Dir. John Huston, 1981, USA, 110 minutes
Cast: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max Von Sydow, Pele, Bobby Moore
Review by Daniel Laverick
‘The Great Escape meets Match of the Day’: The Freddie Fields-produced 1981 film Escape to Victory (or Victory as it was known Stateside) has become something of a favourite amongst the male half of the UK. Set amidst the turbulence of the Second World War in a prisoner-of-war camp, the film stars Michael Caine as the working class ex-football professional Colby and Sylvester Stallone as the ‘annoying yank’, a role he plays to perfection. Max Von Sydow plays the part of the war weary Major Von Steiner, a German officer who, upon seeing the imprisoned Allies playing football inside a POW camp, decides to organise a challenge match between the best that Germany has to offer and selection of the prisoners.
Colby is given the task of picking and training the squad, a task which soon turns into a political affair that involves interference from the upper class British officers (who see it as a perfect chance to escape and get one over the Hun) and the Nazi propaganda officers (who regard it as an opportunity to demonstrate the superiority of the German people). As the importance of the proposed match reaches international significance, the players have to make the decision to either follow orders and escape or try and defeat the German team in front of an Occupied French crowd in Paris.
The Allied football team in Escape to Victory consists of a plethora of legendary football players (albeit at the end of their careers when the film was made). Pele, Bobby Moore and Ossie Ardiles make up the bulk of a multi racial/national team that pulls together in the face of the goose-stepping enemy. Now, if I’m honest, while I do enjoy watching this film, I can’t see how anyone apart from a young British male would make it to the end unaided by either alcohol or drugs. I can understand the criticism that is flung at Escape to Victory, heck I even agree with most of it, but nevertheless I get emotional and carried away when I watch this film. It’s a flag-waving, nationalistic, ‘all the boys together’ kind of affair with comical acting from the footballers (Pele’s talent in ball control does not extend to the art of the thespian, unfortunately). This is a film that may be a guilty pleasure to those of us who pertain to having a more ‘cultured’ taste in cinema, but taken at face value, it’s undeniably entertaining and works on the level that it exists on - that of the melodramatic sports movie.
I do have a concern with the criticism that has been levelled at Escape to Victory for the poor acting and its reputation as a simplistic ‘lads’ film. The underlying quality that seems to have been disregarded does, I feel, deserve some recognition or credit. I refer, specifically, to the way in which the football match that serves as the film’s pinnacle is shot. The slowed-down images of Ardiles and Pele performing skilful and acrobatic mid-air feats is purely cinematic. The way in which the game is filmed portrays football as an art form rather than a game that involves 22 men merely chasing a ball up and down a field. The cinematography is superb, with a score that builds up the tension and passion as the Allied team attempts to overcome foul play by the Germans and the worst refereeing in the history of the game. Now, I know there are those who have written the complete opposite of what I’ve just said, criticising the way in which the match is filmed and deriding its attempt at mixing art with the ‘beautiful game’. I have no doubts that there are those of you reading this review who are now questioning my taste in films. The fact of the matter is that I am right and you are wrong. I’m not afraid to stand up for Escape to Victory and defend it against cinematic snobbishness (e-mail address at the bottom of this page for any responses!).
OK, on a serious note, if you can get over the acting and the incredulous narrative, then you will enjoy the experience (probably!). My main criticism of Escape to Victory stems from the fact that Hatch (Stallone) isn’t shot by the Germans at some point. Instead, he ends up as a hero which, after suffering his irritable character for an hour and a half, is frankly disappointing. I have tried to imagine a remake involving today’s prima donnas but the thought was quite a scary prospect and made me wonder if nostalgia had overtaken my sense of what is or isn’t ‘good’. Accept it for what it is, folks, and engage with it on the level that’s required, and I’m sure you’ll enjoy its charm. Honest.