Stallone Month: Victory, aka Escape to Victory

The Vietnam War wreaked havoc on the United States — its sense of self-worth; its trust in leadership, both civilian and military; and its ideas of what constitute heroism. Vietnam was the first war we fought where the awful violence wasn’t hidden from us. It was also our first tick in the loss column. There are a whole host of complex emotions that war put us through. It’s no surprise, then, that war films made after the Vietnam War ended are quite different than those that came before. There were still a few holdouts, however — anachronisms from the earlier style.

From 1981, Victory (originally titled Escape to Victory outside of North America) is one of the last examples of the type of war film with which audiences first became familiar during the early days of World War II. Written by Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky, Victory was also one of the last directorial efforts in John Huston’s long and storied career. For that alone, this film is worth a look.

Sylvester Stallone plays Captain Robert Hatch, an Allied officer in a prisoner of war camp in 1942. He’s not the main star of this film, although he’s close. The biggest role goes to Michael Caine as fellow prisoner Captain John Colby. He’s the real mover and shaker. A professional footballer whose career has been interrupted by the war, Colby spends his days in the camp overseeing matches on the camp’s dusty pitch.

One day a new German officer arrives at the camp. He is Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow). A former footballer himself, Steiner sees the prisoners at play, and comes up with the idea to have a team of prisoners play a team of German soldiers from a nearby camp. It’s a ludicrous idea, and one whose absurdity Steiner fails to see. He may be in a place of relative calm during the hostilities, but every prisoner in the camp has seen war, and might have a hard time putting the war aside for the sake of a soccer match. But any twinges of conscience the players might have aren’t dealt with in depth, as Colby finds no shortage of players willing to take on the Germans.

For their part, the Germans get carried away, deciding the game would be a valuable propaganda tool. Rather than a team of soldiers who happened to be stationed nearby, the prisoners will play the German national team. Rather than on some pitch hacked out of the woods surrounding the prison camp, the match will be played at Colombes Stadium in occupied Paris, site of the 1924 Olympics and the 1938 World Cup Final.

The Germans may think they have gotten something over on their prisoners, but, in fact, the prisoners are set to make fools of the Germans.

The duty of all British officers captured during the war was to attempt escape, and it is no different for the characters in this film. They have decided collectively to plan a big breakout during the game, sticking a big old finger in the eye of the German propaganda machine.

Long before a viewer sees any plans for escape, they might find this film familiar. That’s because, despite there being a touch more grit, this film is very much a clone of The Great Escape. Just about every character has an analog. Colby is Big X, Hatch is Hilts, Steiner is Colonel von Lugar, etc. There’s even a forger, à la Donald Pleasence. But this film has something The Great Escape didn’t have, and that thing was a big pile of famous footballers. This American viewer doesn’t know much about soccer of the day, but even I know who Pelé is. In a fit of twisted logic that can only be accomplished in a movie, Pelé plays one of the prisoners. Who he’s supposed to have been fighting for, I have no idea. Bobby Moore plays one of the prisoners, as well. He’s famous for some soccer-related greatness, I’ve heard. It appears Colby has assembled a team of ringers to take on the Germans.

By the final act, the team is in Paris ready to take on the dreaded German squad. There are numerous ways the film could have gone at this point, from a chase through the sewers of Paris to a violent shootout in the street. I won’t spoil it here, but suffice it to say, the ending went in a satisfying direction, while also being one of the most triumphant moments I’ve ever seen in a sports film. Yeah, that’s right. When the match rolls around, this is no longer a Great Escape clone. It’s a fantastic underdog sports film. The only thing off is that the team of POWs never had to win over the crowd like Rocky did in Moscow. The occupied French in this film were very much onboard with the prisoners. It’s a rousing finale.

Huston showed he still had some gas in the tank with Victory. I was unimpressed at first, owing to the resemblance to The Great Escape, but still entertained. It’s a movie that came along a couple of decades too late for its style, but it’s done well, so that becomes a minor nit to pick. The performances from the cast were uneven, but that’s because so many of them were not professional actors. The three main leads, Caine, Sly, and von Sydow, were mixed, as well. Sly’s character had the added burden of being a stereotypical brash American — one who can take neither direction nor criticism. He comes around by the second half, but his character is hard to stomach for much of the movie.

Victory is a movie that lives and dies on its final act. Good thing, then, that final act is so fun to watch.