John Huston Blogathon: Escape to Victory
As part of the John Huston Blogathon, being organized at Ice Box Movies by Adam Zanzie, this post of mine would be dealing with one of John Huston’s not too acclaimed movies, Escape to Victory. In a discussion with Adam some time back, he claimed it was regarded as one of Huston’s worst movies. Now classification of worst and best are subjective, but i believe it may have more to do with Huston’s track record. Compared to Huston’s other classics like The Man Who Would be King, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Ashpalt Jungle, The Maltese Falcon, this movie would always fall short. It is more or less a predictable sports drama, set against the backdrop of a Nazi POW camp during World War II. But is it Huston’s worst, i really would not put it so.
Truth be told, Escape to Victory is special to me, because this was the first Huston movie i saw in a theater in India. And it came at a time, when i would watch anything related to Nazis, World War II, and i still do too. I actually walked into the theater, without much of expectations. There was Sly Stallone of course, just then gaining fame as Rocky, and then of course, there was Pele, the only footballer i had any idea of. But as i sat in the theater, within minutes i was just hooked on to it. By the time, the football match was on, the whole theater had turned into a mini stadium. And when Pele does that famous scissor kick off his, one could have been forgiven for imagining they were in the stadium. I believe the movie was not much of a success in the West, but in India it was a huge hit. People watched this again and again, it was discussed off hand, and video cassettes sold like hot cakes. Now considering very rarely English movies end up being a huge success in India, what contributed to the success.
I guess for one the simple storyline, does not need a rocket scientist to predict the ending or the next scene. Also it’s inspirational feel good theme, worked well among the public, and fed on a diet of Hollywood world war II movies like Where Eagles Dare, Guns of Navaronne, Dirty Dozen etc, nothing really pleases folks in India, than to see the Nazis getting whooped.
The story of Escape to Victory is quite simple. The Nazis want the Allied POW’s to play an exhibition match between themselves and the Allies, in short it is more or less a publicity stunt. One more attempt to show off Aryan supremacy, by beating the Allies. For the POW’s however, this seems to be the best opportunity to escape from the Nazis. One of the POW’s is John Colby(Michael Caine), a professional football player for West Ham United, who agrees to lead the team, on the request of the camp commandant Major Karl Von Steiner( Max Von Sydow). Capt Robert Hatch( Slyvester Stallone) is one of the more defiant prisoners, making numerous attempts to escape. He is taken into the team after he escapes, meets the French Resistance, and allows himself to be re captured. Apart from Caine, Sydow and Stallone, the cast features a host of real life soccer players, Pele as Cpl Luis Fernandez, Bobby Moore as Terry Brady, John Wark as Arthur Hayes, Werner Roth as the Nazi team captain to name a few.
Escape to Victory basically combines two different genres, the escape drama with a sports drama. Basically sports movies follow a 3 Act pattern, Act I- set up the Motivation, Act II- gather the team, and Act III- the actual game. And more often than not, you are sure that the team will win. I believe that is because people see sports as the last place on earth, where old fashioned values like heroism, courage, integrity, valor still have an appeal. Notwithstanding the scandals that quite often keep hitting the sports world, there is something heroic about the sports field. When we see Maradonna weaving his way past 10 players to score the Goal of the Century, or Greg Louganis suffering a nasty injury, taking stitches and coming back to win the Olympic diving Gold, or Michael Jordan pull off one of his gravity defying shots, we can just gasp in astonishment. One more reason, i guess is that with the political and business field, failing to throw up any really worthy role models in the last 50 years or so, post World War II, sports persons are the heroes or the heroines, we always dream of being.
While sports movies are more or less predictable, what matters is the way they are executed, and that is where John Huston does really well for me. In fact the opening shot, could fool you into thinking, that this is a WW2 escape drama. One of the prisoners, trying to escape the camp, found out by guards, shot dead, and the camera zooms in on his blood stained dress, immediately cutting back to a shot of the reddish German eagle on the Nazi flag, and the limousine driving to the prison camp. In fact John Huston seems to have been a lot influenced by The Great Escape, the prisoner guard interactions, the fights, and most importantly Sly’s character, that bears quite a resemblance to Steve McQueen’s Cooler King. The movie also has a number of dramatic scenes, well bought out by Huston, especially the part, where Sly tries to escape from the hotel, with the French Resistance but is stopped by his team mates.
One really very poignant scene in the movie, is when prisoners from Eastern Europe arrive at the camp, they were footballers. But what strikes is the difference between them and the Allied POW’s, while the latter look healthy, well fed, those from Eastern Europe, look starved, famished. And when they have their food, their hands keep shaking nervously. I think that really strikes a statement about the way Hitler considered the Eastern Europeans, notably the Poles, that was the region, which had the maximum number of concentration camp deaths, as well as some of the worst atrocities.
Another really good scene in the movie was when the coach, is explaining to the team, how to pass the ball, and score the goal. Pele, watching the entire exercise with a bored expression, comes in, and says “Hey not that way, let me show it.” And on the blackboard, he draws a line with a chalk, going “This, this, this” as he circles around the defenders and then “Goal, simple”. It does seem quite similiar to Maradonna’s Goal of the Century. But also highlighting the difference between the European and Latin American way of playing the game. Also kudos to Huston for not reducing the Nazis to a caricature, with Max Von Sydow, being shown as a sympathetic camp commandant, sporting enough, not sharing the more blinkered views of his colleagues.
The game is treated with due respect, as Huston adds in all the elements, the biased umpiring, off side rules, the bias of the commentators, the attempt to whip up nationalistic passions using sports, and the drama, that makes it worth a watch. Sly has never been a great actor, but he does well in the angry prisoner role, especially the final scene, before he takes guard for the penalty. Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow deliver excellent performances in the roles of the Allied team captain, and the Nazi camp commandant, as they quite often do. Pele does show he can be as good on the screen, as he is on the ground too.
Escape to Victory is not a classic like some of Huston’s other movies, but as a feel good, inspirational sports drama it works well. Who cares if it is predictable and cliched, most of the sports dramas are, but what is relevant is the way it grips the attention. And for me Escape to Victory does that quite well.