In 1942, during the height of World War II, Nazi Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) is surprised to discover that professional English footballer John Colby (Michael Caine) is a prisoner of war in France and that he has formed his own soccer league with his fellow POWs. Seeing a chance for a propaganda coup, von Steiner arranges for a team led by Colby to be travel to occupied Pairs where they will play a match against the German national team.
Colby agrees, on the condition that it be a real game and that the teams not just be made up of officers. At the insistence of his senior officers, Colby also allows an American prisoner named Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) to serve as the team’s trainer. Hatch is plotting to use the match as a cover for his own escape. When it appears that there’s a chance for the entire team to escape during the match, Colby and his team are forced to choose between defeating the German team or making a run for freedom.
I think that, for most people, that wouldn’t be too difficult of a decision to make. If I have to choose between escaping a POW camp or winning a match, I’m going to go down the tunnel and do what I have to do to make it across the English channel. In the movie, though, it’s a matter of pride and I think Michael Caine is probably the only actor who could make such a conflict feel credible. Though Stallone got both top billing and a romantic subplot with a member of the Resistance, it’s Michael Caine’s movie all the way through. From the minute he demands to know “what the bloody hell” is going on, Michael Caine owns Escape to Victory.
Escape to Victory is an old-fashioned war film. Think of it as being The Great Escape with tons of soccer kicked in. Fans of the game will probably enjoy seeing legendary players like Pele and Bobby Moore cast as the POWs who make up Colby’s team. The movie has some slow spots but it’s ultimately a rousing adventure, featuring good performances from Caine, von Sydow, and Sylvester Stallone. It’s interesting to see Stallone cast as someone who isn’t automatically the best player on the field.
The film is based on a true story, one that sadly did not share this film’s happy ending. In 1942, a group of Ukrainian POWs played an exhibition match against their German captors. When the POWs won the match, the Germans responded by executing the majority of the players. The true story of the Death Match (as it was later called) was told in 1962, in a Hungarian film called Two Half Times In Hell.