Escape to Victory: In true sporting spirit



Films with the backdrop of sports and sportsmanship, right from ‘The Pride of the Yankees’ (1942) to ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) and from ‘Million Dollar Baby’ (2004) to ‘The Program’ (2015) have never failed to attract the collective consciousness of audiences. The year 1981 witnessed the release of two such films – ‘Chariots of Fire’ and ‘Escape to Victory’ – within a span of four months. Both films are remembered till date for various reasons.

‘Escape to Victory’ was inspired by the now discredited story of the so-called ‘Death Match’ in which Football Club Dynamo Kyiv – a Ukrainian professional football club – defeated German soldiers while Ukraine was occupied by German troops during the Second World War. According to the myth, as a result of their victory, the Ukrainian players were all shot. However, the true story is considerably more complex, as the team played a series of matches against German teams, emerging victorious in all of them. Finally, after they beat a team from a local German Air Force base, the league was disbanded and several of the team members were arrested by the Gestapo. Eventually, four of them were executed.

The script of the film was written by Yabo Yablonsky, Djordje Milicevic and Jeff Maguire, and it was based on the Hungarian film, ‘Two Half Times in Hell’/ ‘The Last Goal’ (1962) written by Zoltán Fábri and Péter Bacsó.

The original draft of the script based on ‘Two Half Times in Hell’/ ‘The Last Goal’ was a serious drama, wherein a group of Allied prisoners of war challenge Germans to a football match. The deal is that if the Germans win the match, the prisoners of war would be set free in Switzerland. However, if the prisoners of war win the match, they would be shot. The prisoners of war decide to go for victory, win the match and consequently get executed. The final draft of the script was however changed to suit the ‘public taste’.

The legendary film director, John Huston directed the movie at the age of 75 years, but left it to Pelé to handle the football scenes on the field. Interestingly, by then Huston had also begun to act in films. By the beginning of 1980s, Huston was in failing health and not in his top form, but his work on this film is still memorable.

The movie was originally slated to star Lloyd Bridges and Clint Eastwood. French actor, Alain Delon was also touted to appear. Screen James Bond, Roger Moore even considered accepting the role eventually played by Michael Caine.

As preparation for ‘Escape to Victory’, Sylvester Stallone started football training on weekends off, during filming of his previous picture ‘Nighthawks’ (1981). Despite not appearing on screen, English World Cup-winning goalkeeper, Gordon Banks was closely involved in the film, working with Stallone on his goalkeeping scenes. Initially, Stallone paid little attention to Banks’s advice as he didn’t think the training was necessary, and recklessly threw himself around on the first day of filming the match. Eventually, he hit the ground so hard that he dislocated a shoulder and broke one of his ribs, putting him out of action for several days. When he returned, Stallone paid much more attention to what Banks was telling him, but still sustained a number of minor injuries over the course of filming, including another broken rib. After production was finished, Stallone commented that the experience had been harder than fighting in the ‘Rocky’ series.

The set of the three-acre prisoner of war camp was built on the grounds of the Allag Riding Stables on the outskirts of Budapest, Hungary. The set took three months to construct. The MTK Stadium in Budapest replicated the Stade Colombes (Colombes Stadium) in Paris, France, where the film’s climactic football match takes place. The producers of the film had difficulty finding a large stadium without floodlights, as floodlights at football stadiums were largely unknown until well after Second World War. The MTK stadium, now known as the Hidegkuti Nándor Stadium, was the biggest one without lights – but at the same time structurally similar to continental stadiums that were around during the Second World War – that they could find. The stadium today is the home of the MTK Hungária Football Club.

Nearly all of the music score of the film borrows heavily from the first and last movements of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony, particularly the March Theme of the first movement, which is almost quoted verbatim, a practice which composer Bill Conti later employed in ‘The Right Stuff’ (1983) with Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto. At the end of the film, the last part of Shostakovich’s Symphony No 5 is also used to signify the triumphant conclusion of the story. In 2005, the Prometheus Records label issued a limited edition soundtrack album of Conti’s score in this film.

The cinematography of the film by Gerry Fisher is simply gorgeous, especially as football is not an easy sport to film. The choice of film stock, a certain amount of grain to make it almost appear like one is watching a documentary, was a wise decision. Some of the action shots and slow-motions are absolutely wonderful to behold.

‘Escape to Victory’ received great attention upon its theatrical release, as it also starred professional footballers Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, Paul Van Himst, Mike Summerbee, Hallvar Thoresen, Werner Roth and Pelé. Numerous players linked to Ipswich Town Football Club were also in the film. Produced at a budget of $10 million, it collected $27,453,418 at the box office. The film was entered into the 12th Moscow International Film Festival and nominated for the Golden Prize.

After Lorimar’s acquisition by Warner Communications (currently known as Time Warner) in 1988, the distribution rights of ‘Escape to Victory’ were transferred to Warner Bros Pictures. In 2014, Warner Bros even planned the remake of the film to capitalise on the excitement around the World Cup 2014 held in Brazil, particularly among American audiences, but the plan did not materialise.