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Escape to Victory

posted by Mickey on 5/16/02

The film known as "Victory" in the USA and as "Escape to Victory" in most of the English speaking world is incorrectly titled. The video copy I watched last night was called "Victory", so that is what I am going to call it throughout. The soccer match which is the basis of the film, in which a raggle-taggle collection of Allied Prisoners-of-War (fortuitously including two or three of the greatest football players ever to pull on a boot) take on an elite team of German ubėrmenschen, actually ends with the score 4-4. I don't know if "Draw!" would have been a snappier title. It would have been more accurate, but might have alienated fans who thought they were going to get a movie more along the lines of either "The Quick and the Dead" or "The Cincinatti Kid."

The film was directed by John Huston, the legendary director of films like "The Maltese Falcon", "The African Queen", "The Treasure of Sierra Madre", who must have been on a rat-faced drunken bender for at least a week before he agreed to take on the project. In all sobriety, I regret to inform W-D readers that "Victory" is a mediocre film that is only really worth watching for the soccer sequences. As far as the soccer sequences go, for that matter, you would probably get better value for your entertainment dollar by hunting out one of the thousands of videos on the market with titles like "David Beckham's Best Corners". The appeal of "Victory" that has made me rent this movie more times than I like to admit is the fact that it is a surreal collaboration between actors who can't play football, and footballers who can't act.


Two actors who can't play football, and one footballer who can't act, take the famous "W is for Victory" stance.


There is a cheap joke to made at the expense of, for instance, Sylvester Stallone here, to say that he is an example of someone who can neither play football nor act, but I am not going to make that cheap joke, because when you see him sharing scenes with, for instance, Pele, there is clearly a difference between the capacity of the two men to stand in front of a camera speaking dramatic lines. Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone may not be the greatest screen actors in the history of motion pictures (although, if you get me into the right mood, I might just mount a case for Michael Caine) but next to the footballers they are shockingly competent. Like the stars of pornographic movies, the footballers have been cast for their other abilities.

The plot (as opposed to the movie, which first presents 10 minutes worth of non-football related stuff) begins with prisoners-of-war in a camp somewhere in Europe having a kick around. The ball ends up under the boot of a German officer named Von Steiner, played by Max Von Sydow. Instead of kicking it straight back, Von Steiner neatly induces the ball onto the toe of his boot, and plays a bit of keepsy-upsy before letting the prisoners have their ball back. It transpires that Von Steiner played football for Germany in 1938. If the scriptwriters had said 1922, this might have been a bit more probable. This detail, however, is probably there to soften us up for the far greater suspension of disbelief we are about to encounter, when Von Steiner recognises that the character played by Michael Caine is John Colby who played football for Westham United and England before the war. Caine is a somewhat improbable candidate for these honours, looking in rather less than in tip-top physical condition.

Von Steiner suggests a match between the Werhmacht and the English POWs. The Jerry propaganda wallahs decide to turn the fixture into an exhibition game against a combined prisoner all-star team. Now, I would suggest that as a propaganda exercise, this is not one of the best ideas that any of Goebbel's men ever had. If the Baseball Commissioner were to organise a baseball game between last year's All-American team and a raggle-taggle collection of baseball enthusiasts from the Axis of Evil, to be played at Yankee Stadium and billed as the contest which will provide the ultimate proof of American global superiority, I think it would be fair to say that the Americans would be expected to win. Hence the propaganda value of an American win would be negligible. However, the propaganda effect of an American loss would be immense. Von Steiner comes out of the movie as incomparably the most sympathetic character, but also as a prize nincompoop, because he does everything within his power to make the Allied side as strong as possible, promises to provide a neutral referee, and even applauds good play by both teams. In a movie with several casting coups, it is a great shame that the film-makers decided to use Max Von Sydow in a role that Werner Klemperer could have made his own.

Colby begins to choose his team from the available POWs and, as mentioned, finds some outstanding adult entertainers- sorry, football players, right there in the camp including Bobby Moore, one of England's greatest ever players, and the great Argentinian, Ossie Ardilles, whose presence made me struggle to recall which Spanish speaking nations were on the Allied side during WW2. Poor Ossie. He was an player of wonderful skill, who probably was at this best during the period he played for the English club, Tottenham Hotspur, an experience soured by the outbreak of the Falklands War, an event for which he was held personally responsible by some members of the tabloid press.

Colby finds a Trinidanian player with a curious inability to speak English, which is odd since English is the first language of Trinidad. Most people who love association football acknowledge that Pele is the greatest player in the history of the game. He was instrumental in winning three world cups with Brazil and kicked more than a thousand goals in his career before capping it off with his performance as Fernandez in "Victory." He is invited into the team, not on the basis of his language skills, but on the basis of some (admittedly, pretty fancy) keepsy-upsy. Actually, being good as keepsy-upsy is a separate skill to being good at football, but he ends up being an inspired selection.


The original Mexican Wave.

