MovieMonday: Downhill Racer

Here’s a movie that’s easy to find and stream on home screens when you are stuck indoors, as so many are now.   It has beautiful scenery, athletic competition that is unavailable at the moment and a performance by Robert Redford who, unusually in his career, plays an antihero.

The film was well-received in late 1969, but it didn’t get much attention compared to another Redford film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the buddy-outlaw comedy with Paul Newman that was released six weeks earlier and sold 50 times as many tickets.

Still, just now, this may be worth a look.

The story goes like this:  David Chappellet (Redford) is called to join the U.S. ski team during the European winter season to replace an injured skier.

He refuses to ski in his first race when he is assigned the 88th slot. “I’ll be in ruts up to my knees,” he complains.

In the next race, he is assigned number 79 and comes in fourth.  “Maybe next time I’ll get to start in the top 50,” he grouses afterward.

But then there is the beauty of the piece.  One spectacular scene is a skier’s-eye view of a competitive downhill run that is thrilling to watch.  There are others.

To the extent we come to understand Chappellet, we see him as disaffected from his tiny home town and his equally disaffected father, aware that every time he loses a race someone else wins and disappointed when his aspirational girlfriend — a glamor-puss who works for a ski manufacturing company and drives a yellow Porsche 911– makes clear that she really isn’t that into him.

When another U.S. skier says, “He (Chappellet) is not for the team and never will be,” a third skier notes, “Well, it’s not a team sport, is it?”

Similarly there are riffs on the “justice of sport” around the time when the team’s top skier, a veteran, busts up a leg just before the winter Olympic Games.  These things happen in life, and not just in the lives of competitive athletes.

The movie challenges the viewer to wonder whether a triumphant downhill skier — handsome and skilled and the focus of much attention — is really the sort of person who deserves our admiration.


Dr. Helen Y. Chu, an adjunct assistant professor at the University of Washington, is the sort of person who deserves our admiration at this moment.

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