In honor of the upcoming World Cup final match, I thought it would be appropriate to review the only war soccer (sorry rest of the world, but that’s what I’m going to call it) movie that I am aware of. Talk about a tiny subgenre. It is my favorite movie that combines war (specifically the prisoner of war subgenre) and soccer. I actually saw it long before I became a soccer coach. I now use it in my Soccer P.E. class on rainy days. The boys love it, what’s not to like? It combines their favorite sport with war.
The movie opens with an escaping prisoner being machine gunned while caught in the barbed wire surrounding the prison camp. This abuses you of any thought that it might be a comedy. There is no time frame given but it would appear to be 1942 as there is a reference to British successes in North Africa. A German officer named Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) proposes a match between a team of POWs led by a British officer named Colby (Michael Caine) and the German national team. Both men are former professional soccer players. Von Steiner seems sincere in just wanting to have an international match, but Nazi propagandists quickly see the potential for an ass-whipping display of Aryan superiority. Von Steiner facilitates a fair match by allowing Colby’s squad to get special treatment and even gets Colby some emaciated and mistreated Eastern European stars from other prison camps. Colby’s team includes a very talented Luis (Pele) from Trinidad. It also includes a typically obnoxious, cocky, soccer-challenged Yank named Hatch (Sylvester Stallone). The subplot of Hatch escaping from the camp is somehow blended into the soccer match plot which itself is morphed into a prison escape. It is not as pretzely as you would anticipate. All of this builds to the match in Colombe Stadium in Paris. It is arranged for the team to escape at half-time, but will they flee as losers?
“Victory” (also known as “Escape to Victory”) was one of John Huston’s ("The African Queen") last films. I’m guessing most cinephiles are surprised to be reminded that he directed it. In fact, movie has been long forgotten by most. I was under the impression that it had bombed when it came out, but my research shows that it was a moderate success and even got mostly positive reviews. It was filmed in Budapest because the city looked more like 1940s Paris than Paris did. Budapest also had a 1940ish soccer stadium.
The movie is technically proficient with a well-constructed three acre prison camp set. The barracks are a bit too pristine, but the settings are realistic. The cinematography is nothing special until the match where Gerry Fisher does a wonderful job lensing the action. We get a mixture of close-ups, medium, and longer range shots that manage to avoid making the game look fake. There is even some slow motion (like on Pele’s bicycle kick). Quick cuts work perfectly to make the game look like a battle. It also reduces the visuals that might have soccer fans crying fake. The way the game is depicted is among the best cinema contests. The game was choreographed by a former pro with input from Pele (who I would imagine was listened to when he spoke). Amazingly, on a key foul that results in a penalty kick, I rewatched it and could not determine if it was a bad call. That may not mean anything to a non-soccer fan, but trust me - I just gave the movie a huge compliment. There is absolutely no comparison to the soccer piece of crap in “The Boys from Company C”. The score by Bill Conti is above average. The theme rolling over the credits is old school reminiscent of “The Dam Busters” ilk. The music matches the scenes well and rises to a crescendo in the match.
The acting is much better than you would expect considering a large part of the cast is not actors, including Sylvester Stallone. Seriously, Sly does some acceptable work here. The role of a cocky American suits him and he certainly plays soccer incompetent well. Caine is solid although way too old to play a soccer player. The movie has eighteen international soccer stars appearing on screen. Some are quite famous and this explains why the movie was a bigger hit overseas than in America. They do fine and it does not come off as just stunt casting. Pele is comfortable in front of the camera, but none of the others embarrass themselves. Of course, it helps that they are on screen with Stallone. I have to specifically mention Werner Roth who plays the German captain with verve. Roth is in the National Soccer Hall of Fame and was a key member of the New York Cosmos back when teammate Pele was trying to bring soccer to America. Special mention has to go to the crowd at the game. Aside from the anachronistic clothing, they are as good as you could ask for. I am sure they were grateful that Stallone was overruled when he insisted on scoring the winning goal.
|Sly stopping a goal is infinitely more plausible|
than him scoring one
I was pretty shocked to find that a basis for the story could be posited, although it is unclear whether the screenwriters were aware of this. There is no claim that it is based on a true story. The seed could have been the mythical “Death Match” in the Ukraine in WWII. The FC Dynamo Kyiv played some matches against German military units during the occupation. They were undefeated and according to legend, after the last victory the team was arrested by the Gestapo and they were executed. This extreme version of the story has been refuted by modern scholarship, but when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.
If you were to read a summary of the plot, you would shake your head and you would not green-light the production. Somehow it works as light-weight entertainment. Parts of it are implausible, but nothing is laughable. It is not totally predictable and the end is crowd-pleasing without being cloying. The game is above average and we all know how hard it is to realistically act out game action. But the best thing I can say about it is repeat viewings have not made me question my sanity. Is it more entertaining than a World Cup soccer match? Decide for yourself.
GRADE = B-