Unfortunately, most of Pele's dialogue in "Victory" is incomprehensible. The filmmakers clearly took a pragmatic view that this would present a problem to audiences, and ensured there was not much of it. What this absence of dialogue leads to, however, is an important dramatic weakness in the film. The ostensible climax of the movie occurs when Stallone as Hatch, the goalkeeper, saves a penalty kick at the very stroke of full time, but I would guess that anyone who has actually seen the movie less recently than last night, and who was asked to nominate the climax of the film, would not hesitate to say it was Pele's bicycle kick equaliser which takes place a minute or two earlier. It is a sublime piece of athleticism. For those who know their soccer history, it is also a piece of post modernism, a reference to one of Pele's most famous goals when he was playing for the New York Cosmos in the twilight of his career. The problem, of course, is that when this particular piece of wizardry takes place, anyone who cares even a little bit about dramatic structure is wondering why the fuck this guy hasn't been the protagonist of the film all along. In a thriller, the guy who comes in, overpowers the guards, throws the villain off the skyscraper, defuses the bomb with 0.02 left on the timer, and carries the girl off in his arms, is going to be the same dude whose fortunes we have been following for the previous 90 minutes. That is why we have been following his fortunes. It doesn't make sense for him to be some tiny secondary character.

As for Sylvester Stallone, playing Hatch, the sole American presence in the stalag, he cuts a very curious figure throughout the film. For someone who is meant to be a hero of the story, he spends the whole first half of the film doing a compelling and convincing impression of a complete arse-hole. Firstly he makes a pain in the neck of himself trying to join the team, and recklessly endangers the safety of an unsuspecting player by applying a gridiron style tackle in what was meant to be an innocent kick-around. Despite this, when Hatch proposes that he join the team as their trainer, no one demurs. I would guess that there has never been a single screening of "Victory," anywhere in the world, on cinema, video or DVD, where some member of the audience has not said "Fuck off" out loud at this point. Because, bizarrely, no member of the team expresses the sentiment every one of them must be feeling, the plot moves on and Hatch proves his worth by breaking out of the camp and arranging with the French Resistance for them to dig an escape tunnel into the sewers of the match stadium. The team is so delighted with his gallantry that they arrange, in a quite sadistic scene, to break their goalkeeper's arm so Hatch can take his place on the team.

And so, to the stadium. The best moment in the whole film occurs seventy-seven minutes into the feature when Von Steiner and another Nazi take their places in the grandstand to view the game. While the Nazi is explaining to a flustered Von Steiner that the match referee is a Gestapo officer, in the background another German officer seated in the row behind them comes into shot looking astonishingly African-American in appearance.

The teams come onto the pitch: the Germans in their black home kit and the Allies in their white away strip with ugly red and blue piping. Although the Germans have gone for a retro drawstring look which makes their outfits look more 1890s than 1940s, the Wermacht are clear winners in terms of outfit. The French resistance have been digging like so many moles through the earth underneath Paris and everything is in readiness for the escape to take place at halftime. Fifteen minutes after the start of play, the Germans go 1-0 up when Hatch is caught hopelessly off his line after a corner.


Boring Boring Werchmacht.

Hacking and fouling furiously in general play, the Germans double their score shortly afterwards. When a German is brought down within the area, the resultant penalty sees hatch diving the right way, but not getting high enough to prevent the Nazis from taking a 3-0 lead. Back in general play, Hatch departs from his line again and the Germans take a seemingly unassailable 4-0 lead. When Pele is winded by a vicious charge, what is more, the Allies are reduced to 10 men but a beautiful cross from the winger to an unmarked (albeit possibly offside) Bobby Moore means the Allies take a consolation goal on the eve of their inevitable escape at half time. As the team goes into their dressing room, what ensues is some of the most ridiculous dialogue ever to grace a film.

HATCH.

Lets move, we've only got a few minutes.

COLBY.

Yes, but we can win this.

HATCH.

Ahh but you could never win with me in the goal.

COLBY.

Course we can, he's not a bad goalie, is he?

HATCH.

What the hell's the matter with you guys? You want to go back to prison?

TEAM MEMBER.

Come back, we need you.

COLBY.

That's right.

HATCH.

You guys do what you want, but I'm leaving.

COLBY.

But what we're doing is quitting....

HATCH.

I ain't going back to prison.

COLBY.

You've got to come back. If you don't come back, we can't go… [Hatch goes to leave] … Hatch, If you go we've all got to go with you. We can't go back without a goalie.

FERNANDEZ.

Hatch, please Hatch, that game means a lot to us. You know that. You must go back

COLBY.

We can win.

FERNANDEZ.

Hatch, if we run now, we lose more than a game, please Hatch.

Now I don't know how many times something similar has happened to my netball team, WWF Smackdown, when we've been playing a Monday night fixture against, for instance, the Joe Blacks, and have come off the court at half time trailing by 12-3 or some such score and the French Resistance have come up through the floorboards, and offered to rescue us. During some seasons it seems to happen to us almost every week. And there is always some idiot who thinks we can still win if we can just remember to catch the ball instead of dropping it and a bit of an argument sometimes follows. The French Resistance are often a bit peeved, in a Gallic way, to have been put to fair amount of work seemingly for nothing, and they tread around the side of the court anxiously, smoking gauloises, while they wait for us to make up our minds. We never do go down the tunnel, of course, and the promised comeback never eventuates; in fact if anything it usually gets worse, and we end up losing by about 28-5. I swear, the very next time the French Resistance comes to rescue my netball team, I'm going to go escape down the tunnel and if the team doesn't have a Goal Keeper for the second half, then tough bloody luck. But at least, when it happens to my netball team, there isn't the knockout-punch argument that applies to the dialogue above. Here is how the dialogue would go in a realistic film.

