This article originally appeared on Den of Geek UK.
Never let it be said that this website is above taking advantage of football euphoria, to drive clicks to a feature about an old film. A 1980 film, in this case, where Sylvester Stallone played a goalkeeper. It was odd at the time, and it’s odd now.
But with England playing football better than usual, and the World Cup heading to its later stages, what better time to cast a look back at Escape To Victory? Without further ado…
Put simply, the film itself shouldn’t really work; its unlikely confluence of ageing footy World Cup winners, Nazi captors, a fresh-from-Rocky Sylvester Stallone and half of the 1980 Ipswich Town F.C. squad represents an odd blend indeed. The footballers couldn’t act; the actors couldn’t play football and throughout filming, Stallone apparently made a series of increasingly outlandish demands such as wanting to score the climactic game’s winning goal, despite the fact that his character played the goalkeeper.
Stranger still though, against all of the odds, this curious prison escape/sporting showdown hybrid somehow turned out as a rather watchable movie and 25 years later, Escape To Victory still stands alongside The Great Escape and perhaps The Magnificent Seven as the very apex of rainy bank holiday viewing, surely the truest determiner of any movie’s legacy. This spirited story of a group of P.O.W.s that band together to face the might of the Nazi regime in a titanic game of football that also buys them their freedom could have been so very different – especially had the film’s producers followed through on their original idea and depicted a more faithful incarnation of the movie’s historical roots.
Although some of the details remain shrouded in legend and blurred by competing political ideologies, the key facts remain: some of Ukraine’s finest players (and former prisoners of war) banded together to form F.C. Start, a team comprised from Kiev’s two competing teams, Dynamo and Lokomotiv. Upon beating several German military teams and becoming local heroes for their (sporting) resistance to the German occupation, they were offered a high profile rematch and were allegedly advised to lose it (although this has been disputed). F.C. Start won the game 5-3 and were executed, whisked away to work camps or were subject to other harsh treatments, depending on which version of the story you believe.
Escape To Victory, then, is a much more whimsical take on the captor/captive football match. Escape is seen as something of a game throughout the course of the film and as the credits roll, an ecstatic crowd invades the pitch, affording our heroes not only the adulation that their accomplishments deserve but also whisking them off to freedom. (The Death Match, a 2012 film trumpeting itself as the ‘true’ story was released just before Euro 2012, but Ukraine initially blocked its release citing it as pro-Russian propaganda and factually inaccurate.)
The making of Escape To Victory seemed pretty carefree too; some of the Ipswich Town boys who spent their summer in Hungary making the movie have reflected upon what a wonderful experience the shoot was. Getting to spend five weeks in the sunshine, hanging out and playing football with Pele (the living legend who at that point had retired), was an opportunity that most would relish and whilst some (such as club stalwart John Wark) had to return to pre-season with a few limps and bruises sustained in the shooting of the film’s climactic game, it was a price well worth paying.
One member of the group that reportedly didn’t quite buy into the team spirit was Sylvester Stallone.
Coming off an Oscar win for Rocky, his self-aggrandising antics on set and his seeming displeasure at simply having to be there meant that none of the footballers present in Budapest felt that he was really one of the boys. Stallone’s character, the American P.O.W. Hatch, is hell bent on breaking out of prison in the movie and perhaps Stallone was engaging in a spot of method acting when he escaped with his entourage to party in Paris at any available opportunity.
Sir Michael Caine remembers the experience with Stallone more fondly, perhaps because he too was eager to escape the depressing confines of communist-era Hungary.
In his own words: “I like Sly. We used to get away together whenever we could. We would race to the airport on Friday nights waving our credit cards and shouting: “When’s the next plane out – to anywhere?” Usually it was Paris or London. We would go eating, drinking, and falling down a lot. He’s a good man!”
In fairness to Stallone though, nobody could accuse him of ducking the physical demands of the role; he refused stunt doubles throughout the shoot, literally throwing himself into the role of a goalkeeper. Stallone reportedly dislocated his shoulder on set and while it’s still open to debate whether the Rocky star really looked the part, a war wound like that does make it a little harder to question his commitment.
On the other hand, Caine has freely admitted that his contributions to the football side of things were often found wanting; instead it’s perhaps his star power as West Ham ‘legend’ John Colby opposite Max Von Sydow’s benevolent Nazi officer that lifts the film above similar efforts to immortalise footy on the silver screen and saves it from simply becoming an exercise in ‘spot the footballer.’
As the film progresses, both Colby and Von Sydow’s Major Karl Von Steiner find events spiralling out of their control: in a fashion like the 1914 Christmas Day game getting used by Sainsbury’s to flog potatoes, what began life as a simple exercise borne from a mutual love of the game is twisted and reshaped by forces beyond the control of either man. For Colby’s commanding officers who make up the Escape Committee, it becomes a chance to orchestrate a mass escape whilst for Von Steiner’s Nazi superiors, the opportunity to strike a vital blow in the propaganda war is too good to miss. The two actors do a fine job of portraying the respectful rivalry that develops between them and it’s fair to say that with two lesser actors in their boots, Escape To Victory wouldn’t have attained the cult following it still enjoys today.
And a following it certainly has: despite being released 35 years ago the film is still refer-enced regularly today. International minnows Iceland reportedly based their Euro 2016 kit on the strip worn by Colby’s rag-tag bunch in the 1981 film. It didn’t hurt either: their draw with eventual winners Portugal in the opening game was surprising enough but their dismissal of England in the knockout stages sent shockwaves through international football, not least here in dear old Blighty where it has been touted as our most humbling moment in football since we created the game.
Naturally, with so many taking inspiration from the film, talk of a remake using today’s stars of world football has been inevitable. With the United States getting very excited about ‘soccer’ during the 2014 World Cup, the project even made it at Warner Bros as far as the script-writing stage with Edge Of Tomorrow’s Doug Liman in talks to direct and many of today’s stars such as Neymar and David Beckham being tipped to star.
Since then however, things have been quiet and Liman himself has a very busy slate with up to ten projects currently confirmed to be in devel-opment. Expect (or dread) the project’s resurrection next time the U.S. do well in a footy tournament or when Beckham’s upcoming cameo in Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur movie surprises us all with his astonishing thespian brilliance.
It would be remiss to end this article without mentioning the game of football itself; whilst the movie might be something of a hokey affair, it’s largely redeemed by the sheer drama of the game itself. The four goal deficit; the inspirational half-time speech; the spirited comeback and then the moment of unparalleled sporting genius (in the form of Pelé’s acrobatic overhead kick which he apparently nailed in one take)! It’s all present and correct and done so well that you can even for-give Stallone’s rubbish penalty save at the end (and that he kicks the ball away then celebrates with his teammates whilst the ball is still in play! You’re courting disaster Stallone!). The boots that Pelé wore during filming were auctioned recently and sold for over eight thousand pounds, fetching more than much of his memorabilia from genuine sporting contests.
It’s yet another signifier that although Escape To Victory may be silly and somewhat mawkish, at its heart lies a story that that encapsulates everything that we love about the beautiful game; whilst the forces of com-merce and marketing may continue to spin football into an unrecognisable entity, as players con-tinue to enjoy wealth far beyond the imagination of the man on the street and whilst underdog successes become rarer and rarer as the game becomes increasingly driven by finances – this tale of pluck, camaraderie and spirit will continue to symbolize the very best that football has to offer… and that will never go out of style.