John Huston's made better films than Escape To Victory: The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The African Queen, Moby Dick, Fat City… but it's doubtful the writer/actor/director/cinematographer/bullfighter/Mexican cavalry officer ever made a film that was as much fun as his football 'opus'. Indeed, if you were a lad in 1981, it was hard to imagine a more entertaining film. Pele, Michael Caine and Bobby Moore (your father's twin idols), the FA Cup-winning Ipswich side, Rocky… it was only a year later with the release of John Landis's An American Werewolf In London that we realized that Jenny Agutter shower sequence was the only thing that could possibly have improved Escape To Victory.
That the film still enjoys cult status can't be entirely attributed to schoolboy nostalgia. A more probable reason for the public's sustained affection is the movie’s relationship with the granddaddy of all POW movies The Great Escape. The similarities between them include: all-star casts, similar looking Stalags, whistle-along theme tunes, the enemy "just doing its job" and litre upon litre of Allied spunk.
It's also worth noting that Huston respects Great Escaper helmer John Sturges's belief that a movie’s supporting cast is almost more important that its stars, hence the appearance of respected British thesps like Tim Piggot-Smith (V For Vendetta) and Maurice Roeves (The Last Of The Mohicans) among the Allied off-field staff, and Ingmar Bergman's actor of choice Max Von Sydow as the 'good' Nazi Major Von Steiner. And as the two films are inextricably linked in the nation's collective memory, it also explains why a link exists between The Great Escape and English football, a connection never more potent that in 2001 when David Beckham swept home *that* free-kick and Old Trafford broke into a spontaneous rendition of Elmer Bernstein's stirring score.
The origins of Escape To Victory are unclear. The film doesn’t receive a mention in Huston’s autobiography An Open Book (written while the picture was in production) but then he deals with five marriages in one sentence so you can hardly blame him for overlooking one of his lesser works. Also, since the script was suggested by an American (Jeff Maguire) but co-written by an Eastern European (Yabo Yablonsky), it’s hard to pinpoint the inspiration. It’s possible that the idea for a team of Allied POWs taking on the full German side was suggested by the celebrated WWI incident in which the British and Germans put their difference to aside to have a kick about at Christmas. Or the time in 1938 when an England team, in Berlin to play a friendly, gave the Hitler Salute to placate their hosts during the preliminaries.
Equally hard to appreciate is what drew Huston to the project. As John Wark (ex-Ipswich and Scotland) says, “He was a great man but no one knew what made him want to make a film about football. He certainly didn’t know a lot about the game.” Wark believed that the opportunity to work with Michael Caine again might explain the director’s ebullience. Having first crossed paths of The Man Who Would Be King, the filmmaker was delighted to be reteaming with the actor who would play the Allies’ skipper, John Colby. “He was the Limey we wanted, smart and resourceful. What impressed me most was the way he improvised on two scenes. [One] was crucial to the picture. It took place in the tunnel when the prisoners were discussing the possibility of escape. Michael rewrote his dialogue as the camera was turning on him and what he said was far better than anyone could have written.”
Like Huston, Caine is no stranger to dreadful films – next to The Swarm and Jaws: The Revenge, Escape To Victory resembles Zulu. But if money was the main reason for Caine taking on the assignment, the chance to play football with some of the game’s biggest names must have been something of a sweetener. Since producer Freddie Fields wanted the movie to succeed internationally, he’d been certain to sign the one footballer even America had heard about. Winner of three World Cups and scorer of over 1,200 goals, it was his spell with the New York Cosmos that secured Pele’s reputation as a truly global phenomenon. On Victory (the film’s US title), the former Edson Arantes do Nascimento would be joined by Cosmos team-mater Werner Roth, England’s World Cup-winning captain Bobby Moore, Argentina’s Osvaldo Ardiles (a World Cup winner in 1978), Belgian Paul Van Himst, Ajax legend Co Prins and Poland’s Kazzie Deyna – such was Fields’ keenness to sell the film the world over, he packed his squad with stars from as many nations as possible.
Also taking to the pitch were most of Ipswich Town FC, a fact that’s best explained by John Wark: “Someone in the film industry knew our manager Bobby Robson. So one day, this person arrived at training and asked if anyone would be interested in making a movie and a few of us put our hands up. Of course, we didn’t realize how big a thing we were letting ourselves in for.”
Besides internationals John Wark and Russell Osman, reserve keeper Laurie Sivell travelled to Hungary as did Ireland’s Kevin O’Callaghan, who suffered the twin indignities of having his name spelt incorrectly in the credits and having to play in goal even though he was a winger. One player who couldn’t make it over was Terry Butcher who explained: “I got married in January and had promised the wife a proper honeymoon. I had booked a holiday in Cyprus before the offer to be in the film came through, so it was a choice between meeting Pele or going away with my wife. There was only one winner, even though Pele is the greatest football player in the world!”
