(USA - 1981)

by Dan McGowan

Cast: Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow, Daniel Massey, Tim Pigott-Smith, Julian Curry, Clive Merrison, Pele, Bobby Moore
Genre: Drama/Sports
Director: John Huston
Screenplay: Yabo Yablonsky & Evan Jones based on a story by Yablonsky, Djordje Milicevic, & Jeff Maguire
Cinematography: Gerry Fisher
Composer: Bill Conti
Runtime: 110 minutes

This little known gem from John Huston is always overlooked when the top sports movies are debated. Maybe that has to do with the fact that it is also equally a wartime POW escape movie, but the snub is probably more due to it being about America's favorite Maybe one day Americans will wake up and support the best and most supported sport in the world, but I doubt it. The game is too intricate, strategic, and contains only meaningful scoring...the kind our country shies away from. Soccer is a game you have to give full attention to, to be able to see the precision passes, tactical maneuvering, and goals develop from defense to attack. Only then will you begin to appreciate it. But hey, you're probably either on board or you aren't, so me preaching away won't change anything. On to the movie.

Victory is a great movie because it is about so much more than 'the big game.' It is about sacrifice, honor, the horrors of war and how sometimes simple acts can outshine those horrors. The fact that it incorporates stunning filming of the soccer sequences and real life soccer legends is just icing on the cake. This movie could have been about Ping-Pong or croquet and it would still be excellent.

Most of the film takes place in a Nazi POW camp. Major Karl Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow) is the German in charge of the camp and Michael Caine plays Captain John Colby, the ranking British officer who speaks for his fellow captured men at the camp. It is evident that these two men have mutual respect for one another and there are great scenes of them together lamenting the war that has put them at odds. They both understand that the war is out of their hands. There also is a mutual understanding that the POW's will try to escape at every opportunity and Von Sydow's men will try to stop them. Von Sydow expects no less from Caine and neither harbor animosity toward the other for doing their duty. There is a sporting quality to the escape attempts. The men under Caine come up with plenty of schemes to escape and when Sylvester Stallone, Robert Hatch - the individualistic American, comes into the camp he adds a bit of full speed ahead quality to the plans. Stallone's character doesn't want anyone's help, but he needs it. Hatch is a loner and he just wants the tools to get out. He doesn't care whether anyone else makes it out as he worries only about himself. Colby knows this and is reluctant to help a guy like that who cares not for his fellow captives.

Meanwhile, Von Steiner becomes increasingly interested in the soccer games the British men play to pass the time and raise their spirits. Von Steiner was a player himself long before the war, and in a great scene with the men playing behind them as they talk, he and Colby have a chat about the qualities of sport. Eventually Von Steiner has the idea to stage a small match between the Germans and the British at the camp. Colby sees danger in this as morale is a precarious thing in a POW camp and he would not want his men, who while not treated terribly aren't in the best of shape or sharp in a POW camp, embarrassed. Nor does he want it to be used as some false exhibition to show the world the 'supremacy' of the 'Aryan' race as Hitler tried to do with the Olympics, if his men were to get their butts kicked in a public spectacle. Colby doesn't think Von Steiner would use it as such, but it's evident that he knows at some point it would be out of Von Steiner's hands. Colby, also an ex-player himself, knows his men aren't in the shape to play a competitive match. Von Sydow plays this scene perfectly, as you can see he becomes more and more interested with the idea he suggested and tries to persuade him as Caine resists. Caine is in top form as well, as he suddenly (without tipping it off too obviously to Steiner) sees an opportunity to better his men's situation at the camp. He gives in to Von Steiner, but only on conditions that his men will get proper equipment and supplies to train so they can be a proper team meaning his men will get boots, training gear, better food, and they will move into a better building. Von Steiner, a man of honor and class, would not want to beat a ramshackle team and gladly gives in to Colby's demands. The dialogue and subtle gamesmanship in this scene is just amazing to witness. Two top class actors at the top of their craft adding so much to a good script is what makes this movie rise above a mere sports movie.

