The 1980s Films of Michael Caine: Escape To Victory

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Our odyssey through the work of Michael Caine continues with the 1981 footballing film, Escape To Victory, which also starred Pele and Sly Stallone…

Michael Caine showed no sign of slowing down as he entered his third decade as a leading man. The 1980s would see him win his first Academy Award (Hannah And Her Sisters), tackle new genres such as horror (The Hand) and shark-based revenge movie (Jaws: The Revenge) while continuing to work with interesting new-ish auteurs like Brian De Palma (Dressed To Kill) as well as old friends from classic Hollywood such as John Huston (Escape To Victory). 

Film by film, I’ll be taking a look at Caine’s 1980s filmography to see what hidden gems I can unearth alongside the more familiar classics…

Spoilers for Escape To Victory lay ahead…

escape to victory poster
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Directed by: John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, The African Queen, The Man Who Would Be King)

Tagline: Now is the time for heroes. 

Other Featured Geezers: Sylvester Stallone as Robert Hatch, Pelé as Luis Fernandez, Max Von Sydow as Major Karl Von Steiner, Tim Pigott-Smith as Major Rose, Bobby Moore as Terry Brady.

What’s it all about, Alfie?: While visiting a POW camp in the midst of the Second World War, an affable football mad Nazi, Major Karl Von Steiner (Max Von Sydow), spots the Allied prisoners playing a game of footie led by the very sweaty John Colby (Michael Caine), a professional footballer before the war (so he says, but looking at him run suggests otherwise). Inspired by this encounter, Steiner – a former professional footballer himself – suggests an exhibition match between the Allied POWs and a German team to boost morale on both sides.

Colby’s superior officers try to convince him to use the match as an opportunity for an escape attempt which, out of concern for the safety of his team, Colby is reluctant to agree to. Meanwhile Steiner’s superiors turn what was intended as a bit of light fun into a larger scale, and more malicious, propaganda exercise.

Meanwhile, Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) an American POW, with no knowledge of football but with previously untapped preternatural goalkeeping powers, tries his hardest to get a place on the team so that he can orchestrate an escape.

This all culminates in a nail-biting match at a Paris stadium with the French Resistance poised to rescue the team at half-time. But things don’t go quite to plan and it’s up to Hatch’s aforementioned god-like ball catching skills to save the day.

escape to victory
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Caine-ness: It’s now reaching the point in Caine’s career where he’s not always the star attraction, as here he’s second billed to an upstart young actor called Sylvester Stallone. Caine is still playing a major character though, with plenty of screentime, and he does get billed ahead of Pelé without even going to the effort of doing any bicycle kicks.  

We do see a sweaty Caine in the distance about six minutes into the film before we first see Stallone, but Sly’s Robert Hatch then gets the hero entrance after Steiner stops a stray football with his boot and Hatch approaches him stroppily saying, “Please Sir, can I have my ball back.” After this we then get our proper introduction to Caine’s John Colby.

Caine, at 47 years old and getting a tad paunchy, was admittedly a bit past-it for the part of someone who was meant to have been in the middle of a career playing for West Ham and England when he was called up for service. Steiner says to him, “It’s a shame war ended your career,” to which Colby responds “interrupted” – which, no offence, I think was optimistic of him.

Colby describes his POW team as “No bloody good but very enthusiastic” which in turn can be used to describe Caine’s attempts at portraying a professional sportsman. Argentine footballer Osvaldo Ardiles, who played Carlos in the film, described Caine’s football skills as “Awful, he couldn’t even run twenty yards,” which perhaps explains the noticeable absence of shots of Caine during the matches. 

Caine admitted that the main reason he made this movie was to work alongside Pelé. However, even though it’s another of his “pay-cheque” roles, he still remains utterly committed (apart from to running about) and gives a naturalistic and warm performance as an honourable and thoughtful man of integrity. Colby is the heart of the film. It’s Colby who argues for the inclusion of East European players in his team, in order to get them out of the forced labour camps, and it’s saving them from being returned there that spurs Colby on to continuing with the exhibition match in defiance of his army superiors. 

escape to victory portrait
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Caine also shares an easy chemistry with Von Sydow’s Steiner, with whom he builds a civil relationship of mutual respect based on their shared love of football. They banter amicably, but with a touch of edge, such as when Steiner first proposes the exhibition match and Colby says “We’d murder you” with a cheeky smile. Their scenes together are a joy to watch because of the rapport between the two great actors.