HATCH.

Lets move, we've only got a few minutes.

COLBY.

Yes, but we can win this.

HATCH.

Ahh but you could never win with me in the goal.

COLBY.

Yeah, you're right. Good point. Come on, everyone, let's go.

Or, in a slightly less realistic movie, but in one which is still far more realistic than "Victory", the dialogue at this point might have gone like this:

HATCH.

Lets move, we've only got a few minutes.

COLBY.

Yes, but we can win this.

HATCH.

Ahh but you could never win with me in the goal.

COLBY.

Course we can, he's not a bad goalie is he?

ANYBODY.

Yes, he is. We'd only be 2-1 down if he hadn't been off his line twice. That bloke whose arm we broke, he was pretty good. We might be leading if he was here.

Instead of the dialogue proceeding in this relatively realistic way, we cut to a Nazi flag, and then to the team running back onto the pitch to contest the second half. Early on, Ardilles wrong-foots his opponent to put in a brilliant goal; then makes a weaving run and shoots again. The German custodian keeps it out, but the snowy haired No. 7 (whose name I forgot to take a note of) scores off the rebound. An equalising goal by either Bobby Moore or Michael Caine (I had never realised before how similar their haircuts are) is disallowed as offside in the most outrageous refereeing decision in the game. With four minutes left to play, Pele comes back on and using the aforementioned bicycle kick, puts the sphere into the back of the onion bag. As the crowd begins to sing "The Marseillaise" Ardilles brings down a German within the area and the same Nazi striker who put it past Hatch at the previous penalty shot goes to the right (again) but this time Hatch keeps it out and there is a pitch invasion and everyone escapes. In fact everyone escapes with such consummate ease, that the French Resistance would have been feeling like a right bunch of charlies for bothering to dig that stupid tunnel in the first place and serves them right too. The French vow to revenge this national humiliation by winning the 1998 World Cup.

I had always heard that the inspiration for the film was an actual historical event, the so-called "Match of Death" that took place in the occupied Ukraine in 1942 after factory workers, including members of the famous Dynamo Kiev team, were offered an opportunity to play a "friendly" game with a team picked from the German army. The Ukrainians accepted the offer and won a game played in June 1942 to the tune of 4-1, despite the superior physical condition of the German players. The Germans fielded a stronger team for a rematch in July, but Dynamo destroyed them 6-0, to the delight of the Ukrainian fans and the fury of the Germans. A series of fixtures followed with Dynamo continuing to crush their opponents until the Nazi authorities issued them with an ultimatum before a game played on August 9, 1942, that they could either lose the game, or lose their lives. When the Ukrainians response was to go out and set up an unbeatable lead against their opponents, a team drawn from the ranks of the Luftwaffe, the match did not even proceed to its finish. Instead, the Dynamo players were arrested and executed. This is the story I have always heard and as such it has found its way into various football reference works. In researching this piece I have read some material which raises the possibility that the Ukrainians suffered no worse fate than to be put into concentration camps rather than immediately murdered. If there is a reader out there who knows more about this incident than me, I would really appreciate it if you would drop me a line.

Whether the Ukrainians surrendered their lives or their liberty, it is a story of tragic heroism. You could make a great (albeit sombre) movie, or even better an opera, out of a story like that. The fact that it is not a story, but a historical event, the thought that there were people actually brave enough and desperate enough to choose to do that, is the sort of thing that sends chills down your spine. Curiously, the connection with "Victory" has given, and continues to give, "The Match of Death" international currency. When the story is told, it is almost always told as the story that inspired the Hollywood movie, "Victory." As a tribute to the heroism of those men, "Victory" is a ludicrous insult. Of course, it was no such thing. "Victory" is really just another Hollywood action movie from the era before action movies were routinely edited into the slickly reliable pieces of entertainment they are now. The football is in the film as a gimmick; but because what Hollywood thought of as a gimmick is actually a passion to tens of millions of people around the world, the movie has had an afterlife that it didn't deserve.

The Soccer World Cup is now only a few weeks away. Some time during the tournament those tens (hell, hundreds, thousands) of millions of people who are passionate about soccer are going to be reminded that football is a deeply tragic game. The low scoring nature of the sport, and the way that an accidental impact can change the course of a match, ensure that the best team does not always win. "Some people say football is a matter of life and death," Bill Shankly, the famous coach of Liverpool once said, "but it is far more important than that." He should know. He's dead. "The Match of Death," as I said above, is a tragedy on another scale altogether. And finally, just to show what an ambiguous word "tragedy" can be, "Victory" is a tragic film.


.Here, that is a bit harsh, isn't it? It isn't a bad movie, is it?

Mickey
mickey@whatever-dude.com

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