Colby and his men happily move into their new digs and start to train for the match. Hatch, who had derided their soccer games with the usual American ignorance in the past, suddenly wants in (he sees a good opportunity for an escape). Colby is reluctant because Hatch couldn't hit the backside of a cow with a banjo and Colby also sees Hatch's selfishness. Now Hatch wants friends, eh? Hatch unsuccessfully tries to get Colby to see his way (usually insulting the guy you want to see your way after the initial response is a bad way to do so) but this just makes Hatch more determined to escape sooner rather than later. Hatch has been bypassing Colby and going straight to the guys with the tools who can help him out, such as a guy who forges good fake passports. Stallone is very good in these scenes, displaying comic wit and charisma when verbally dueling with Caine. I'm not a Stallone fan, but he punches above his weight successfully with very good actors surrounding him that could have been intimidating. And it's not that Caine and the others carry him either, he really does rise to the occasion in scene after scene. Stallone should be very proud of his work in this film.

Eventually the upcoming game does become a huge event. The venue for the game is in France and the Nazis above Von Steiner do see the game as a propaganda tool. In the meantime, Stallone's character is successful in his individual escape attempt with help from the team. He makes it to a safehouse in France and it looks like it's smooth sailing for him. But he's presented with a moral dilemma because the French resistance guys who are helping him want him to go get recaptured so he can tell the team the plans for them all to escape. Hatch can't believe it; they actually want him to get recaptured. He doesn't think too much of this plan, but in a great scene at the safehouse he sees the sacrifices everyone has and is making for him. Just looking into the sad eyes of the woman who lives in the house who has lost her husband makes him realize what he must do. The scene is played out perfectly, a lesser film would have had silly sentimental music and really hammered the point home through overbearing dialogue. We can see Stallone's character make the tough but moral choice through his eyes and facial expressions as he wrestles with his conscience. He does get recaptured and the plan is for the whole team to escape at half time down through the stadium locker room shower floor where the resistance guys will build a tunnel underground that comes up there.

The build up of this story is perfect. There are lots of subtle touches that add extra dimensions and implications that I can't do justice to. And there are scenes of such power that remind you that this isn't just a 'big game' sports movie, there are real horrors, real tragedies, and real heroes in this war. It's really a unique movie because it undermines the importance of the 'big game' in many ways while still showing how a simple game sometimes can also represent more than a mere game. The most devastating scene in the movie occurs when the Eastern European players arrive at the camp to join the team after Colby had requested these former good players be transferred here. When the bus arrives and the Eastern European players step off the bus they are mere skeletons with eyes that are haunted by what they have seen and gone through. The camp is shocked into silence as they see what the concentration camps have done to these human beings, these athletes. The camps where these people came from are an entirely different matter than what the Brits and Americans have seen in their camp. There is no overly dramatic music, or insipid dialogue to be found here to 'explain' anything. The haunting visual tells the whole story to Colby and his team, as it does to us, and as visuals like it did to the world after the camps were liberated and the world saw what was going on there. Amazingly directed and acted scene.

Another of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs when the starting goalkeeper has to make a sacrifice for Hatch and the rest of the team in order for them to be able to escape. Hatch, because of his escape attempt (and 'recapture') will not be allowed to join the team by Von Steiner naturally, and that puts the team's escape attempt in jeopardy because only Hatch knows the layout, the contacts, and the plan in such detail. So the goalkeeper must get injured so Colby can press to Von Steiner that Hatch is their only viable option at goalkeeper and has to be on the team. The man unselfishly does what is required of him and lets Colby break his arm in a scene that will have you wincing. The young man's choice of words before he lays his arm out sticks with me. He doesn't call attention to his heroism, he merely says, "Just make it a clean break, Colby" and gets on with it. The direction in this scene is again flawless. The heroic stoicism of this scene works so well in underlying what was so special of that World War II generation. They just got on with it and did what they felt they had to do.

The end of the movie I will not spoil, other than to say that I let it work for me probably because the rest of the movie is built so strongly, but I can see how it would bother others. It is the only manipulative and cliche' part of the movie. All I can say is that the cliche' is worked very well, so that makes it much easier to swallow. Even if you don't like the eventual 'big game' and its outcome, the twist, or you don't particularly care for beautifully filmed soccer action, the rest of the movie is so damn good you really can't take too much away from this wonderful movie that deserves much more attention than I've ever seen it given. Huston really knows how to craft a strong script and great actors into a successful movie like this, and it shows here.




* Copyright 2002 - Raging Bull Movie Reviews *