Caine’s understated performance does clash with Stallone’s broader one, but this works since these two characters are in perpetual conflict. A conflict which is played for laughs, such as in the scene where Colby is picking players for the team and Hatch keeps going up to Colby for a handshake but is repeatedly rebuffed. Colby does eventually warm to him late in the film, affectionately calling him the “Crazy yank” with a twinkle in his eye. 

One final Caine related thing of note: I’m saddened that his line, “Give me some balls Charlie” didn’t become one of his signature catchphrases as, for me, it should be up there with “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off”. 

Caine-nections: John Huston previously directed Caine in The Man Who Would Be King (1975). I wonder what this film could have been with Connery in the Stallone role?

Stallone would later star in a remake of Get Carter (2000) featuring a small role for Caine. I haven’t yet seen this but I have heard it’s very bad. I’ll get there in a few years…

This is Caine’s eighth war film (Zulu, Play Dirty, Battle Of Britain, Too Late The Hero, The Last Valley, The Eagle Has Landed, A Bridge Too Far).

Maurice Roëves was also in one of Caine’s other WWII movies The Eagle Has Landed (1977).

*I’m only counting from Caine’s first starring role in Zulu onwards.

Best Non-Caine Actor: The actors are treated to sitcom-style “You Have Been Watching” end credits with clips of them accompanied by their name, which is something that I always enjoy watching. Although during the film when one of the French Resistance says to Hatch “You will stay with Renee” I was very disappointed that it did not then become an ‘Allo ‘Allo! crossover. Instead, this Renee was just some random French woman and not Gordon Kaye. A massive missed opportunity. 

The main actor that I need to discuss is Stallone. I’m a big fan of his, although he does seem out of place in Escape To Victory. In a way, this works for his character as the sole American in the POW camp. The film was post Rocky II but pre-Rambo (First Blood would be released the following year), and so although Stallone had done a couple of other movies, he was still very much just the Rocky guy rather than the big action star that we now see him as. This also means that he still resembles a normal human being rather than a sentient lump of steroids. He actually lost 40 pounds for this role to look more like a prisoner of war. 2024 Stallone looks more like the papier-mâché Stallone that the prisoners use to hide his absence after he escapes.

Stallone’s ego dictated that he wanted his character to be the one to score the winning goal, in spite of him playing the goalie. However, he was eventually convinced by the more football-savvy cast and crew that this would not make much sense. So, it meant that rather than it be a goal that wins the match for the POWs, it comes down to Hatch having to stop the Germans from scoring a free kick. 

escape to victory michael caine
Credit: Paramount Pictures

Stallone had training from England’s World Cup winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks on weekends off during the filming of Nighthawks. Apparently, he initially paid little attention to Banks, thinking training was unnecessary, before majorly injuring himself during the first day of filming, which led him to actually follow the expert’s advice for the rest of the shoot.

As well as getting to be the hero at the end of the climatic match, Stallone also gets to perform a fun escape sequence from the camp, clings to the side of a car, and gets a brief tease of a romantic interest with a member of the French Resistance. So, he’s very much the heroic lead while Caine mills about on the sidelines looking a bit tired. 

Max Von Sydow brings a gentle charm to the role of the reluctant Nazi general. Much like Caine’s character in The Eagle Has Landed, the film goes out of its way to present Steiner as a reluctant Nazi. When Colby says the “whole damn war is a regrettable mistake” in response to the Red Cross defining the shooting of an escaped POW as a “regrettable mistake”, Steiner responds “I agree”. He genuinely wants the match to happen because of a love of the game and is heartbroken when he finds out that his superiors have employed a referee who’s a ringer for their side. He can’t help but applaud Pelé’s bicycle kick, and ultimately seems happy for the Allies when they escape the stadium.

Rounding out the cast are actual footballers (including Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles, Paul Van Himst, Mike Summerbee, Russell Osman and John Wark). I don’t know much about football and, although I recognised a few of their names, I wouldn’t know these players by sight, but you can instantly tell who the real footballers are by their atrocious, and rightfully limited, line deliveries.

