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John Huston Blogathon: Escape to Victory

August 4, 2010

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.

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4 Comments
  1. hey ratnakar. I saw huston's classics like The Man Who Would be King, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, The Maltese Falcon , but I did miss out on this one and The Ashpalt Jungle. I never did get a chance to watch anyone of these in the theatres, so I have been plugging away on these on dvds. I can imagine, what super fun it would have been to watch this one on the big screen. 😦 Will definitely look out for this dvd. I guess I should just keep making notes from your blogathon and plug away on all those classics missed…cheers. keep the posts coming.

  2. Remember this when I saw on a VCP, as VCRs were costlier to rent :).. Have to check out the other movies of his.. I have seen some but it was a time when I did not pay attention to movies as I think I do now…Sarang-

  3. I'm glad you wrote about this film and chose to defend it, Ratnakar–even if I'm a bit hesitant to do so myself. My problem with Victory (the American title) is that it's something of a bewilderingly immature variation by Huston on the war; and it's a vision that looks especially naive when compared to Huston's stronger WWII flicks–not just The African Queen or Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison, but also the stirring documentaries he made during the war… most notably Let There Be Light, which truly captures the devastation that the war left on soldiers returning home to psychiatric wards (and, for that reason, was banned and not shown to the public until the 1980's).There's another reason why I don't hold Victory in too high esteem, though, and it's just the sheer suspicion that Huston only made the movie for money. We'll never know for sure if that was the case, of course, since to my knowledge Huston never made his thoughts about the film public. Still, it's a movie that's very much lacking in the long thought and meditation that he put into many of his other later works (The Man Who Would Be King, Wise Blood, Under the Volcano, Prizzi's Honor, The Dead). On top of that, there are times when the film is, admittedly, kind of dull: the long stretches of the men training at the camp for the big soccer/football game, for example, or the remarkably easy way that Stallone escapes from the camp. And I kind of felt cheated by the way the movie ends, when the prisoners are freed by the entire crowd and the Nazi guards barely make an attempt to stop them. It's as if Huston is saying that war can be won by a sports game, and to me that just sounds like hopeless wish fulfillment.It's not a terrible film, though, and there are some Huston films that I think are worse (like Annie, for example, or his bloated Western epic The Unforgiven). And there's so much in the movie to like that, altogether, it's not something you can entirely dismiss: as you so eloquently put it here, there is a commanding performance by Michael Caine, as well as one by Max von Sydow as the "good" Nazi. I actually think that the scenes between them are the strongest scenes in the film (and I also thought Pele's performance was surprisingly good–it's certainly better than Stallone's!). I did love that opening shot, too, when Huston pans his camera up over the camp to show us just what's at stake.So, I'm still not sure if Victory is a successful film in the end. There's a lot about it I detest. Still, it's a film that, in my opinion, ought to be seen by Huston's audiences–and who knows? Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe Huston was doing what Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds and made cinematic art out of wish fulfillment. Either way, I'm glad there are discussions on this film, and I hope that there are more. You deserve a lot of thanks, Ratnakar, for stepping up to the plate.

  4. Adam,Thanks for the comment. Well i think unlike Huston's other War classics like The African Queen or Across the Pacific or the WW2 documentaries he made, Escape to Victory was more of a matinee popcorn flick. It was more or less in line with some of the war adventure movies of that time, movies like Where Eagles Dare, Kelly's Heroes, Guns of Navaronne, Great Escape.Most of them were purely escapist adventure movies set against a backdrop of WW2, so i think on that level Victory worked out fine for me. The ending was a bit unbelievable, but again i think considering this was supposed to be a feel good, inspirational sort of movie, fit in well. I don't mind suspension of disbelief, after all that is what movies are about. I mean Indiana Jones taking on the entire Nazi Army is not "realistic" but the way Spielberg picturizes it, you don't really bother. :)I still reiterate this is not a classic or a masterpiece, but as an escapist entertainer, pop corn movie it surely is value for the money. Something that can be scarcely said of many "entertainers" today.–Ratnakar

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