Dave Hannigan celebrates the magic of Escape of Victory, when Pele met Rocky

Watching some of the game's top players in action with Stallone thrilled a generation
Dave Hannigan celebrates the magic of Escape of Victory, when Pele met Rocky

Escape to Victory

ON MAY 3, 1980, there was a small item on the news pages of my copy of SHOOT! magazine.

It was the headline “Ipswich co-star Michael Caine” that caught my eye. I knew the whole Ipswich Town team.

I’d never heard of him. I think I knew there was an actor of that name but what was he doing playing for Ipswich?

The answer, of course, was that he wasn’t. The story centred on how Hollywood had finally decided to make a proper soccer movie.

The entire Ipswich squad, it seemed, had been signed up to spend part of their summer shooting a film in Hungary with the famed American director John Huston. Never heard of him either but apparently he was a big, big deal.

“It’s a tight schedule but there should be a few laughs,” said Kevin Beattie.

“I never thought of myself looking like Michael Caine but after this I might ask for a transfer to Hollywood!”

Aside from the eminently quotable Beattie, uber-moustachioed John Wark and the rest of Bobby Robson’s team that never won the league title their consistency deserved, the cast included Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Pele.

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky.
Sylvester Stallone as Rocky.

This was beyond my wildest dreams. A movie featuring Rocky and Pele.

The cinematic stars had aligned in my favour.

Twelve months later, a contingent from Mr Healy’s fifth class went to the Capitol to watch Escape to Victory when it eventually came out.

A contingent from Mr Healy’s fifth class left the cinema convinced they had just seen the greatest war film ever made.

Sure, other generations might have prized Patton or The Guns of Navarone or even The Great Escape.

Decent productions all. None had anything on this meisterwork in which a group of Allied prisoners of war are persuaded to play an exhibition match against a German team.

On the 40th anniversary of its release, nothing has happened in the interim to change this opinion.

To explain our warped judgment, it’s necessary to understand we were a generation who thought Baa Baa Black Sheep, a short-lived sitcom involving fighter pilots wisecracking their way around the Pacific Ocean during World War II, was also classic. Cineastes we were not. We didn’t know Max Von Sydow was the acting colossus Ingmar Bergman once described as “the best Stradivarus I ever had in my hands”. We just knew him as a Nazi officer called Major Karl Von Steiner.

“If nations could settle their differences on a football pitch, wouldn’t that be a challenge?” says Von Steiner to John Colby (Michael Caine), a former West Ham United player, as he hatches the plan to have a polyglot prisoners of war XI take on a German national side in a friendly.

“One might have expected this statuesque Scandi blond to have been a rather grave man, but, in addition to being a stunning actor, the endearing surprise about Max Von Sydow was that he had a delicious sense of humour,” wrote Tim Pigott-Smith who played one of the English officers in the camp. “We spent many hours compiling limericks about the cast and crew, and he bought me a book of dirty limericks, inscribed, ‘In all decency, Max’. He was a gentleman.” 

Preparations for the fixture between the Germans and the Allied prisoners are complicated by various storylines. The Nazis are using the event for propaganda purposes and the prison escape committee want to concoct some sort of plan to strike a blow back. The latter plot culminates in Robert Hatch (Stallone) having to be drafted into the team at the last minute so he can escape. The problem is that he’s in solitary confinement (after a previous escape, do keep up!) so the only way the Germans will let him out is if the team has no other goalkeeping option.

“I won’t even see the game will I,” says Kevin O’Callaghan as Tony Lewis, moments before he volunteers to get his arm broken so that Hatch can come in as his replacement.

This was extremely confusing. O’Callaghan was usually a flying winger and an Irish international. Here, he was a goalie, speaking in a perfect London accent.

“Dad, I thought Kevin O’Callaghan was Irish?” I asked.

“Sshhhh. He’s English-Irish” “Like the dictionary Tommy has?” “No, like your cousins over in Birmingham,” he replied. “They’re us but they talk different.”

 After a brutal first half in which a combination of dodgy refereeing and horrendous fouling has helped the Germans to a 4-1 lead, the Allies retire to the dressing-room. Not just to lick their wounds but to make good their escape. Moments later, the French resistance come tunnelling in through the team bath and offer them the chance to run for freedom. And this is the pivotal moment where a good movie becomes great.

Many of the players are already in the sewers below what is supposed to be the Colombes Stadium in Paris when a debate breaks out about whether they are doing the right thing. Some want to stay and try to make a comeback. In a deliciously ludicrous twist, the competitive spirit of the footballers they used to be over-rides the inclinations of the soldiers they now are.

“If we run now we lose more than a game,” says Luis Fernandez (Pele), persuading Hatch that playing with honour is apparently worth more than the chance to be liberated.

