Marrying “sporting spectacle” and prison-break adventure, Victory employs professional footballers as symbols of resistance against the German totalitarian state, reshaping a mythic tale of wartime triumph into a vehicle for cross-cultural unification. Pairing the impeccable footwork of Brazil’s Pelé and England’s Bobby Moore with the acting talents of Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone, the collaboration mirrors the narrative trajectory of The Great Escape, aspiring to match that film’s fusion of the suspenseful and emotionally resonant. Though Its construction is skillful and intentions admirable, reflected in the cast’s espirit de corps and a rousing climax at Colombes Stadium, it never builds momentum from its disparate parts, surrendering to schmaltz in its final breath instead of fleshing out characters and nurturing relationships.
As a way to ease tensions with interned prisoners following the death of an escapee, Germany’s Major von Steiner (Max von Sydow) and Britain’s Captain John Colby (Michael Caine) formulate an exhibition football match between stormtroopers and prisoners of war, masking ulterior motives beneath the facade of benevolent competition. Colby’s objective is better food and lodging for his teammates, but the Allied command eyes an opportunity for escape, playing a high-risk chess game with dire results for infantrymen on the bottom rung. As for senior members of the Nazi Party, the bout is fuel for the “propaganda machine,” allowing them to further denigrate the English war effort and align athletic achievement with tactical and genealogical excellence.
John Huston deftly displays these passages of clandestine strategy and their subsequent execution, defining the caste system struck between military ranks by concentrating on the daring acts committed by privates at the behest of their superiors. His visual symbolism is just as adroit, illustrating the uniformity shared between combat and sporting drills and subtly suggesting the firing squad during a last-reel penalty kick.
Regrettably, his consideration for pace doesn’t allow for coherence or introspection, forsaking exposition, tone and the establishment of camaraderie in the name of loud montage. Conversely, each escape sequence is too vague and underlit to inspire tension, foregoing sensory overload or even the most conservative use of cross-cutting in favor of nebulous, subterranean banality. The kinship shared between players and the gravity of their circumstances is just as ill-defined, barring a fleeting look at the effete, skeletal figures cast by Eastern-European recruits to the Allied team, each man sequestered to a single, dialogue-free glower.
Even Sly Stallone’s spirited turn as Hatch, the Allied goalie and foremost escape artist, is whittled down to cultural stereotypes and a handful of intimate glances, many of which uncomfortably echo his definitive role as Rocky Balboa. The only performer unscathed by Victory’s hoary plot mechanisms is Pelé, the momentum from his culminating rainbow kick reverberating on screen in arresting, mesmeric loop. His balletic feet are the only element that doesn’t feel prescribed, liberating the splendor of the game from the narrative constraints of John Huston’s stodgy production.
Victory (Paramount Pictures, 1981)
Directed by John Huston
Written by Yabo Yablonsky (screenplay and story), Evan Jones (screenplay), Jeff Maguire (story) and Djordje Milicevic (story)
Photographed by Gerry Fisher