his teammates, his girlfriend (Camilla Sparv) and his coach (Gene Hackman), who’s forced to placate him nevertheless; He’s the only chance they have at winning a gold.

The new Criterion release features not only a restored, hi-def transfer of the film, but also new interviews with the screenwriter, James Salter, and Redford, who take us through the struggle to get the film made, including the battle over Polanski, who was almost the director until he left the project to make ROSEMARY’S BABY (which the studios actually tried to get Redford to star in as a way to keep him busy enough to forget about making DOWNHILL RACER). It may not have been a commercial success, but as a portrait of a man who exists only to win and the world that encourages him, it’s a stunning, subtle, unrelentingly honest film.