Certainly the chance to play with Pele was the main reason so many top professionals were willing to spend the summer of 1980 in pre-Glasnost Hungary (Wark: “They shot in Hungary because the labour and the extras were so cheap.”) The Ipswich contingent was especially pleased to take to the field alongside a real-life legend.
“If it wasn’t enough that he was a great player, he was a great man off the park,” remembers Wark. “Pele had been retired a few years but he was still pretty fit,” continues Russell Osman. “It was a terrific thrill to be involved in a game with him, even though it was only for a film. His ball control was extraordinary. Before each take, he would perform a variety of tricks, all in those big army boots. I’m sure one of them was two sizes too large, but it made no difference.”
As for Pele’s famous overhead kick, the first time Huston shot it, keeper Sivell somehow got a finger to the ball and turned it around the post, so Escape To Victory’s truly iconic moment was nailed on the second take.
But if Osman and Co. were awed about taking to the field with Pele, they weren’t too impressed with Sylvester Stallone. Riding high on the back of Rocky II, Stallone’s reasons for taking the movie were as ambiguous as Huston’s. While it’s hard to see what he had to gain from making a picture about a sport few Americans played and still fewer understood, Sly did at least win the respect of Ossie Ardiles: “It was very difficult for him but he did at least try.”
And as for his own Victory experiences, Ardiles remembers them with tongue firmly in cheek. “It was a very pleasurable month playing football every day. Of course, Pele and Bobby Moore had been retired four or five years by then, so I was much better than them. In fact, I carried them!”
While it was left to the director to shoot the drama, Pele choreographed the on-field action. According to Osman, “Pele would take control of the football-related sequences. He would say, ‘Give me the ball and try to kick me to make it as realistic as possible.’ And then he would take on everyone and nobody could get near him. He made it look easy.”
The Brazilian ace was also handed the tricky task of making Michael Caine appear a convincing footballer. “Pele went out of his way to make me look good every now and then, just to show I was better than he was, because I was supposed to be a better guy than all of the other players. You get in some funny situations in movies.”
But while the players enjoyed the actor’s company off the pitch, they were unstinting in their criticism of Michael Caine, pro footballer. “He was awful,” says Ardiles. “He couldn’t run 20 yards.” In fact, Caine was so ungainly that, for the most part, he was doubled by Ipswich defender Kevin Beattie and was particularly grateful for the advice he received from Pele and Bobby Moore. “Bobby’s first tip was, ‘Don’t get in the other team’s way, otherwise they’ll kill you.’ And Pele showed me how to kick a ball properly.”
In return, Caine gladly gave the players the benefit of his acting experience. “Once I’d said to them, ‘Come on, don’t worry about it, just say the lines,’ everything went like clockwork. They were all very good with the dialogue, actually. And they were overawed by Sylvester and myself for all of 10 minutes since there’s no film star nonsense about either of us.”
An out-and-out diva he mightn’t have been but Stallone’s jet-setting lifestyle didn’t win him many friends among his co-stars, as Osman recalls. “He would clear off after a couple of drinks, saying he’d had enough of Budapest and the next thing we’d hear he was in Paris and filming had to be held up until he got back!”
“He was always surrounded by his minders and his assistants,” continues Wark. “He wasn’t really part of the team.” Having pissed off the cast, there wasn’t probably too much sympathy for Stallone when he broke three ribs stopping a drive from a Hungarian extra. And what of the rumour that the over-confident Sly bet Pele $1,000 he could save half the great man’s penalties in a shoot-out, only for the actor to be completely humiliated? “I don’t know whether that happened,” chuckles John Wark, “but I wouldn’t be at all surprised. Stallone wasn’t one of the best.”
Wrapping in October 1980, Escape To Victory was released in Britain the following September. Debuting at number four on the UK film charts, its assault on the top spot was scuppered by Indiana Jones (Raiders Of The Lost Ark), James Bond (For Your Eyes Only) and Sean Connery (Outland). But while the picture would enjoy success in Europe and Australia, it proved as difficult to sell to Americans as the game itself. That the North American Soccer League had folded within a decade of its inception, despite the presence of Pele, Rodney Marsh and George Best, perhaps explains why Victory didn’t make it onto Variety’s highest-grossing lists.
With the ref having blown the whistle, the squad went their separate ways. Caine, of course, would go on to win a brace of Oscars, but his co-stars experienced mixed fortunes. While Pele became an international ambassador both for the beautiful game and Viagra, the Ipswich squad scooped the 1981 UEFA Cup (John Wark would enjoy European Cup glory when he moved to Liverpool).
Stallone, meanwhile, became the biggest star in the world over the next five years and a complete laughing stock over the 25 after that. There were also misfortunes for Ossie Ardiles, whose on-field triumphs were followed by a disappointing career in management, and for Bobby Moore who died of cancer in 1993 aged just 51.
Tragedy also befell John Huston, but not before he was able to knock out a few more decent movies. And not until he’d once again demonstrated the sense of humour that allowed him to make a film as entertaining as Escape To Victory, when he christened his last picture, made in the throes of emphysema, The Dead.