Saturday, 22 August 2009

Escape to Victory (1981)

With the emotional recent departure of Bobby Robson, my mind is drawn irreverently towards a film in which some of his "Boys of '81" happened to find themselves unexpectedly involved.

By the summer of 198o, Ipswich Town had rounded off another impressive season with qualification for Europe, finishing third in the league behind Liverpool and Manchester United (beating the latter 6-0 at Portman Road.) The year after that was arguably their greatest ever season, when they were in contention for three trophies and eventually won the UEFA Cup.

In between, Robson's team were approached by film producer Freddie Fields with a view to spending a few weeks in Hungary to play some football alongside the likes of Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, and to be directed by no less a person than John Huston. Eyes perked up when two other footballing names associated with the project were Bobby Moore and Pele, and so it was that Russell Osman, John Wark, Kevin O'Callaghan, Robin Turner and Laurie Sivell (the last two on the German side) took to the field, and the film stage, whilst goalkeeper Paul Cooper (who coached Stallone) and the legendary Kevin Beattie (Caine's stand-in, or run-in if you like) also offered their assistance.

The film was originally based on a real life incident in World War II when Eastern European prisoners were forced into a football match, where they would be set free provided they lost the match to the Germans. Tailoring the film to a more mainstream audience, Fields modified the original concept to make it into a Great Escape-ish adventure where the German Army pits itself against a combined team of Allied prisoners, the intention being - as before - to force a victory to prove German supremacy as an excellent propaganda exercise.

To boot (excuse the pun), in order to re-create the climate of noted footballers, Fields and Huston cast real-life footballers in some of the roles. In addition to those players already mentioned, there was Tottenham Hotspur's legendary Argentinian Ossie Ardiles, another former England star Mike Summerbee, Belgium's Paul Van Himst, and the international flavour was completed by Norway's Soren Linsted, Dutchmen Co Prins, Belgium's Paul Van Himst, and Manchester City's Polish star Kazimierz Deyna - who in one powerful scene is in a group of maltreated Eastern European players.

And then there's also a fella named Edson Arantes dos Nascimento - better known as Pele, who contrives to be in a PoW camp as a West Indian with a fairly thick Brazilian flair.

The international guest stars notwithstanding, there's a healthy "Boys of '66" spirit to this film, represented appropriately by the presence of Bobby Moore, when a group of ordinary down-to-earth lads gathered together as a great team unit to win football's most coveted prize. Here that spirit crosses a whole international frontier, and is epitomised by the film's two most credible characters, Major Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) and John Colby (Michael Caine), who have set up the idea for the match:

STEINER: "If nations could settle their differences on the football pitch, wouldn't that be a challenge? How would you like to play a match against a team from the Wehrmacht? From the army base nearby?

COLBY: What for? To settle the war?

STEINER: Unfortunately not."

On balance, the soccer players are more suited to acting than the actors are in having to play soccer. Certainly in John Huston's hands there's a greater enthusiasm for the skill and endeavour of the footballers that in the mechanical rudiments of the plot. The weakest of them, alas, is the film's chief star, Sylvester Stallone. Riding on the success of the Rocky films, Sly was clearly considered a bankable property for this kind of sports film.

Only in Hollywood.

What Stallone brought to boxing, he certainly does not bring to soccer; frankly, he'd be just as well off trying rhythmic gymnastics. But clearly his physique and his star clout got the film made. If Stallone is the worst idea of a goalkeeper, then at least the other 10 team in front of him lead the way.

The match itself is a classic - in the football sense of the word - mirroring the course of events of World War II. The Germans dominate the initial stages, thanks to a little judicious refereeing (then again it could just be Hatch's inept goalkeeping) and before you know it, the Hun are 3-0 up. What's worse for the Allies, one of their leading players, Luis Fernandez (Pele), is taken injured after a brutal challenge, and soon the Nazis are 4-0 up. But then a little determined rearguard from the Allies sees Terry Daly (Bobby Moore) score at the far post shortly before half-time, to the delight of the hitherto stony-faced French crowd.

At half time itself, Hatch's sneaky plan to escape from the dressing room into the sewers of Paris is hatched (excuse pun no. 2); but to the rest of the team there are certain things greater than their freedom, and that's their pride and dignity. To the surprise of the British officers who've organised the escape, the Allies take the field again for the second half, and here's where the game really starts cooking: a lovely flowing run and finish by Carlos Rey (Osvaldo Ardiles) pulls the score back to 4-2 shortly after the resumption. As the Allied crowd and the players become more excited, the resulting bewilderment in the German defence leads to a third Allied goal, scored by Poland's Paul Wolcek (Kazimierz Deyna, who curiously alternates the No. 7 shirt with John Wark.) The Allied comeback is almost complete when a shot hits the post and Doug Clure (Russell Osman!) scores off the rebound, but it's disallowed for offside. Silly ref.

The high point of the match comes however, when the hobbling Luis Fernandez, his chest still badly bruised from the earlier tackle, comes back onto the field, and scores an overhead kick from Terry Daly's cross, past the hapless German goalkeeper Schmidt (Laurie Sivell), a moment which is poetic enough in the eyes of the filmmaker to give it a multiple Leni Riefenstahl-style slow motion replay. In one of the film's most hilarious moments, Von Steiner is moved enough to stand up and applaud the goal scored against his own side. There then follows a moment that has often haunted me whenever I think of this film - the French crowd, resurgent at the Allied comeback, chants "Victoire!" constantly through the final minutes, of a match that has clearly gone something beyond a mere game.

4-4 then (echoing, by no small coincidence, the year of the Allied invasion), but then - oh dear - the Germans get another penalty in the dying minutes of the match, relying on the late intervention of the inept American goalkeeper to save things. Somewhat improbably, Hatch manages to save the resulting penalty kick by catching the ball cleanly with his fingertips! (Stallone's original idea was to dribble from one goal to the other and score the winner - something which Pele vetoed vehemently.)

In the whimsical climax, the crowd breaks out of the stands and smothers the Allied team, who ultimately make their escape through the mob as they flee out of the Colombes Stadium: an unlikely but in its way satisfying denouement to a fun footballing war film.

I make no bones of the fact that I enjoy this film because of the involvement of familiar Ipswich Town players; from my later enthusiasm for sport that followed on from cinema, here unexpectedly was a film that combined both. But there's also something powerfully omnipresent here, a sense of the power of sport to cross international barriers, to use the football field as a metaphor for solving difficulties off the field in a more global context. John Huston's chief enjoyment of the film was the challenge of staging the soccer game, and though the film is corny, that enjoyment shines through, particularly with Bill Conti's catchy score. Michael Caine is agreeable as the honest, King, Country and Football-devoted Colby, and even Stallone can be forgiven as a footballer.

It also harkens back to a more innocent, nostalgic era of soccer, a time when the spirit of the game was more important than the increasing professionalism that has crept in over the years. As the opening exchange between Von Steiner and Colby puts it so tellingly:

"It's a shame the war has ended your career."

"Interrupted it."

"Let's hope so."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Søren Lindsted was Danish.

100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films