' ' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: Victory (1981)

Friday, June 15, 2018

Friday's Old Fashioned: Victory (1981)

“Victory” in John Huston’s 1981 semi-epic teases two different forms. There is potential victory in a soccer – nay, football – match between an assortment of WWII allied POWs and the German National Team, waged for propaganda purposes. But there is also potential victory in the form of escape for the POWs from the stadium in Paris where the match will be held. If I told you both things turned out to possibly be true, well, you would probably believe me, because even if this is 1943 it is still Hollywood, always and forever. “Victory” is so Hollywood, in fact, that the prison camp, while impressively outlined in a series of opening aerial shots that make it clear Huston and his team did not skimp on location details, feels less ominous than jolly, underlined in Bill Conti’s jaunty, wonderful score.  I swear, it felt like there was more at stake in “Rocky”, and only a mid-movie moment where real soccer – nay, football – stars are recruited from other prison camps only to discover they are exhausted and malnourished is the real weight of war felt. Indeed, “Victory” assumes the air of a fan who doesn’t want the real world intruding on his/her fun and games.

The match is set in motion by Major Karl von Steiner (Max von Sydow) who spies English Captain John Colby (Michael Caine), a professional footballer in his pre-war life, overseeing a junky prison yard game. In shades of “The Longest Yard”, von Steiner, after dribbling the football a bit to demonstrate his bonafides, glimpsed in a bit of editing trickery that made me suspect von Sydow soccer skills are not on the up and up, proposes a game between Colby’s ragtags and a German team from a nearby army base. After a subsequent scene in an ornate command room where deep frames show off one of those never not funny murals of der Führer in all his pompousness (wait a second...), the game has been upgraded to the Allied POWS v the German National Team, which seems unfair, not that you would expect anything less from the Third Reich. Then again, Colby has a ringer in the form of Trinidadian Corporal Luis Fernandez, who is Pelé in disguise, not that the bloviating Nazis know this. Ha!

Ah, but if soccer – nay, football – is a team game, the irrepressible Yank, Captain Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), is there to do it his way. If the movie sort of suggests those sprawling 60s movies with all-star casts, Stallone, with an air one might confuse for disinterest if they did not know it was merely Sly’s general countenance, sort of hijacks “Victory” for himself in conjunction with his character. Hatch, something of an escape artist, at first wants on the team and then wants off it when Colby tells him to take a hike only to want right back on when it might allow cover for him to bust out. So, in the end, he’s on the team, but only on his terms, eventually ascending to the position of goalkeeper, perfectly emblematic of his there but not there attitude. How, exactly, he is so good at that specific position is never really explained, just conveyed in a scene where one minute he’s about to get chased off the practice field because he stinks so bad only to accidentally wind up in goal where he blocks a few of Pelé’s shots. Sylvester Stallone stopping Pelé’s attempts on goal – Lord, don’t ever let them tell you the movies ain’t magic.

The magic of the movies extends to Hatch’s brief time outside the prison when he breaks out to rendezvous with the French Resistance to try and facilitate an escape for his teammates. This sequence at a French farmhouse finds the Resistance leaders discussing matters with Hatch and then leaving him there to go and inspect the sewer system they plan to use for POWs’ escape. “What am I supposed to do?” Hatch asks incredulously. “You will stay with Renee,” they say. That’s Carol Laure, who is on hand to fall in love with Sly, though how and why is anyone’s guess. The dialogue is strictly howlers, and the scene gives us a chance to imagine Sly Stallone opposite, say, Jeanne Moreau in some old WWII movie in monochrome.

It’s the movie’s high point, really, in its own stinky cheese kind of way, at least for a viewer of a certain disposition. For years Bill Simmons has cited Pelé’s bicycle kick as a seminal movie moment, yet he never saw fit to mention Carol Laure. Weird. But anyway, Pelé. Bicycle kick. That happens at the Big Game, which takes all the expected turns, leaving the Germans up on the Allied team 4-3 when an injured Pelé – eh, Luis Fernandez – valiantly re-enters the game. If Huston keeps much of the movie on a fairly gritty aesthetic level, here, at a time when instant replay was still in its adolescence, he revels in Pelé scoring the winning goal by showing it once, twice, three times, in resplendent slow motion, cutting a little closer each time. It’s so good it gets von Steiner off his feet to applaud, much to the chagrin of his Third Reich cronies. If humanizing Nazis might feel, particularly in our current time and place, more than a bit distasteful, well, for a split second, I confess, I found poetic fruitlessness in the earlier words of Von Steiner. “If nations could settle their differences on the football pitch...wouldn’t that be a challenge? Yes, Karl, yes it would.

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