Film Talk: “Victory”

Victory (1981)

Starring Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow, Pelé, Osvaldo Ardiles and Bobby Moore. Directed by John Huston. From Paramount Pictures.

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It’s World War 2 and in an Allied POW camp we meet former pro footballer Capt. John Colby (Caine). When Nazi Major Karl von Steiner (von Sydow) visits the camp, he is impressed by meeting Colby, having watched him play football many times. Von Steiner suggests staging an exhibition game pitting a team Colby will assemble from the camps against a Nazi team. Colby accepts the challenge and takes the opportunity to draw some men from the harsher camps in an attempt not so much to have them play – they are too ill – but to get them some relief from their hardships.

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The lads.

Like in any POW camp, escape is the main business and when word gets around about Colby’s team, Capt. Robert Hatch (Stallone) offers his services; he knows nothing about football but wants to use the exhibition game to escape. The ranking Allied officers in the camp also bring Colby in to plan an escape. Colby bristles. He has given von Steiner his word and all Colby wants is to provide some men the healing and restorative power inherent in training and playing football. But duty dictates that an escape will be made at half time from the Allied dressing room with help from the local underground.

The game takes place in France and the stands are filled with local French people. Also in attendance are a handful of Nazis and Nazi soldiers to maintain order. During the game, the Nazi referees allow the German team to run roughshod over the Allies, playing dirty and getting out to a healthy lead. Come halftime, Hatch in particular is ready to escape and the French Resistance soldiers are waiting. But the team is determined to beat the Nazis and they forego the escape and head back onto the pitch. The second half is the most exhilarating 45 minutes of football you’ve ever seen.

**Spoilers ahead**

When I was a kid, I would often spend the weekend with my mom and stepfather. My love of movies came partly from these two. In the early days of VCRs, they would rent movies and copy them, soon amassing quite a collection. Some movies I watched with them made my 10-12-year-old eyes bug out; Mandingo, 10 to Midnight. Victory (I’ve also seen it referred to as Escape to Victory) was one of these films and it made a distinct impression on me.

Victory is truly a special film, a very unique war picture that has been called “the greatest football film ever made”. That, maybe, is not saying much but I would venture that it is one of the best sports movies there is and surely the VERY best “football/POW” movie.

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Stallone, Caine, Pelé and Huston on set. Photo: IMDb

It was somehow directed by John Huston. What on earth Huston was doing directing this film I don’t know; it doesn’t seem like him. But I just now this second found out he directed Annie (1982) and that sure don’t seem like him. What the heck?! Anyways, after Victory and Annie, Huston directed only three more films including 1985’s Prizzi’s Honor.

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Von Sydow as von Steiner. Photo: IMDb.

Caine – playing an ex-West Ham player – and von Sydow are perfect in their roles and the relationship of these two characters is charming. They both respect and trust each other. Simply the fact that Caine refuses to escape as his superiors direct because he has given his word sums it up nicely.

Stallone is good in this. You can see him actually acting, playing a character and he apparently lost a lot of muscle weight to play Hatch, the American serving in the Canadian Army. Lately, my respect for Sly has grown. While he is no Daniel Day-Lewis, he has created not one but two iconic characters who both have embedded themselves in popular culture. I’m talking of course about Rocky Balboa and John Rambo, two characters that have Sly’s fingerprints all over them. Stallone wrote all the Rambo and Rocky films with the exception of the two Creed movies. And we have to consider that – as of 2019 – Sylvester Stallone has written or co-written 25 films and directed 8; between Rocky in ’76 and Rambo III in ’88, Stallone wrote 13 of the 15 films he made, the two exceptions being Nighthawks (1981) and Victory the same year. So, in the midst of a raging action movie career, Stallone took time out to appear in this very different film shot in France and Hungary. Also, Stallone took more of a beating making Victory than he did making Rocky movies suffering a broken finger, rib and a dislocated shoulder during filming.

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Stallone as Hatch. Photo: IMDb.

I watched this movie recently for the first time since I have become a fan of English football so I got all the more out of the match itself. Not to mention some of the players. Brazil’s Pelé, of course, is known to many as perhaps the finest, most celebrated player of the golden age. Born Edson Arantes do Nascimento in 1940, Pelé has won many “Player of the Century” awards and is in the Guinness Book of World Records for his goal-scoring ability. Since retiring, he has been a worldwide ambassador for the game. Pelé choreographed all the action in the final match in Victory; like Bruce Lee directed the fight scenes in his movies.

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Caine and Pelé with Ardiles in the backround. Photo: IMDb.

A particular joy for me was realizing that Osvaldo Ardiles is in this film. Ossie, from Argentina, played for my beloved Tottenham Hotspur and is a club legend. Ardiles noted at the time that Caine’s soccer skills were “awful”. Also in the starting eleven is England’s Bobby Moore (1941-1993). Moore captained West Ham United for ten years and won the 1966 World Cup with England. Pelé has said that Moore was the greatest defender he ever played against. He was the first member of the World Cup winning side to pass away when cancer struck him down at age 51.

I said there were spoilers ahead and here they come. From the outset of the football match in Victory, the viewer is totally invested in the game and in the fates of the Allied team. Even before a ball is kicked, you realize that you obviously feel the same way about the game as you do about the war itself; you hope the Allies will triumph over the Nazis. The arrogance of the Nazis is pitted against the spirit and heart of the prisoners of war. Then, as the game commences, the viewer is outraged at the poor treatment the Allies get, from the violent tackles of the Nazi team to the unfair officiating. I was surprised that the script had the Nazis up 4-1 at halftime; a seemingly insurmountable scoreline for the POW’s.

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In the dressing room during the interval, the floor of the dressing room opens up and there are the French, prepared to spirit the Allied team away. The fact that Colby and his squad choose honour, sportsmanship and a desire to win over their freedom is stirring. Some confederates in the stands and the English officers in attendance are shocked to see the Allied team come back out onto the field for the second half; they are supposed to be escaping. As the POW’s begin to score and eventually tie the match, both the French in the stands and the viewers at home on the couch are cheering. In a nice touch, even Nazi major von Steiner rises to applaud the stunning Pelé bicycle kick that ties the game. Hatch – who has started as the trainer and has ended up in goal – steps up for a final bit of heroism that I’ll leave to you to check out.

The end of the match is so explosive that the French spectators storm the field in what may be the original pitch invasion. A couple dozen Nazi guards cannot control the throng and we see Frenchmen putting coats and hats on the Allied payers as they smuggle them off to safety. The team has escaped after all. In yet another masterful touch, von Steiner is seen noticing this escape and smiling his approval.

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Even now that you know how Victory ends, it is still very much worth watching for yourself to see how it all comes out. This is an incredibly gripping and inspirational film with an emotional ending, a feelgood ending on par with, say, The Shawshank Redemption. You need to check this out.

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