Should I Watch..? 'Escape to Victory'
What's the big deal?
Escape To Victory is a sporting war film (known as Victory in the US) released in 1981 and is a remake of a Hungarian film called Two Half-Times In Hell, itself based on an apparently true story. The film stars the unlikely trio of Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and footballing legend Pele as prisoners-of-war coerced into playing a football game against the Nazis in a propaganda exercise while trying to organise an escape. Directed by John Huston, the film features numerous cameos from football stars of the time which generated a lot of press interest. The film wasn't a huge success with global earnings around $27.5 million and a fairly muted response from critics. Nevertheless, the film has developed a cult following possibly due to its unusualness and it has often been imitated or parodied in a number of other films and TV shows.
What's it about?
At a prisoner-of-war camp during the Second World War, former professional footballer John Colby is challenged by senior Nazi officer Karl von Steiner to produce a team of Allied prisoners to take on the might of Nazi Germany in an exhibition match. Realising that this could improve conditions in the camp for his players, Colby agrees and begins recruiting his team. For Colby, this is a chance to prove a point but for the American Captain Robert Hatch, this is a chance to escape.
Colby is not interested in Hatch's plans, not wanting to be responsible for the deaths of his team-mates. But Hatch finds himself thrust into an ambitious plan to spring the entire team during the match - working alongside Colby's superiors, Hatch manages to escape in order to contact the French Resistance to assist in the escape plan as the match is due to be played in Paris. Meanwhile, Colby struggles to get his team motivated when it soon becomes clear that the match will be a one-sided propaganda exercise for the Nazis.
Trailer (US release)
Capt. John Colby
Capt. Robert Hatch
Corp. Luis Fernandez
Max Von Sydow
Maj. Karl von Steiner
Wing Comm. Shurlock
Evan Jones & Yabo Yablonsky*
Release Date (UK)
4th September, 1981
Drama, Sport, War
What's to like?
You could never accuse Escape To Victory of being ordinary. The frankly absurd combination of Caine, Stallone and Pele makes the movie interesting by itself, a strange clash of cultures and styles that is unlikely to be ever repeated. The film's narrative, supposedly based on a true story, does feel somewhat ridiculous but there are dozens of cameos for fans of football of that era to spot and gives the film an odd fascination. You stick with it because it almost feels like a fevered dream.
Credit to Caine and Von Sydow for delivering performances that go way beyond the film's light-hearted fluffiness. Stallone, by contrast, feels about as welcome to the picture as a kick to the groin and his supremely arrogant Yank is one of the most unlikeable characters I've seen since Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. I must also credit Huston for producing a film that actually looks quite good on screen - the opening shot of the prison camp panning out to reveal the sheer size of it is impressive while the climatic football match features slow-motion shots of various techniques and tricks that demonstrate the skills involved of the sporting stars on show. For the briefest moment, it actually becomes good to watch.
- Stallone received training from England's World Cup-winning keeper Gordon Banks but didn't pay much attention. He ended up breaking a rib and dislocating his shoulder before listening to Banks much more closely. Stallone later admitted that this film was tougher than filming the fight scenes in Rocky.
- Stallone insisted that his character should score the winning goal until the non-American crew managed to persuade him that such an act from a goalkeeper would be too ridiculous. In the end, the penalty scene was written just to pander to his ego.
- In addition to the football stars who appeared were a number of players from Ipswich Town, many of whom doubled up as the German team. Players like Wark, Russell Osman, Laurie Sivell, Kevin O'Callaghan and Robin Turner all appeared on screen while Kevin Beattie and Paul Cooper doubled for Caine and Stallone respectively during the match.
What's not to like?
The film never strays too far from its influences, feeling every bit as unusual as you'd expect from a blend of The Great Escape and The Longest Yard. You can tell that the film was made with an American audience in mind - I loved the commentator to the match explaining the rules of football as though nobody in Europe knew how the game was played! The film's narrative is thoroughly predictable and the supporting cast don't offer that much support, mainly because they are football players and not actors. And while I'm on the subject, did the film-makers really think that we wouldn't recognise stars like Pele, Ardiles or Moore? How is suspension of belief possibly when the greatest footballer of all time is trying to be a POW from Trinidad instead of his native Brazil?
The film strikes an uneven tone from the very beginning, its opening scenes being a dark and tense escape attempt that ends in tragedy while the ending is so fluffy, they may as well ride out of the stadium on unicorns. It also sags greatly in the middle as Stallone escapes to Paris, briefly romances a woman caught up with the Resistance (Carole Laure) and then returning to the exact same prison camp he escaped from without being executed on the spot. Despite the madness of the whole thing, the film is actually pretty boring and much like an actual football game, my attention wandered off throughout.
Should I watch it?
Escape To Victory might have looked at a good idea to someone at some point but the film's bizarre subject matter and execution renders the project completely useless. Like I said, there is an odd sense of curiosity about the film - it almost feels as though you've had a concussion and can't quite believe what you're seeing. As it is, the film probably won't feature highly on the CVs of Stallone, Caine or Huston but at least it proved fun for the various footballing stars who appeared.
Great For: footballing nerds of a certain age, pot heads, rabid Brazilians
Not So Great For: war films, footballers looking for a career change
What else should I watch?
Although the sports in question may be slightly different, there is much in common between this and The Mean Machine, which saw Burt Reynolds lead a team of prisoners into a game of American football against a team of sadistic guards. Played more for laughs than anything, it was remade in 2005 as The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler in the lead and a host of rappers and wrestlers in cameos. Needless to say, it wasn't exactly worth the effort.
Sadly, films about football tend to have a fairly poor success rate unless they focus on the more unsavoury side of the sport. Hooliganism is a popular theme in films like Green Street and I.D., both of which are unsettling dramas that almost revel in the senseless violence associated with these mindless thugs. Almost as unpalatable is United Passions, FIFA's unrepentant propaganda project that was produced as the corruption scandal engulfed the organisation and led to the downfall of its president Sepp Blatter. Universally derided upon release, even its star Tim Roth distanced himself from the film and admitted he only made the film for the money.
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© 2018 Benjamin Cox