Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Goals on Film: Escape to Victory

Some people say there's no such thing as a good football film.  But those people clearly haven't spent a Bank Holiday afternoon watching Escape to Victory - it's the perfect mix of any self-respecting England fan's two most important things: football and The War.

Coming over like the bastard love child of The Great Escape and Mean Machine, it stars Michael Caine as John Colby a West Ham and England player whose career has been interrupted by the war. Colby has been whiling away his time organising football leagues for his fellow PoWs before he's recognised by Major Karl Von Steiner, a nice Nazi (this is fiction, remember) who suggests a friendly between the prisoners and some German soldiers.

The Nazi high command quickly sniffs a propaganda opportunity and the game is turned into a fully-fledged international (say what you want about them, but the Nazis knew a thing or two about marketing). Not for the last time, sport is hijacked by politics.

In many ways the film is a microcosm of football itself.  We see the game as a lingua franca that can bring all nationalities together as well as temporarily uniting enemies.  However, when it comes to class it's a different matter. Colby tells Von Steiner "I don't want a team packed full of officers. I want a decent team - the lads."  Yeah, football's a working class game, so the toffs can bugger off, right? Not quite - just like at the FA, it's the posh knobs and their numerous committee heads, with whom Colby is in almost perpetual confrontation, who call the shots.


The Golden Generation

Thus Colby is placed in charge of a squad of the best Allied footballers shipped in from PoW camps across occupied Europe and some truly great names were cast to play the Allied team, from Pele and Bobby Moore to Ossie Ardiles. And Sylvester Stallone.

The German team, on the other hand, is managed by that bloke who used to be in Brush Strokes and The Vicar of Dibley.

Incidentally, as PoW camps go this must be the Hilton.  There's clearly no shortage of rations as Colby has a gut on him like a Sunday parks footballer and the weights section of the gym must be pretty good too.  Stallone's character Hatch is buff to the max, something we can't fail to miss as he takes his shirt off at every possible opportunity.

After a bit of boring stuff about the French Resistance, politics and plans for the players to escape through a tunnel under their dressing room during half time of the match, which lead to the useless Hatch having to play in goal, it's on to the game.

The teams are helpfully colour-coded (the Allies in white and the Germans in black) to make sure there's absolutely no confusion as to who are The Goodies and who are The Baddies. Er, that's black for the baddies, OK?

The referee is a neutral Swiss, but it quickly becomes apparent that he has the same attitude to wartime neutrality as the country's banks. The Nazi's are awarded dubious decision after dubious decision while their own fouls go unpunished and Colby's team find themselves 4-0 down before pulling a goal back just before the break.

With their way to freedom opening up in front of them in the form of a tunnel into the Parisian sewers, Russell Osman utters the immortal line: "Hang on a minute, lads. We can win this!" Now, you know you're in trouble when it's the American that's making sense and Hatch, not unreasonably, points out they have absolutely no chance of winning and escape is clearly their best option.

However, Pele's character, Fernandez, implores him to stay, saying: "If you leave now you lose more than a game." I've no idea what he meant either, but if Carlsberg did team talks this would be one of them. Not only does the team spurn the chance to escape, but incredibly they pull the match level.

It's an England fan's wet dream come true as passion and spirit trumps tactical superiority (OK, I know it's an Allied team, but they're wearing white so we all know it's England really). Just like in the Premier League the skill is provided by the non-English players and it falls to Fernandez, to score the equaliser with a stunning overhead kick so balletic that even Von Steiner is moved to applaud (remember he's the good Nazi, who can appreciate that sort of stuff).

But with seconds remaining the ref awards a penalty to Germany (despite much protestation,  video replays do in fact show for once he got it right and that Rey (Ardiles) clearly took the man, not the ball).

So, ultimately the fate of the Allies lies in the hands of a Yank and, just like the real war, despite being useless for most of proceedings he saves the day at the end and steals the glory.  With that, the partisan French crowd floods the pitch and the players are spirited away to safety anyway.

Really, the film should be called Escape To A Score Draw, but who cares?  Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goring, Kaiser Wilhelm, YOUR BOYS SURE TOOK ONE HELL OF A BEATING!

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