World War II P.O.W. movies are a wonderful invention, for while watching them, it is morally correct to cheer out loud for the jailbirds. After all, our P.O.W.s are all certified good guys, testing their decent Anglo-Saxon ingenuity against the dumb, sourpuss German guards—"an upper-crust game," as a character in Victory, the latest in this tried-and-true genre, portrays it. Indeed, although Nazis everywhere else are the very manifestation of evil, in P.O.W. movies they are, for some reason, usually quite civil, nearly congenial—oh, a bit naive, perhaps, maybe even a little testy when their patience is really tried, but archmonsters...?
P.O.W. escape is a sport, whether or not athletics are actually involved—as they were in The Wooden Horse (the 1951 flick in which prisoners dug a tunnel under a gymnastics horse), or now, in Victory, which features a soccer match between the Allied P.O.W.s and the German national team at Colombes Stadium in occupied Paris. This is all a fiction, of course, and a most improbable one, but entertaining enough, with a script that is fast-paced and engaging.
What is, alas, missing from Victory is that horrible oppressive proximity, that almost diseased symbiotic relationship between captive and captor, which usually is so involving in these films. Think of The Colditz Story and Stalag 17. The trouble with Victory is that, even for a P.O.W. tale, the Nazis are the most toothless of villains. Oh, yes, the Kommandant boasts an eye patch and an obligatory snarl, but nobody will be taken in by such artless tokenism; they might as well have given him a peg leg and a parrot and called this a pirate movie. The only German soldier that we ever get to know, the major who arranges the game (Max Von Sydow), is really quite a decent fellow.
Curiously, the German soccer club is brimming with dirty players who trip and punch the poor underfed P.O.W.s, secure in the knowledge that they will be protected by a partisan referee. How strange to make the German warriors nicer chaps than their football sportsmen. And Hollywood really should know better than to cloud up a climactic athletic contest with a rotten ref, for that takes so much away from all that a game means when the players have at it fair and square. Then, too, the ghastly intensity of a prison camp evaporates when the film moves too far afield. A soccer pitch, wonderfully verdant and open, is such a great contrast to the gray, inhibiting prison venue. (I also hated The Great Escape once Steve McQueen got out of the barbed wire and was barreling all over the green countryside on a motorcycle.) P.O.W. movies should stay in prison, is what I say.
The game is marvelously photographed by Gerry Fisher, under Second Unit Director Robert Riger, who used to be an illustrator for this magazine. There is also some stirring music by Bill Conti, who seems to have scored every sports film ever made. Victory is a professional effort, a well-mounted production under Director John Huston, even if it is never exceptional.
Michael Caine plays the captain of the P.O.W. team in his usual manner: detachment and cynicism giving way to real care. But then Caine always handles that well, invoking some Spencer Tracian qualities. Sylvester Stallone is the predictable wise-cracking Yank cast among the Limeys. Although Stallone is really a TV-type actor, à la Henry Winkler, completly associated with the one role of Rocky Balboa, he is rather appealing in Victory and even manages to put some distance between himself and South Philly. And while there is not so much as a French kiss in Victory (and only some appropriate dabs of obscenity and violence in this PG film), shots of the unshirted Stallone straining to escape will certainly prove breathtaking for anxious pectoral fans.
And for you soccer buffs, Pelè, playing a Trinidadian prisoner named Luis Fernandez (with overtones of Jesse Owens '36), performs gloriously, as do a passel of other international soccer luminaries, including Werner Roth, formerly of the Cosmos, who portrays the sinister German team captain; England's Bobby Moore; and Argentina's Osvaldo Ardiles. The problem with using real athletes, especially one so recognizable as Pelè, is that all illusion vanishes as soon as he starts to strut his stuff; everyone in the theater knows very well they are watching Pelè '81 and not Luis Fernandez '43. But then, maybe it doesn't matter that much, for escape films are escapist after all, and let's not quibble.