Tuesday, August 18, 2009

For Morale

I freely admit that if I’m going to be seeing a WWII POW camp movie set in Europe, I’d rather have it feature Steve McQueen on a motorcycle. If it’s got William Holden spitting out Billy Wilder dialogue, I guess that’s OK too. But if it’s Sylvester Stallone playing soccer in a POW camp, I’m not sure that’s really good enough. 1981’s VICTORY, directed by John Huston, isn’t all that bad. It’s fairly sober and intelligent in its first half and when the big game takes center stage it’s hard not to get swept up in things which makes it pretty satisfying in the end.

At a German prisoner of war camp, Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) takes an interest in the soccer being played by former pro Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) and suggests a friendly game be played between the Allied POWs and the Germans. As Colby begins to assemble his team (which includes a fellow captive played by none other than Pelé), continually ignoring the interest of American Captain Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), von Steiner’s superiors take an interest in the match and arrange for the game to be played in Paris in order to display the superiority of the Germans. Colby, continually at odds with the British officers in the camp, begins to plan for the big event to be used as a chance for his team to escape and soon Hatch figures out a way to be part of Colby’s team.

Known as ESCAPE TO VICTORY over in England, it’s not bad but maybe a little too dry and it didn’t help that in my own head I kept imagining similar beats in THE GREAT ESCAPE being played out. Doing some looking around the net, I get the feeling that the film has a following over in England which makes sense since the sport actually means something there. Whatever the reasons for it getting made, at times it just plays like an excuse to capitalize on whatever popularity the sport had back then. Certainly at this time there were still attempts at popularizing Soccer here in the states—almost as if to balance things out, the game is called both “soccer” and “football” at various points and the inclusion of Stallone’s American (let’s call it the Steve McQueen role, since that’s really what it is) feels like a pretty blatant attempt to get the movie to cross the Atlantic and unless I missed someone, he’s the only American in the film. John Huston’s direction is sturdy, basically photographing the script (screenplay by Evan Jones and Yabo Yablonsky, story by Yabo Tablonsky and Djordje Milicevic & Jeff Maguire) and since that script is workmanlike at best, it never really transcends things. It never really escapes a movie-movie feel which ultimately has its good and bad points. Some of what happens is compelling, but really not enough until the game starts. There’s more tension in a brief scene of von Sydow trying to get Caine to promise that none of his men will escape than in the numerous sequences of the allies arguing over how to escape or the specifics of the game. On both sides there seems to be a feeling of keeping one’s word about the honor of how the game will be a fair one, making this a pretty polite look at World War II (it’s not too surprising to learn that the actual event this film is loosely based on had a considerably grimmer conclusion) but it is interesting to see adversaries equally interested in upholding a degree of honor, which is about as much meat as the script ever really has. When Stallone is convinced to get captured again to get some valuable information to those inside he begins to resemble just a cross between McQueen and William Holden in RIVER KWAI and particularly in the middle the film begins to feel like pages from a number of rewrites being stapled together.

In terms of anything unique VICTORY doesn’t offer much more than the game in question being played and speaking as an American once or twice I couldn’t help but think to myself, slightly bemused, “Why am I watching Stallone play soccer?” Still, the big game is at times well-choreographed and shot—at least we get to clearly see what Pelé is doing a several long, unbroken takes, though in a movie way it seems to spring ‘only four minutes remaining!’ type things out of nowhere. The climax of the film is dependant on a choice which is difficult to swallow—escape at halftime or stay and try to win the game?—but by a certain point, with the entire stadium of presumably repressed French citizens chanting, “Victoire!” that game becomes so rousing that the film is just about able to get away with it. Even when nearly the entire stadium in the climax breaks into La Marseillaise in a pique of defiance against the Nazis it’s as strong as it wants to be even though there’s no avoiding thinking of CASABLANCA in such a context. Actually, this just got me thinking of how Huston was probably around on the Warner lot when that film was shot forty-odd years earlier and he of course worked with Bogart a number of times…film history can be strange in that way. Hitting his seventy-fifth birthday at the time of VICTORY’s release, the director still had four movies to go at this point.

