Editor's note: Sportsflicks is an occasional VICE Sports series in which Tom Keiser watches sports movies and writes about them. Read previous installments here.
When one thinks of Sylvester Stallone and the Warsaw Pact, the all-time classic Rocky IV naturally comes to mind first. But less than five years before Rocky Balboa landed in the desolate wintry Communist stranglehold of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Sly made a World War II-themed sports movie in Hungary, that featured some of the most respected actors and soccer stars of the Western World, turning an Eastern European legend with a murky level of truth into an all out Western European and American fantasy. This is how powerful Stallone was in the 1980's: he went behind the Iron Curtain and made a world a better place through the power of sports not once, but twice.
Victory, which is known as Escape to Victory in the parts of the world where soccer is called football, is a good-but-not-great knock off of The Great Escape with one hell of a pedigree. In addition to Stallone, [Escape To] Victory stars Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, and the most legendary soccer player of all time, Pelé. The rest of the cast is peppered with World Cup champions (such as Bobby Moore and Osvaldo Ardiles), the odd deep cut Oscar nominee, and the same people who had been playing stock Nazi characters for going on three decades when Victory was made. Even with all that star power on hand, Victory seems to have been largely forgotten in popular culture, except for possibly inspiring the title of a Father Ted episode. It's a fairly forgettable film, and the sum is less than its parts, but man, those parts are something else. It is also worth experiencing at least once, if only to watch Sylvester Freaking Stallone get owned by some of the greatest soccer stars of the 20th century.
Sylvester Stallone is Robert Hatch, an American so war-happy that he joined the Canadian Army years before Pearl Harbor. It's a decision he probably regrets once he winds up in a German prisoner of war camp. There he butts heads with John Colby (Michael Caine), who hopes to get back to playing for West Ham United once the war is over, and spends his time organizing soccer games with his fellow detainees. Eventually, Nazi commandant/crusty old dean Karl Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) decides to use Colby and his Sta-league for propaganda purposes. An exhibition game is set for occupied Paris between the prisoners and the best a decimated-but-still-very-good-at-soccer Nazi Germany could offer. Colby uses the offer to get better treatment for his team, and as an excuse to get some "Eastern European" prisoners of war who are in a bad way to join them.
This is as close as the movie gets to mentioning the Holocaust, and also to outwardly referencing Two Half Times In Hell, the 1961 Hungarian movie that [Escape To] Victory quasi-officially remakes. The legend of The Death Match, in which the occupied Ukrainian team FC Start defeated a team of Nazi soldiers in 1942—some of the players were killed in retaliation—has grown far beyond the facts, and the actual incident has been further muddied by the multiple iterations of the story that have been told onscreen, from a more recent (and markedly anti-Ukrainian) Russian movie to the 1974 prisoners-versus-guards classic The Longest Yard and its remakes.
In this spin on the story, Hatch tries to find a way to escape, but is thwarted more by the British officers who oversee any and all escape attempts than by the Hogan's Heroes-level Nazi security. When our hero does leave, it is on others' terms—he must contact the French resistance to secure the escape of the team at halftime of the game, and then get himself caught again. In order to get Hatch out of solitary confinement once he returns, Colby breaks the arm of his team's goalie so Hatch can get out on the field. The opponents don't take Sylvester Stallone terribly seriously as a goalkeeper, and lives down to those expectations. At halftime, the team is losing 4-1 and down an injured Pelé, and Michael Caine wants to win so badly that he ditches the meticulous escape plan just as the team is about to sneak through the stadium's drainage system. Instead, the team comes back to tie the score, at least until those stupid (literal) Nazi refs disallow the goal.
The aforementioned greatest soccer player of all time then returns to the pitch, and Pelé shakes off an arm injury—expert soccer fans will note that you do not technically need two functioning arms to play soccer—to score the game-tying golazo. Hatch then makes a stop at the very end against Baumann, the German captain—he's played by Pelé's former New York Cosmos teammate Werner Roth—leading to a tie that the Allies can count as a victory. A riot ensues, leading to the escape of the players and presumably the off-screen execution of Karl Von Steiner. It's not quite the "if I can change, and you can change" monologue from Rocky IV, but it works well enough.
John freaking Huston, the extremely devoted father and grandfather from Chinatown and one of the greatest filmmakers ever, directed Victory when he was in his mid-seventies and was already battling the emphysema that would claim him in 1987. Despite his failing health, though, Huston was in the middle of a long streak of consistently good-to-very good movies, something similar to Clint Eastwood's run of success over the last twenty years; consider that Victory was made 40 years after Huston directed The Maltese Falcon and it all seems that much more astonishing. There's an ambient old-fashionedness to Victory that goes beyond the fact that its "The Longest Yard meets The Great Escape" plot was already well-worn by 1981.
Max Von Sydow is a better actor than his role requires, but gives as good a performance as stock "good Nazi" Von Steiner as anyone could. Von Steiner is just a dude who, after a long day of committing war crimes, just wants to kick back and watch sports; as he would with Brewmeister Schmidt in 1983's Strange Brew, Von Sydow brings more dimensions to the character than are strictly necessary. Anton Diffring, an actor who we'll see more of once the definitive version of The Day The Clown Cried is finally released, plays the Nazi announcer, whose trick of artificially spicing up the crowd noises must have really inspired a young Vince McMahon. Daniel Massey—who even as a movie buff I barely knew existed, much less earned an Oscar nomination in 1968 for Star!—plays Col. Waldron, who gives the green light on the escape plan but is later relegated to a Statler and Waldorf role in the stands alongside a fellow officer.
Legendary Moroccan-French actor Amidou plays the French resistance leader who helps plan the team's escape, while Carole Laure isn't the token love interest so much as she's the token woman, period. Even by the generous standards of over-ornate prison escapes on film, Victory's escape plot has a lot of slack in it, and all that trickery in the locker room of the [Budapest pretending to be Colombes] stadium seems retrospectively ridiculous when it turns out that all the team really needed to do to escape was instigate a soccer riot. Having a soccer riot end in anything short of tragedy is the most telling sign that this movie was made in the early 1980's.
Victory is derivative even beyond its essentially unoriginal Inspired By True Events origins, and its borrowing stands out that much more because of what it chooses to steal/riff on. Bill Conti, who had already scored Rocky and was a few years away from winning an Academy Award for The Right Stuff, did a little of what he would do in the latter film, and "borrowed" heavily from Dmitri Shostakovich's Leningrad symphony (which was considered to be public domain in the West at the time) for Victory. There is also a scene in which the Hungarian extras pretending to be French sing La Marseillaise, recalling a certain little movie from the World War II era. Also, no three people would ever form a physical "V" like Stallone, Caine and Pelé do on the poster; if they did, this would have been a Cronenbergian body horror movie, not an agreeably minor John Huston soccer movie.
In the end, Victory barely escapes with a tie. Stallone, Caine, and Pelé are good in their roles, but the broader project ultimately betrays both them and director Huston. There is a good movie to be made out of this premise, which is something I can say because several have in fact already been made; some new variations on it are undoubtedly in the offing. During this summer of the Copa Centenario and the European championships, it's safe to say that there are much better ways to celebrate soccer—and the careers of those in this movie—than spending two and a half hours on Victory. Might as well just wait for the remake.
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