Hatch is convinced. Pele’s words perhaps carry extra weight because he’s pinning his left arm to his side, protecting ribs damaged in a savage assault in the first half. That spirit of defiance leads to the greatest moment in the history of soccer cinema — not a tough category admittedly.

“I must play,” says Fernandez, rising from the bench with four minutes remaining in the match and the Allies having pegged the score back to 4-3.

With the ball at his feet, Fernandez holds off the German Number 4, Baumann (played by Werner Roth, a Yugoslav-born American and former New York Cosmos team-mate of Pele’s). After taking several punches to the chest before nutmegging Baumann, he almost stumbles in the act of finally wriggling free. Somehow he stays upright before knocking the ball out to Terry Brady (Bobby Moore) wide on the right. 

Brady unfurls a delightful cross and then it happens… Left arm still pinned to his chest, Fernandez rises and executes the perfect overhead kick to make it 4-4. While legend has it that Pele only needed one take to pull it off, the goal was also John Huston’s finest hour.

Yes I’m aware purists reckon his finest cinematic achievements were The Maltese Falcon or The African Queen. I’m sorry. I disagree. I reckon it was his decision to break with convention and to show a slow motion replay of Pele’s overhead kick. It’s one thing getting the best out of Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, it’s quite another capturing the poetry of one-armed Pele in full flight. Not to mention appreciating the genius of it enough to show it twice.

An earlier slo-mo shot of Carlos Rey (Ossie Ardiles) rainbowing the ball over an on-rushing German player offers further proof that Huston deserved some sort of award for his work on this movie. He knew what his audience wanted. He knew how to make a bunch of 10- and 11-year-old boys ooh and aah. He died not long after, probably never realising how much he inspired a kid in Togher to spend hours trying and failing to master the Ardiles move.

Of course, the drama wasn’t over. There was still time for a German counter. In the final minute of the game, Ardiles is judged to have fouled Baumann inside the box and the ref points to the spot. I had a few problems with this scene. I saw a lot of Ardiles with Argentina and with Tottenham and I never remember him spending any time in his own box. I can recall him picking out any number of visionary passes and scoring a few too on Match of the Day. When it comes to images of him tackling at all, never mind scything down somebody, the highlight reel is completely blank.

“At the end of the game, they’ve resorted to fouling,” says the pro-German commentator.

Whatever about the initial contact, more than one of the Allies could have subsequently been sent off for jostling and manhandling both the ref and the linesman in the immediate aftermath of the penalty award. Amid the mayhem though, the crowd are so enflamed by the injustice that they start into the opening bars of La Marseillaise. A scene that made our pre-pubescent hearts beat quicker. Then Stallone walks out to the spot to try to intimidate Baumman as he prepares to take the kick.

I loved that scene. Well at least until I later discovered it was a hastily rewritten add-on because Stallone, as the most box office name, had insisted his character Hatch should score the winning goal. 

When it was explained to him that this was kind of stretching the bounds of credulity, a compromise had to be found. Hence the penalty. 

In that same article, it was also reported that the American went all Hollywood on set, having his own chair that nobody else was allowed to sit in. And, that rather than hanging with the rest of the cast at weekends, he flew to Paris to party. Even if that was Rocky’s prerogative, it shattered my illusions about the multi-national dream team of which he’d been such a crucial part.

“Come on ‘atch!” shouts Sid Armor (Mike Summerbee) as the tension builds for the penalty. “Come on!” Diving to his left, grimacing like Balboa about to absorb a right cross to the chin, Hatch grabs Baumann’s rather tentative effort. Up in the stands, the German office, Major Karl Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow), rises to applaud. He had to. He was, just like us, at the end of it all, still a fan of the game.

There’s a moment where Hatch runs into the ensuing celebration and thunders into Pele’s left side, lifting him up into the air. For a man with cracked ribs in that very location, it must have caused excruciating pain but Fernandez is beaming with delight, oblivious to the agony. Maybe historic comebacks do that to a body.

By then the crowd are chanting “Victoire! Victoire!” The scoreline might have read 4-4 but this was a victory of the spirit. It was also a game and a movie that contained everything we loved. Eight goals. The kind of score-line we dreamed of on Match of the Day highlights that always ended 1-1. Drama. Controversy. Ridiculously audacious tricks. And, then, of course, an escape as the crowd rushed the field after the penalty. 

The fact so many of the gleeful supporters swarming all over the Allied players are dressed like Hungarians from the 1980s and not Parisiennes in Vichy France didn’t bother us a jot. In the cinema that day, we were too busy cheering at them as they threw overcoats and caps onto the escaping footballers and then pushed through the gates where the armed German guards showed a marked reluctance to offer any resistance at all! They were, like us, probably too intoxicated by what they had just seen to care.

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