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July 3, 2010

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Movie Review – Victory (1981)

by NIR SHALEV

All cinephiles should all be familiar with the name John Huston, for after all, he brought us one of the quintessential film noirs in The Maltese Falcon (1941), not to mention two of the greatest films ever made, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and The African Queen (1951). Victory is one of his late features and stars Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine as POWs who play soccer against Nazis.

During the Second World War, a Nazi POW camp receives a new officer: Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow). While touring the grounds he notices that one of the captives is Captain John Colby (Michael Caine), a professional British soccer player whose career was put on hold because of the war. They chat for a bit about soccer and seeing that von Stein is a soccer fan, he suggests to Colby that the POWs play a game of soccer against Team Germany. Colby sees it as an opportunity to have some fun and reminisce about a sport he hadn’t played properly in a few years but others see it as propaganda. The situation worsens when news arrives that the game will be played under the eyes of the entire world, in the Colombes Stadium in Paris. The prisoners almost flat-out refuse to play because of the politics involved but are convinced to by Colby’s spirit and longing for the sport; he imagines what the outcome would be if they were to win.

Meanwhile Captain Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) is trying to escape the prison camp. He’d been watching and studying the guards and their habits and rotations for months and greatly anticipates the day that he escapes. When the news of the Colombes Stadium match hits the rest of the prisoners he is approached by high ranking officers and is asked to deliver a message to the French Resistance. He manages to escape the camp, reaches Paris with minimal but adequate French, and delivers the message. A new hitch in his escape plan follows: the Resistance asks Hatch to return to his prisoner camp because he’s the only person that can deliver their return message.

This film is a fantasy in its entirety and for obvious reasons. The Germans were never kind enough to their prisoners to let them play soccer in a giant stadium that is situated inside of a huge city; escape would be pathetically easy. Also, the Germans would never taint their pride by allowing outsiders, let alone the entire world to watch them play soccer against lowly POWs. Also Hatch’s escape is rather simplistic in nature and execution, and the fact that he was forced to return to his POW camp simply to deliver a message is more than farfetched. But by that time, we accept it because we have grown to like the entire cast of characters, including the pacifist Nazi guards and the kindhearted von Steiner.

Michael Caine brings his famous bold and quick-tempered style to his character and Max von Sydow’s proud but easygoing von Steiner is a pleasure to watch. To add to the roster of actors that enlivens the film, ex-Brazilian soccer superstar Pelé showcases that he was the best player in the world by playing like he did in real life: overtaking multiple players, constantly, and delivering scores with back-flip kicks.

Sylvester Stallone, still coming off of the fame of Rocky (1976) and Rocky II (1979) is surprisingly good. I remember reading Roger Ebert’s review for the first “Rocky” film and his stating that Sylvester Stallone has the potential to become a huge Hollywood star and will be taken as a serious actor. The first of the predictions only had come true but Stallone does deliver a good job in this film. He seems like he cares every time he opens his mouth; every action that Hatch performs is appropriate to his character and Stallone delivers the performance that his character deserves. We sympathize with him and the rest of the POWs and believe in their on-screen spirit.

I remember seeing this film when I was roughly seven of eight years old; I used to ask others, “Did you see that soccer movie with Stallone and Pelé? It’s amazing!” I hadn’t watched it in over fifteen years so the Nazi and POW aspects were rather fresh for me, and intriguing. I’d read many complaints about the film by other viewers, that their childhood memories of it are shattered by a boring prison escape movie that sports a good soccer game in the last twenty minutes of it. I am baffled by those remarks because the film never places soccer in the spotlight until the end. We only see a few people pass the ball here and there, while Pelé shows off how to bounce the ball alone for an hour. The film’s message is entirely about the spirit of victory via escaping the hold of the Nazis. The final soccer game asks the players, “Do you want to escape during half time or do you want to beat those Nazis into submission and show the world the spirit of the human heart?”

I like that the film sports that message and regardless, it’s just a movie. If Inglourious Basterds (2009) is the first WWII fantasy film that one had seen, mark this film down as a precursor. This film is in no way related to history or reality; it’s just really well directed, shot, and performed and is tons of fun. We have fun and we watch Stallone, Caine and Max von Sydow have fun, as well.


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2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Helen
    Jul 17 2010

    Stallone gave a good performance in Copland. Underrated film imo.

  2. Aug 2 2010

    I’m hosting a John Huston blogathon later this week and a couple of people have already expressed interest in writing about this film. My own opinion of it is that it has some good performances by Caine and von Sydow as well as some occasional thrills during the soccer finale; but as a whole it’s a rather childish film, and like Annie it represents a less interested side of Huston–the more commercialized side, expedited into finishing a crowd-pleasing movie for the masses and not at all concerned about fashioning a work of art. It’s also something of an anticlimax as a follow-up to Wise Blood.

    Now, I wouldn’t exactly say Victory is a bad movie, but as a WWII film it makes an unfortunate mockery of a what was a terrible, terrible time. When you look at Huston’s superior films on the same subject like The African Queen, Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison and especially his antiwar documentary Let There Be Light, you kind of have to gape in embarrassment over the fact that this movie was delivered by the same filmmaker. Fortunately Under the Volcano more or less makes up for the mistakes of this movie in looking at the war for what it really was.

    btw, all are welcome to contribute to this week’s blogathon.

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