Most of the team is comprised of actual players as opposed to actors, so they don’t register very much as characters and Caine with a thinly-scripted character keeps things low-key much of the time letting his presence do much of the work. This leaves Max von Sydow’s vaguely sympathetic von Steiner (you know—one of those nice Nazis) with the most interesting character and story arc to play. Stallone, who according to Caine’s autobiography wasn’t a fan of Huston’s lack of direction to the actors is actually quite good at times, coming at this stage when he wasn’t quite the total superstar he’d be in a few years. When the middle section finds him in Paris playing scenes with minor love interest Carole Laure (a subplot which feels pretty shoehorned in but hey, they got a girl in the movie—even THE GREAT ESCAPE didn’t pull that off) he actually comes off as much more relaxed than we usually think of him. Playing the goal kicker in the game, he gets one long moment where he does nothing but stare down the German goal kicker near the very end, like Rocky about to fight the last round and it seems to be a moment that’s there for no reason other than it’s Stallone but hey, it works.

Of course, much of the reason VICTORY is remembered by anyone today is the unique casting of Pelé as one of the prisoners recruited to play in the game—he states in dialogue that he’s from Trinidad, I guess an attempt to somehow explain away his casting. He probably doesn’t get more than twenty lines of dialogue but that’s not why he was hired anyway and we certainly get to see him play lots of soccer, particularly his famous climactic bicycle kick. The movie is so obviously excited about presenting this that it makes sure we get a good look at it—three separate times. For those keeping track of such things, years later Stallone worked with von Sydow again in JUDGE DREDD and he also appeared again with Michael Caine in the GET CARTER remake but, as far as I can tell, he has yet to work with Pelé again. The score by Bill Conti (of ROCKY fame, of course) at times doesn’t try to do much more than ape Elmer Bernstein’s GREAT ESCAPE march but he also pulls out all the stops for the big climax and it’s ultimately perfect music for what is, ultimately a boys’ adventure movie.

It’s a fairly enjoyable movie that holds together pretty well in the end. Even if the story takes its time getting going, the excitement of the climax more than makes up for this. The old-fashioned nature of the film is almost endearing. On one of the SPACED commentaries Edgar Wright, referring to it by its British title, speaks fondly of it and I can understand. World War II movies that are decades old (which, shockingly, this one now is) seem to be able to do that and it’s nice to always have them around. Not to mention that in addition to seeing THE LAST VALLEY at the New Beverly last week, finally taking a look at VICTORY helps in my goal to see as many films that star Michael Caine as humanly possible so it’s all good.


Anonymous said...

I didn't know (or forgot) that John Huston directed this. Boy, did he ever have a varied career. I've never seen "Victory", but I'll have to put it in the queue.

- Bob

Anonymous said...

This was one of the very first films I saw on VHS (actually Video 2000). And why the little show-off asshole who showed it to me liked it quite a lot, I didn't. And not because of the little show-off asshole with his two 1200$-VCRs, but because of the story that already didn't make much sense to me when I was only 15 years old.

Now, some 25 years later, I still think that VICTORY is a waste of time.

But you should definitely review THE LAST VALLEY, John! Especially, for its unique combination of writer/director James Clavell and John Barry's score! Something like that could only happen in the 70s. And they won't remake that one for sure!


Mr. Peel said...

Oh, it's not the greatest but I really didn't mind it that much. I think I'll want to see THE LAST VALLEY again if I ever write up a piece on it. It was a little slow, but at least interesting and at times quite beautiful to look at. Also, even though it was made in 1970, Barry's score sounds more like the sort of work he'd be doing closer to 1980.

Ned Merrill said...

I haven't watched this since the early '80s on HBO when I was just excited to see "Rocky" in something else. I do have the Bill Conti score, which has some great, really rousing cues and, yes, it does hew closely to Bernstein's classic GREAT ESCAPE, which was probably used as a temp track at some point in the film's evolution.

I like this period of Stallone's career best. It seems like even the failures (PARADISE ALLEY, F.I.S.T.) were more respectable or noble than later ones--OVER THE TOP, RHINESTONE, STOP OR MY MOM WILL SHOOT!, etc. There was an attempt to do more serious dramatic work. And, NIGHTHAWKS is a very solid action film--probably my second favorite Stallone after the original ROCKY. It's a shame it did such bad box-office--part of the reason Stallone kept going back to the ROCKY well, and then RAMBO.

Mr. Peel said...

I've actually never seen PARADISE ALLEY or F.I.S.T but I do like NIGHTHAWKS quite a bit and you're right, there is some added interest to this period in Stallone's career, before he became more monument than actor. At least they can be called real movies, not something I'd say about the likes of OVER THE TOP.