Today is Veteran's Day here in the U.S. Naturally, a fitting way to celebrate the U.S.'s Veterans Day was to provide a review of Victory: a movie about French prisoners in World War II playing soccer against Nazis. Seems very fitting, especially since the movie stars Michael Caine (born in London), Pele (born in Brazil) and a slew of European soccer players. Well, maybe the movie doesn't perfectly fit Veteran's Day, but the options are limited when it comes to movies about soccer that also involve wars or American veterans. The list is rather slim, if such a list exists at all. At least this movie does star Sly Stallone. Nothing says American quite like a man who can barely speak English and has the nickname Itallian Stallion. He did help end the Cold War though. "If I can change...and you can change..." Anyways, onto the movie.
The premise of Victory is rather simple. French prisoners of war (POW's) are being held by the Nazis. An exhibition match is set up between Nazi players and the French prisoners. The match is basically a propaganda move for the Nazis since they are going to send in their best players against the lowly prisoners and crush the French prisoners. Through this exhibition match the Nazis will be able to send the message to the other POWs that Germany is the superior country. Apparently the logic is that if your soccer team can beat a bunch of prisoners, then your country is the greatest in all other walks of life. I would say this is faulty logic except that there is actually some truth to it. Outside the US, soccer is king. And if a national team performs well, the entire country has a sense of pride and confidence. I have no doubt that after Spain won the EuroCup in 2008, the entire country believed they were the greatest country in Europe, if not the world. But not just on the soccer field, but the greatest in all areas: cost of living, quality of life, crime rates, infant mortality rates, country size, best place to vacation, etc. However you measure a country, in the summer 2008, according to a Spaniard Spain was the greatest and at the top of every list, because their national team was the best. How else can you explain Brazil and Argentina being recognized by other countries in Europe or North America? If they didn't have dominate soccer players and national teams, there is no way any other country would think twice about them or engage in trade with those countries. Look at Chavez in Venezuela. He's doing all he can to be noticed by the international community. If he wants to be noticed so bad, he should just have his country win the World Cup.
Back to the movie. So what the Nazis don't know is that they aren't playing against French prisoners, but actually the greatest soccer player ever (Pele) and a slew of other professional players. That actually never comes out in the movie, but it does help for the quality of soccer in the movie. It's always difficult to portray sports in movies. The greatest way to see a sporting match is from start to finish where you can see how each play is influenced by the ones before an after. You can't really show every play in a movie, so you have to rely on quality film making and quality play. Victory is good because you can tell that the actors are really the ones on the field. For whatever reason you connect more with the actors and players when you see them throughout the movie and on the field. Victory doesn't do any of the ambiguous camera shots where the players head is missing so you don't know if the actor is the one kicking or catching the ball or if it is some stand in. For instance, with the famous bicycle kick by Pele in the movie, you can tell that he is the one doing the bicycle. He clearly doesn't hit the bicycle on the actual cross, but he's still the one that hits it. If you are doing a movie that focuses on sports, the film is better when the game scenes are top quality. Sometimes you have to sacrifice quality acting for the quality play, but the casting of Stallone shows that acting wasn't a top priority anyways.
The only place where the quality of play lacks is with Stallone (can't act or play) in the climatic final scene where the game is tied and the Nazis have just been awarded a penalty kick with no time left. The penalty kick taken by the Nazi player has about as much power as a kick by a 10 year old girl. Stallone is the French goalie and he actually makes a believable save. He makes you think that there was some power behind the shot even though it was just a chip shot. The only part where Stallone lacks is when he kicks the ball after getting up and celebrating. He doesn't exactly kick the ball 80 feet triumphantly into the air. Rather, it looks more like a line drive shank that hits some player standing nearby in the face.
For what it is, a sports movie made in the 80's, Victory is actually worth seeing. I realize this has been more of a rambling than a review. But I was inspired to write about it when I read that it was loosely based on a true story called The Death Match. Many people may know about this match, but for those not wanting to read the Wikipedia page, here is a brief summary: Because of the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the 1941 Soviet soccer season was never completed (invasions tend to really put a hamper on a soccer season). Kiev happened to be a city that was actually taken over by the Germans. Some of the players from Dynamo Kiev, the professional team in that city, had gone on to fight for the Soviets, while other stayed behind to help fortify the city. Once the city was captured, those that stayed behind became prisoners of war to the Germans. In brief, a former player rounded up a bunch of other players still in the city, including some of the players from Dynamo, and they started a team called FC Start. They played other teams that were comprised of players from various garrisons. Anyways, they end up thumping the German team and the German team eventually wants a rematch. The picture is of the poster which advertised the rematch. However, the second time around an SS officer is the referee and he basically lets the Germans beat up the FC Start players. It doesn't matter though as Start still outplay the Germans and go on to victory. Sadly, the victory is short lived as the following week some of the players are rounded up by the Gestapo for being part of the NKVD - the Russian police organization. Dynamo Kiev was a police funded club so that is the connection and the justification for the arrest-interesting it doesn't come out before the game/German loss. One of the players died under torture and others were sent to labor camps where some of them eventually died. A pretty sad story.
So there are some similarities between the movie and what actually happened. I think the movie does a great job of demonstrating the power of soccer and portraying how it can bring people together. It is amazing how soccer can help us escape reality and give masses of people and entire countries a feeling of pride no matter their situation. You get that in the movie when the POWs are singing the French anthem before the final shot. A great moment. Similarly, the Germans had to realize and be legitimately worried that a makeshift group of players from Kiev were crushing other teams and giving their city a reason to be happy and have pride in an otherwise extremely gloomy time. In the movie, the Nazis end up cheering for the French players after the game. Also, somehow in the melee of the post-match celebration, the French players are able to escape. This would lead one to believe that the prisoner of war camps weren't that tight on security. Apparently, history tells us that wasn't the case. It's just unfortunate that the real life ending isn't as glorious as the movie ending.