Director Michael Ritchie is assessed by many as simply a commercial director—from The Bad News Bears to Fletch, most of his films weren’t risky but often were box-office successes. Downhill Racer was the opposite. It’s a poignant, insightful study of an athlete consumed by competition, and it is now seen as a landmark sports film.
The film is adapted from the novel The Downhill Racers by Pulitzer Prize–nominated writer Oakley Hall. Roger Ebert called it nothing short of the best sports film of all time. From Ebert’s original 1969 review: “Some of the best moments in Downhill Racer are moments during which nothing special seems to be happening. They’re moments devoted to capturing the angle of a glance, the curve of a smile, an embarrassed silence. Together they form a portrait of a man who is so complete, and so tragic, that Downhill Racer becomes the best movie ever made about sports— without really being about sports at all.”
The lead was a casting coup with golden boy Robert Redford. But just as key was the selection of a lesser known actor named Gene Hackman, who had had a small but acclaimed role in Bonnie and Clyde a few years prior. Having Hackman battle the Sundance Kid himself was a calculated risk—and a brilliant one.
Redford’s David Chappellet is not going to let anything slow him down— not women, not rules and definitely not the best interests of the team. Hackman plays his coach, Eugene Claire, and their relationship explores the clash of individual victory versus team success. When Chappellet’s recklessness leads to an injury in the film’s opening, Claire barely registers an expression; the racer doesn’t have to be named. “Nobody races unless I say so,” Claire spouts. “That’s why they made me the coach.”
Chappellet’s flaw might be that he knows how good he is. It also might be the single key quality for becoming a champion.