Escape to Victory (1981)

Escape to Victory (1981)

The sort of odd movie pitch that could only have been made in the 80’s: it’s a POW film – but with footballers! And Stallone in goal! Cult nonsense, but fun.

Director: John Huston

Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Captain Robert Hatch), Michael Caine (Captain John Colby), Pelé (Cpl Luis Fernandez), Max von Sydow (Major Karl von Steiner), Bobby Moore (Terry Brady), Osvaldo Ardilles (Carlos Rey), Paul von Himst (Michel Fileu), Kazimier Deyna (Paul Wolchek), Hallvar Thoresen (Gunnar Hilsson), Mike Summerbee (Sid Harmor), Russell Osman (Doug Cluire), John Wark (Arthur Hayes), Daniel Massey (Colonel Waldron), Tim Pigott-Smith (Major Rose), Carole Laure (Renee)

It’s possibly the most bizarre idea in movies. An old-school, boy’s-own-adventure about POWs starring a Panini sticker album’s worth of footballers, led by Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone playing the Germans (actually represented by a team of ringers from the New York Cosmos) in a ‘friendly’ football match in Paris. Oh, and it’s directed by John Huston. Who thought this one up?

Needless to say Escape to Victory is a cult hit. Caine plays professional footballer John Colby, his career interrupted by internment in a POW camp, challenged to an exhibition match by football-mad Major von Steiner (Max von Sydow). When von Steiner’s bosses turns the game into a propaganda vehicle, Colby is under intense pressure to pull out. When he refuses – not wanting to put his players lives at risk, some of whom (the Eastern European ones) have been rescued from labour camps – instead he is asked to accommodate a daring escape plan, led by American Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) who joins as ‘trainer’ and back-up goalie. With the match scheduled, a plan is formed: the team will escape at half time. But will the players abandon the game, or will sporting pride kick in?

Well, what do you think? The whole film is a build up to the game. Are they really going to leave it at 4-1 to the Germans? The pedestrian opening two thirds of the film can pass you by. You certainly feel it passed John Huston by (if you ever want to see a great director do a pay cheque movie, watch this). The film settles into familiar rhythms of both genres (sports and POW movies) mashed together. For the latter; forgers, escape committees, roll-calls, daring escape attempts over and under wire, muttered attempts to board trains with fake papers are all dutifully ticked-off. Nothing unusual: the interest is all in the sports film.

And if you are going to make a sports film – crammed with training montages – who else would you hire than a dream list of footballers to perform them. And no footballer was more of a God-like figure than Pelé. Welcome to the only film the Greatest Player Ever made (as soon as he opens his mouth, you’ll see why). Alongside him England’s legendary World Cup winner Bobby Moore, charming Argentinian Ossie Ardilles (not trusted with a line), several other internationals from across Europe and (filling out the numbers) half a dozen players from Ipswich Town (though, to be fair, John Wark might just be the best actor). Most of the best parts involve watching these stars go through their paces.

Michael Caine – who only took the film so he could say he had genuinely played with Pelé – anchors all this reasonably well (even though, at 47, he looks noticeably out-of-shape considering he’s playing an international footballer at the peak of his career). The role of Colby is no stetch for him, but Caine conveys carrying responsibility rather well, and there is some decent material as he butts heads against the unhappy upper-class officers who want him to tell the Germans to shove it.

The officers – decent performances from Daniel Massey and Tim Pigott-Smith among others – point out the Germans won’t give them a sporting chance. But, this is the sort of film where boy’s own pride kicks in, and we get a classic ‘let’s show em’ attitude. This culminates, of course, in the half-time planned escape attempt being aborted as the players protest “We can win this!” and the side head back out for the second half (and, of course, glory).

It’s a big shout as our heroes take a heck of a drubbing in the first half. (This despite Caine’s ahead-of-his-time coaching advice to make the ball do the running, which sounds like tika-taka seventy years early – was Escape to Victory required viewing in Spanish football academies?). To the disappointment of von Steiner – our token ‘Good German’ played with his customary professionalism of von Sydow – who gave his word it would be a fair game, his superiors hire “a very good referee” who will “make no mistakes”. German tackles fly in un-punished, a dubious penalty is awarded and Pelé’s ribs are broken in a filthy foul forcing the team to play with ten men. Those dirty, cheating Germans! Thank goodness Bobby Moore scores to give them a chance.

Every star player gets their moment in the spotlight, most of all Pelé who scores with a trademark bicycle kick. (I wonder if Pelé counted this one in his career goals record?) It’s a breath-taking piece of skill – von Steiner even proves his “Decent German” credentials by rising to applaud (to the fury of his fellow officers). Our heroes pull it back to 4-4 before having a goal disallowed for a false off-side (mind you it feels less inexplicable in an age where VAR chalks off goals for offside elbows). Then of course the Germans are awarded a penalty as the last kick of the game after a fair tackle by Ardiles.

And so, we come to Stallone. Perhaps the most inexplicable thing in this, the Italian Stallion at least convinces as a man who knows nothing about football. Looking trim, Stallone handles most of the POW and escape stuff (and a token romance subplot with a French resistance fighter) but of course space had to be made for him in the game. So, he plays as keeper (the team’s first choice keeper volunteers for Caine to break his arm so Stallone can be released from lock-up to play in the film’s most difficult to watch moment). Stallone wanted to score the winning goal, but was told that was unlikely for a keeper, so instead he saves the penalty to preserve the moral victory. Stallone mumbles his way through the film, feeling bizarrely out of place, but he was the big star.

Escape to Victory is a truly bizarre thing. But it’s got a fun football game in it and as sort of exhibition match it’s a bit of a treat. And watching it shortly after the passing of Pelé, it feels almost like a rather lovely tribute.

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