Monday, December 18, 2006

Films of Michael Caine #39: Victory

If you're wondering why there's been a plethora of Michael Caine entries of late, I've spent the past week stage managing a pantomime [Hansel & Gretel, a five-night sell-out and it went great, thanks for asking] while thrashing my way towards the finish line of writing my 18th novel. I've got to hand the book in this week and there's about four days' work still to be done on it, so here's another Michael Caine film entry for your delectation. This time it's one of the kitsch classics from Sir Michael's back catalogue.
(UK title: Escape to Victory)
Cast: Sylvester Stallone (Hatch), Michael Caine (Colby), Max Von Sydow (Major Von Steiner), Pelé (Fernandez), Carole Laure (Renee), Daniel Massey (Colonel Waldron), Tim Pigott-Smith (Rose), Julian Curry (Shurlock), Bobby Moore (Terry Brady).

Crew: John Huston (director), Freddie Fields (producer), Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky (writers), Bill Conti (music), Gerry Fisher (cinematography), Roberto Silvi (editor), J Dennis Washington (production design).

Synopsis: Former England player John Colby runs a football league among the Allied prisoners at a German camp during the Second World War. A German officer, Major Von Steiner, recognises Colby and proposes an international match between prisoners and captors. Colby agrees on the condition his team get proper kit, rations and training facilities. Nazi officers turn the match into a propaganda event, pitting the Allies against the German national team with a Paris stadium as the venue. Canadian prisoner Hatch proves himself an able goalkeeper and joins the team. The camp escape committee gets Hatch to escape so he can travel to Paris and contact the French Resistance. A plan is formulated for all the players to escape at halftime during the match.

Hatch lets himself be captured so he can go back to the POW camp and pass on the details. The team is taken to Paris, where a crowd of French citizens is forced at gunpoint to watch the match. The Germans go 4-1 up, thanks to dubious decisions by the referee and superior fitness. At halftime the Resistance men break into the Allied team’s dressing room from the sewers. Now is the chance to escape, but the team decide to go back and finish the match. By the final minutes the score is 4-4 and the crowd is going wild for the Allies. The Germans get a penalty but Hatch saves it. The match ends in a draw as the crowd storms the pitch. The players are swept out of the stadium with the crowd…


Victory was inspired by an article in the New York Times about a group of POWs who played the Germans at football in Holland during the Second World War. The prisoners won and were summarily executed. Screenwriter Yabo Yablonsky saw the potential for a film and began adapting the tale. The resulting story is credited to Yablonsky and Djordje Milicevic & Jeff Maguire, with the screenplay credited to Yablonsky and Even Jones. The script kicked around Hollywood for years before being picked up by producer Freddie Fields. He had it substantially rewritten to include a more upbeat ending.

The producer then went in search of a cast designed to meet three different markets. The star of Oscar-winning picture Rocky (1976), Sylvester Stallone, was sought for his international box office appeal. Stallone negotiated a percentage of the gross profits and a say in the shooting script. Caine and Max Von Sydow were hired for their acting ability. Caine told the New York Times about parallels he saw between himself and the character he played, Captain John Colby. ‘He never believed he could become a captain, I didn’t think I could conceivably be a famous actor. We’re both men of humble origins thrust into situations far beyond our expectations.’ A report in the Guardian said Caine likened his part to that of Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

More than a dozen football stars were cast for their ball skills, among them former England captain Bobby Moore and Brazilian legend Pelé. The latter also choreographed all the moves in the climatic football match. Helping to fill out the Allies team were half a dozen players from Ipswich Town, while the Hungarian national team played as the Germans.

Fields wanted helmer Brian G Hutton, whose previous credits included World War Two romps Where Eagles Dare (1968) and Kelly’s Heroes (1970). But Stallone requested a director he could admire, so the job went to John Huston, then aged 74. Huston had been seriously ill since making The Man Who Would Be King (1975) with Caine. Hiring him cost an extra $250,000 for insurance. Huston told the Times why he took the job: ‘It’s a helluva good story. I only make pictures if I like the story or if they offer me a lot of money, and in this case it happened to be both. I see this picture as a definition of sportsmanship, of the male spirit at its very best – values which I subscribe to thoroughly.’

To help minimise other costs, the $15 million picture was shot entirely on location in Hungary during 1980. Budapest doubled for 1940s Paris, having similar architecture. The Hungarian Government built the prison camp set at a riding stable outside Budapest. It took more than three months to construct and cost nearly £1 million. Caine was 47 when the movie was being made and not in the best physical shape of his life. He told one interviewer the football scenes left him with a bad back, swollen ankles and pulled tendons. To another he described the shoot as an ‘alcoholic miasma with lots of hot baths’.

The Allies versus Germans football match took a fortnight to film, with the MTK Stadium used in place of Colombe Stadium in Paris. Ipswich goalkeeper Paul Cooper was fitted with a mask of Stallone’s face, in case he had to double for the actor in goal. Stallone lost 41 pounds weight for his role and trained as a goalkeeper for two months. At one stage the script called for him to run up the field and score the winning goal, but this was rejected by Moore and Pelé. Stallone had to be hero of the finale, so the script was changed to have him save a penalty and earn the Allies a 4-4 draw. Just as filming was concluding, an actors’ strike in Hollywood shut down the production. Once the dispute was resolved, Caine had to fly back to Hungary from Los Angeles for a single day of shooting.

Victory was released in American cinemas during July 1981, rated PG. The US did have a professional soccer league, but the sport was still a minority interest at the time. Critics derided the film for being old fashioned and it flopped at the box office, grossing just over $10 million. In football-loving Britain the picture (renamed Escape to Victory) was rated A but reviewers had just as much fun laughing at it. The film was released on video in 1987, reclassified as PG, but has since been deleted. A DVD version is available in the US. The movie has achieved cult status in the past twenty years, with several websites devoted to it. You can even buy a football shirt in the strip worn by the Allies.

Reviews: ‘Escape to Victory, the most egregiously silly sortie into Nazi Germany the cinema has yet given us, is Match of the Day meets Stalag 17.’ – The Financial Times
‘Victory amounts to a frankly old-fashioned World War II morality play, hinging on soccer as a civilised metaphor for the game of War … some very good performances from the cast, particularly Caine.’ – Variety

Verdict: It’s hard to think of many sillier films than Victory. The script may be based loosely on a true story, but reality flies out the window in the first five minutes. Caine is twenty years too old and several stone too heavy for his role, while the mixture of international POWs in the prison camp strains credulity beyond infinity. But once you let yourself believe the unbelievable, Victory becomes an enjoyable romp. The unintentional humour is heightened by the fact everyone plays their roles completely straight. Caine’s efforts on the pitch are limited to shouting and pointing, while the real football stars show their skills. This film is top notch tosh - if you don’t take it seriously.

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