Escape To Victory

Escape To Victory (1981)
Director: John Huston
Starring: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Pele, Max Von Sydow, Bobby Moore.

With The European Championships in full flight and on the eve of the most important referendum decision in the history of Britain, what better time to take stock of what is probably one of the best films ever made involving football – Escape To Victory.

One would think that with the highly lucrative and almost religious devotion most of the world has towards soccer, that there would be some decent soccer themed films being made. What about There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble or the depressing Sean Bean effort When Saturday Comes? They’re average yet far superior to the likes of extended commercials like Goal and Goal 2: Living The Dream. The Firm (1989, not the Tom Cruise film) is one of the better football themed films, yet it focuses more on the hooligans than the football. It is steeped in reality and was an accurate reflection of the late 80’s period London that it evoked.

Filmed in 1981, Escape To Victory or Victory as it was known in certain territories, still stands as one of the best football themed films that exist. The strange thing is that it is not even that great a film. It does however have an intriguing premise: An allied soccer team are recruited to play an elite German team for a propaganda match in Nazi occupied Paris. The French Resistance have cunningly engineered the entire allied team’s escape at half time. How could one not be intrigued?

Escape to Victory was littered with famous footballers of the era like Bobby Moore, Pele, John Wark, Ossie Ardiles and Mike Summerbee who were great players, but would find it difficult to act their way out of a wet paper bag. It was an interesting experiment to cast actual footballers, but it was a mistake not to involve any acting coach to instruct the non-actors.

Michael Caine plays John Colby, the Captain and Manager of the Allied team, whom we are informed by Max Von Sydow’s open minded Nazi Major Steiner, played for West Ham United and England. Caine was 48 years old when he played Colby and during the climactic game, he is almost anonymous and can be easily recognised as the guy with the gut whose every second word is ‘bloody’. Even Roger Milla was younger than Caine when he rolled back the years for Cameroon in the 1990 World Cup. Suspension of disbelief is required to enjoy almost any film. That is why I would easily forgive Michael Caine.

Sylvester Stallone gives an unusually strong and charismatic performance as Hatch the Goalkeeper. This was a sort of bridging role for Stallone. After Rocky established him as an A-lister, he found it very difficult to follow that initial success. Paradise Alley, Fist and Nighthawks all bombed at the box office. After Escape to Victory came the double whammy of Rocky 3 and First Blood. Not a bad follow up. He is believable as a driven soldier who will do whatever he can to escape. Even his attempted French is convincing and he provides plenty of comic relief. The forger’s attempt to photograph hatch for a fake passport is a highlight.

The film was directed by the great John Huston. He was in poor health at the time and he only made three more pictures before his death. Escape To Victory is not his best work, but it is far from his worst. At the time it was released, audiences were growing tired of World War 2 themed films like Escape From Athena, The Sea Wolves and pictures of that ilk. They had been lucrative in the sixties and seventies but audiences were looking elsewhere for their cinematic kicks and were beginning to embrace VHS. Escape To Victory does look rather dated and not in a good evocative period piece way. It has the appearance of a film that had been made 20 years earlier. The tone of the film is uneven and it flits from serious to playful, in an unnerving fashion.

Bearing in mind these criticisms, the film has plenty going for it. The cast is strong: Stallone, Von Sydow, Caine and a fantastic supporting cast of British character actors admirably help bolster the non-actors. The score by Bill Conti is infectiously good. The main theme has echoes of The Great Escape, Rocky and even the theme from Dynasty.

The climactic game is riddled with improbabilities, but who the hell cares. These include being 4-1 down at half time with the likes of Mike Summerbee pleading with an escaping Stallone to stay, because ‘We can win this’; to Michael Caine pretending he can play – it is hugely enjoyable stuff.

Pele’s equalizing bicycle kick has probably been practised by every kid who was fortunate enough to see it. Ossie Ardiles’ sublime overhead flick is worth rewinding every time. If the picture contributed nothing else but introducing the bicycle kick to the world, then what a worthwhile contribution it was.

Who could forget the plight of poor Irish goalie Kevin O’ Callaghan, who had to sacrifice himself between the sticks for the comparably weaker Hatch. I can still hear the crack of his broken arm as Colby mercilessly stomps on it.

Released in 1981, the film was moderately successful. It is usually shown on bank holidays or on TG4 now. The biggest criticism levelled at the picture is that the players couldn’t act and the actors couldn’t play. That is fair comment.

On the eve of the Brexit referendum vote and with the European Championship usurping the attention of Europe, I believe that this film should be shown on a loop to convince British voters to stay in Europe. The remain side should adopt Mike Summerbee’s half-time approach of: ‘We can win this’. Look how that turned out.