Directed by John Huston in 1981, Escape to Victory is set in a German PoW camp during the Second World War.
Michael Caine stars as Captain John Colby, who leads Sylvester Stallone and an all-star cast of footballers including Pelé, Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles,and Mike Summerbee, in a football match against the local German troops under Max Von Sydow’s Major Karl Von Steiner. However, the Nazi high command find out about the game and when their propaganda machine takes over the PoWs end up in occupied Paris playing against the German National team.
The match acts as a diversion for an escape attempt by American PoW Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) but the game stands as a metaphor for the Allies struggle against Fascism.
The French Resistance tunnel into the dressing room showers, breaking through at halftime, with Hatch making his escape; but the rest of the team think that they can win the game and turn it into an Allied propaganda victory, so persuade Hatch to carry on with the game.
Despite the match officials being heavily biased towards the Germans, and the German team hacking the Allied players, particularly Pelé who scores an amazing goal, the Allied team play out a hard-earned draw.
Hatch makes excellent saves throughout, including saving a penalty with the last kick of the match to deny the Germans the win, drawing the game 4–4.
The Allies players manage to escape at the end of the game, amidst the confusion caused by the French crowd storming the field after Hatch preserves the draw.
Numerous Ipswich Town players were featured in the film, including John Wark, Russell Osman, Laurie Sivell, Robin Turner and Kevin O’Callaghan. Other Ipswich Town players were stand-ins for the actors in the football scenes – Kevin Beattie for Michael Caine, and Paul Cooper for Sylvester Stallone.
Former Burnley player Les Shannon choreographed the actual football sequences in the film. The movie also credits Pelé as football adviser. World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks coached Sylvester Stallone in goalkeeping.
The game was filmed in the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadium in Budapest, Hungary.
The movie is based on the 1962 Hungarian film drama Két félidő a pokolban (“Two half-times in Hell”), which was directed by Zoltán Fábri and won the critics’ award at the 1962 Boston Cinema Festival.
The film was inspired by the true story of the so-called Death Match, in which FC Dynamo Kyiv defeated German soldiers while Ukraine was occupied by German troops in World War II.
According to local history, the Ukrainians were all shot after they won the match. However, the true story is more complex, as the team played a series of matches against German teams, winning all of them, before finally being sent to prison camps by the Gestapo. Four players were killed by the Germans.
I went to see the film on its cinema release as a kid. It hasn’t aged well, and whilst the film isn’t exactly a classic, it does have cult retro footballer appeal.
It doesn’t turn up on the digital TV movie channels very often but you can buy it on DVD from Amazon.
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