Throwback Movie Review: War, Soccer, and Victory (1981)

As I write this, the 2014 World Cup is fully overwhelming my brain. It also reminds me of one of the sparks, or at least guilty pleasures, for the working adult geek that I have become. It came at a crucial time, combining my WWII- and soccer-obsessed dorkiness into one raging volley. I’m talking about the movie Victory, of course.  


I date myself here, so some cringeworthy context is in order. Up until about 1978-9, my preteen self was, on the inside at least, a shy and bookish kid who was happy alone in his room reading history books about the turbulent 1930s and 40s and building models of tanks and planes, not worrying a bit about nightmares or all that paint thinner going to my head. Then, practically on a dime, my perfectly dorky world mutated. 

My body changed. I was suddenly athletic. And I discovered soccer. Devouring books and perfecting models alone soon surrendered to endless soccer playing, with older buddies from the neighborhood, alone if I had to, eventually with top youth clubs. When we weren’t playing, we’d take the downtown bus to watch the Portland Timbers of the North American Soccer League in what was then Civic Stadium with hard Astroturf thinner than a front door mat. 

My new obsession was complete. Then, in 1981, came Victory (also titled Escape to Victory)

It was the ideal convergence. Set during World War II, the story involved a team of Allied POWs forced to play an unbeatable German Fussball team in Paris as a Nazi propaganda stunt. As these stories go, the Allied team was a rag-tag bunch thrown together from the nations of the Allies, training and scraping along at a POW camp. In a convoluted plot, the POW team lands on the idea of using the big match to escape, at halftime. But as they play on they (spoiler alert!) decide to forgo the escape and see the game through to the end, believing they can beat the Nazis, hindering enemy propaganda and winning back their pride—but inviting retribution.

It had the WWII setting and the historic soccer, but, most of all: Famous players of the late 1970s appeared. There was this gifted little player who looked a lot like Pelé, and it was! English star Bobby Moore and the great Argentinian Osvaldo Ardiles played for the good guys, and Werner Roth from the NY Cosmos led the dastardly Third Reich side. Pelé does his tricks and cracks wise. In the big game, Ardiles does a crafty rainbow flick over a Nazi defender. For the money shot, Pelé hits his trademark bicycle kick right on target. Directing the movie was American legend John Huston. Sports movies rarely get players’ game movements and flow right, but Huston and team do an admirable job, helped along by those star players.

Playing alongside the star footballers were top-draw movie stars Sylvester Stallone, Michael Caine, and the Swede Max von Sydow as the German POW camp Kommandant (fresh off his role as Emperor Ming the Merciless in the campy Flash Gordon). The actors did what they did best. In match close-ups, Michael Caine was shot from the waist-up running the midfield. And there was Stallone in the net, making the crucial saves. Through that convoluted plot, the Allied team needed Stallone’s character along for the escape, so they concocted a way to put the Yank in goal, a scheme which involved breaking the arm of the poor starting British keeper to make it look like an accident. The movie also needed the American for box office, of course. Stallone didn’t move like a keeper, but that was the point. He was Stallone. The movie's IMDB page has good trivia and goofs, if you’re that dorky.

In Hollywood-speak, it's basically The Great Escape meets The Longest Yard. The story was unbelievable, and the feel was kind of stereotypically heroic, almost a throwback to 1940s tales. I’m pretty sure it flopped in the states. It certainly did not with me—even if I pretended it did, and surely did not with those rare (back then) American soccer diehards who didn’t know D-Day from the Ardennes Offensive.

If only they had made a sequel, in which, say, the underdog US team not only beats England in the 1950 World Cup, but goes on to win the whole thing. But that would be even more improbable than the plot of Victory—they would have had to move it to about the year 2026 for it be believable. Then again, we've come a hell of a long way since 1981.