The biggest part for the players goes to Pelé. I can’t say it’s an amazing performance, but he has enough natural charisma to get through the film without embarrassing himself and his appearance is worth it just to see his bicycle kick (which the film replays multiple times to get its money’s worth). He also, behind the scenes, assisted in choreographing the climatic game.

Also, I was happy to see Gary Waldhorn, most familiar to me as David Horton in The Vicar Of Dibley, make a very small appearance as the German coach. It’s always a shock to see someone you know mostly from a sitcom pop up in a big Hollywood movie. 

Most French Extra: With not one but two baguettes!

Best Supporting Moustache: Arguably more impressive than Pelé’s bicycle kick.

escape to victory moustache
Credit: Paramount Pictures

My Bleedin’ Thoughts: John Huston stated that he only directed this for the money but, regardless, he did a good job. Escape To Victory was, I believe, unfairly slated critically at the time. Yes, it’s silly and lightweight but that’s fine – not every film has to be profound, and I think this succeeds at being a pleasant bit of escapism. It’s the ideal snoozy Sunday afternoon “Dad film”. 

At a breezy 1 hour and 51 mins it’s the perfect length. It’s a massive relief for a war film of this era to not have a bloated run-time. It’s well-paced and fast-moving throughout (the exhibition match is proposed 12 minutes in) and there’s a stirring score from Rocky’s composer Bill Conti to amp you up that seems to have employed all the possible instruments available (even going a bit Oompa band for a few beats). And, as you’d expect from a Stallone film with a Conti score, there are of course entertaining training montages.

Escape To Victory is a remake of a 1962 Hungarian film called Két Félidő a Pokolban, which translates as “Two Half-times in Hell” that was in turn based on a now discredited story that was alleged to have taken place during the war. Thus, the original draft of the script was a much more serious drama where the deal struck is for the POWs to go free if the Germans win the match, whereas if the POWs win they’ll all be shot. The POWs ultimately decide to win the match anyway and the film ends with them being executed. So tonally, a major difference from what we ended up with. 

Although we see an escaping POW shot to death right at the start, on the whole the film softens the horrors of war. Being a POW looks, for the most part, like a fairly pleasant holiday where you can play cards with your mates in a hut and then do a little bit of outside activity and occasionally meet Max Von Sydow.

One of the few times that the film does address the grimmer realities of what was actually going on is when we see the emaciated European players that have come from the labour camps. There’s also a wince inducing scene where Colby has to break his goalie’s arm because Hatch will only get to replace him in the match if a doctor can verify the other goalie’s injury. Other than this, the film makes being a POW look like a bit of a laugh.

One last thing to note: the main poster with Stallone, Caine and Pelé all seemingly emerging from one torso with pained/confused looks on their faces is an odd one. They look like the alien from The Thing mid transformation. Fittingly only an alien with no concept of human pop culture would choose to pair these three random famous humans together in a film.

Trivia (courtesy of IMDb): The MTK stadium in Budapest was used to represent the Colombes Stadium in Paris for the climatic match, as the filmmakers had to find a large stadium without floodlights since these were not widely used until long after the war. The MTK stadium was one of the largest without lights that also still looked structurally similar to continental stadiums from the time period.

Stallone broke a finger trying to stop Pelé from scoring a goal.

After retiring from football, Mike Summerbee went into bespoke shirt-making and, after becoming friends with Caine on set, Caine became a valued customer. Apparently. I can’t verify this. Summerbee might have just added this to IMDb himself to promote his shirt-making, and well, it’s worked because now I’m writing about it. You got me, Summerbee! 

Overall Thoughts: Yes, it’s a load of balls, but with Stallone catching them and Caine kicking them, what’s not to like? Certainly not great art, but definitely good fun, the perfect film to nod off to on a lazy Sunday afternoon. 

Rating: 3.5/5 Bespoke Shirts from Mike Summerbee 

Where You Can Watch This: This is currently available to rent or purchase through most streaming services, or it can be bought on DVD and Blu-ray. 

Up Next: Caine teams up with Sidney Lumet and Christopher Reeve for the twisty comic thriller Deathtrap. 

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