If a soccer movie doesn't appeal to you, how about a soccer movie set during World War II Paris? That still doesn't do it for you? Add one of the most eclectic casts ever assembled for a sports movie that includes Americans, Brits, Germans and famous soccer players from all over the world. Director John Huston turns in a movie that is definitely not your typical sports flick, but for all its weirdness the movie lives on if somewhat under the radar. It is by no means a classic, but it is entertaining and certainly rather unique. Soccer critics complain about slow-pacing, faking injuries, low scoring games, but none of that is a worry in movie form. For all the weirdness in fictitious story and interesting casting, 'Victory' almost demands at least one watch.
Early in 1942 in a large prisoner of war camp, German officer Major Steiner (Max von Sydow) approaches British P.O.W. Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) with a proposition. Steiner asks Colby -- a professional soccer player before the war -- if the prisoners would be interested in a friendly match between the Germans. Colby accepts and goes about assembling a team that includes talent from all over Europe as former soccer stars languish in prison camps. But not so fast, the little game thought up develops into something much bigger when the German High Command catches wind of the game. The stakes get bigger and bigger for everyone involved, while one American POW/player, Capt. Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), tries to get in contact with the French resistance. The plan? To help the Allied team escape at halftime of the game that is to be played in front of 50,000 fans in a packed stadium in the middle of Paris.
Prisoner of war movies have been handled in any number of different ways, but nothing quite like this before. Along with all the known elements of the POW movie, there's the added storyline of this international, mid-war soccer game. The story does suffer some bouncing back and forth between the resistance effort and the prisoners' attempts to escape with the training and preparation for the game, but you're having so much fun you barely notice some of the lagging moments in the middle of the movie. At just two hours, it does feel like the movie bit off more than it could chew, but in the end, the final result is worth it.
The thing that caught my eye when looking at this movie was the cast. Stallone, Caine, von Sydow, and Brazilian soccer superstar Pele all in the same movie? That sounds just weird enough to work. Fresh off the success of the first two Rocky movies, Stallone lost 40 lbs. to make himself look like an actual POW instead of a ripped, rather healthy prisoner of war. I'll never say Stallone was a great actor, but the guy's got presence. For his character, basically imagine tough-talking Rocky Balboa in a German POW camp not taking crap from anybody. He even looks somewhat credible as the Allied team goalie in the big game. Caine is solid as always as Capt. Colby, the team leader just trying to keep his squad together while putting up with all sorts of outside distractions. He's easily the most likable of all the characters. Playing the German major, von Sydow is given little to do, but still manages to give his character some depth. He's a German officer first and foremost, but he's also a soccer fan at heart.
Of all the sports to turn into a visually pleasing movie, soccer has to be one of the most difficult. Whole games can go on without a single goal, much less an actual attack. Thankfully that's not the case here. Soccer legend Pele choreographed all the soccer in the movie -- training sequences and game scenes alike -- and right off the bat gives these scenes some credibility. The Germany vs. Allies game is about 35 minutes long and is the high point of the movie in terms of excitement and quality. Pele saves the coolest goal for himself, the bicycle kick (maybe the coolest thing in sports, period). The whole game is a treat to watch at the thuggish Germans and the bribed officials do everything in their power to hand the win to Germany and show they are the superior race to the world. The movie ends on a positive note as the 50,000 screaming fans get behind the upstart Allies playing the German national team. On a sidenote, I love the Allied jerseys (white with red and blue stripes down the left side). Can the U.S. National team adapt these and get rid of the pageant jerseys they wear now?
Amidst all this soccer craziness is the fact that the Allies players are prisoners of war. Caine's Colby balances orders from above basically telling him he's a traitor if he plays to the senior ranking prisoner telling him his duty is to escape and help the team do the same. These provide the main drama and some surprisingly emotional moments. Requesting the best players he can for his team, Colby asks for 6 players from Eastern European countries who have been captured. Pulled out of horrific conditions in labor camps, they're basically walking skeletons. Undeterred, he keeps them on and buy them at least a few weeks more of living. Come game time, the team must balance escaping thanks to the French resistance with delivering a blow to German morale by even staying in the game.
It is the balance among all these elements that made me like this flick so much. There's a nice balance of humor and drama, all in a setting that would seem the unlikeliest place for a World War II soccer game. Whether you're a soccer fan, sports fan or even just a history buff looking for a different sort of movie, give 'Victory' a try. Good soccer movies can be few and far between so embrace them when you find them.
Victory <----trailer (1981): ***/****