Once upon an advert break, the French philosopher, kung fu enthusiast and beach soccer bum, Eric Cantona, hijacked an oceangoing tanker. The former Manchester United number seven then captured the world’s best players and forced them to perform in a three-on-three cage football version of Battle Royale, presumably with the aim of finding a worthy successor to inherit the chocolate factory and look after the Oompa-Loompas when he’d departed the mortal realm.
It was brilliant. As far as commercials for overpriced sportswear produced by child labour go, it’s only eclipsed by the Reebok advert where a man runs away from a giant hairy belly (“Belly’s gonna get ya!”). Imagine the vibe of The Warriors and Escape From New York branded with Nike logos, backed by Elvis Presley’s A Little Less Conversation and coloured with crazy showboating and superhuman soccer trickery.
It was stylish and entertaining and it sent out the subliminal message: “Buy Nike boots and you’ll be cool.”
It’s probably the only time the modern commercial game and the motion picture arts have merged successfully. Aside from that, you have to go all the way back to 1981’s Escape To Victory, which was a John Huston-directed soccer version of The Great Escape featuring Michael Caine giving Sylvester Stallone goalkeeping lessons.
Escape To Victory comes from a time when football was still about brotherly unity resisting fascism rather than selling replica shirts, so it doesn’t count. The point is that film and football are two peculiar strangers that should not come into contact, and should be kept apart by an iron curtain and several rows of riot police at all times.
The law that the two disparate spheres belong well apart predates the offside rule. Every time someone attempts to marry the movies and soccerball, Eric Cantona executes an Oompa-Loompa.
It’s for this reason that we know that the World Cup – currently under way and backed by vuvuzela droning in South Africa – is not a fix scripted by Hollywood screenwriters. Despite antipathy to the fate of the world’s oppressed Oompa-Loompa population, scriptwriters seldom like to break rules and generally discard project ideas that contain lots of plastic balls.
If you’re not convinced that screenwriters haven’t planned out the World Cup, though, take a look at this year’s tournament and you can tell that there has been no film industry interference in the sporting festival. Judging proceedings so far, if the World Cup had been submitted to a studio as a plot synopsis, it would have been set alight and tossed in the wastepaper bin before you can say “Oompa loompa doopadee death”.
If scriptwriters were involved in guiding the Coupe de Monde narrative (because this populist playtime game needs the international appeal and arthouse aspiration that comes with a French title) we’d have seen way more goals and incredible action.
Referees would have been taken hostage by terrorists. We’d have seen off-field drama – romantic entanglements, bad gambles, unexpected time traveller visits and monster uprisings – make their presence felt on the pitch. Altogether, we’d have spectacular entertainment that you’d pay to see at the cinema and the sound of vuvuzela horns would be drowned out by the awed gasps of shock and delight from the global audience.
Imagine how much better it would have been if the finest writers in the movie industry had been on board from the very beginning.
For a start, the home nation would have been helped through the first stages by their midfield dynamo’s metamorphosis into an intimidating alien prawn. South Africa would have then had the upper claw over opponents, and the country’s government would have consequently been encouraged to close the District 9 slum ghetto of Johannesburg and allow extraterrestrial immigrants to live in empty soccer stadia.
If movie biz whizzes were typing it up, England’s dull draw against Algeria would have been a ten-goal rout inspired by the talking donkey on the touchline that Wayne Rooney adopted as his motivational personal mentor.
The screenwriters would have given us the extended escapades of the Ivory Coast players, charged with a crime they didn’t commit, subsequently forced to become footballers of fortune. Only a penalty shoot-out win in the semifinals and the uncovering of Max von Sydow’s Nazi elephant poaching operation can clear their name. Thank the Lord that witchdoctor woman Helena Bonham Carter followed the dung trail, found the truth and thus facilitated justice and African soccer triumph.
We’d have been presented with the heartwarming story of a Serbian single mother who coaches New Zealand to repeat victories despite the combined obstacles of alcoholism, colour blindness and cramps. We’d have watched the Mexican team turn into vampires at halftime and rip the entire French squad to shreds in the space of forty-five minutes. We’d have been treated to an eye-popping encounter between German woodcarvings and Japanese anime characters.
Ultimately, it would have been The Greatest Show on Earth and not ‘The Greatest Show on Earth That Probably Actually Comes Runner-Up to the Final Episode of Glee’.
Rules are rules, though, and to the relief of the Oompa-Loompas and the purists who say there’s no place for fun in the serious game of football, this year’s World Cup and the movie world are well distanced from one another.
The good news, for me at least, is that the next big sporting festival is the London Olympics 2012, and unlike soccer, athletics and minority sports go hand in hand with film. See The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner, Korean teen drama Ping Pong, and Dodgeball (it should be an Olympic event) and you’ll realise that it’s true.
I don’t want the next Olympic Games to be as awful as everyone is predicting, so I’d like to offer my services as a scriptwriter to help ensure that the whole affair is entertaining, exciting and audience-pleasing.
While I wait for approval from the Queen or Eric Cantona, or whoever is really in charge, I’ll go back to watching the imaginary screenwriter-scribed World Cup taking place in my mind. It’s all taken a Team America: World Police turn, I’m afraid, and an army of North Korean puppets are currently being thrashed by the United States (because America always wins in the movies).
They think it’s all over! Oh no, not yet. There’s an after credits sequence featuring a donkey singing You’ll Never Walk Alone with Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart providing vuvuzela accompaniment. Marvellous. The Oompa-Loompa genocide was worth it after all…
James’ previous column can be found here.