This movie is based on Two Halves in Hell, a 1962 Hungarian film directed and co-written by Zoltan Fabri also known as The Last Goal. Based on a story about a soccer match — yes, football in the rest of the world — between German soldiers and Ukranian POW’s during World War II, it’s also the inspiration for The Longest Yard. The major difference is that the Nazis kill all of the good guys in Fabri’s version of this story.
In truth, the so-called Death Match — in which FC Dynamo Kyiv defeated German soldiers — probably never happened. The team did actually play several matches against German teams and won all of them before they were sent to prison camps where at least four were killed long after the games were played.
Escape to Victory, as this movie is also known, features plenty of major soccer stars of ist era, including Bobby Moore, Osvaldo Ardiles, Kazimierz Deyna, Paul Van Himst, Mike Summerbee, Hallvar Thoresen, Werner Roth and perhaps the best player of all time, Pele.
A team of Allied POW’s — who are coached by English Captain and former West Ham United star John Colby (Michael Caine) agree to play an exhibition match against a German team. However, they soon learn that this is all a publicity stunt.
Meanwhile, Robert Hatch (Sylvester Stallone), an American who served with the Canadian Army, nags Colby into joining the team, which is a cover for an escape attempt. However, the coach worries that this will get his team killed.
Hatch escapes to Paris and facilitates an escape plan with the French resistance and allows himself to be recaptured so that he can send messages from British High Command to officers who are inside the camp. To get Hatch on the team, Colby has to break his goalkeeper’s arm and then trains the American on how to play.
At halftime, the team is down 4-1 thanks to bad officiating, despite the star power of Luis Fernandez (Pele), Carlos Rey (Osvaldo Ardiles) and Terry Brady (Bobby Moore). Hatch shows that he can play goal and the team rallies back to deny a German win and escape anyway as the crowd shouts victory.
George Mikell continues his multiple roles as a German soldier (he also plays one in The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape) and he’s joined by Max von Sydow as Major Karl von Steiner. It’s all directed by John Huston, whose career goes from the highs of The Maltese Falcon to the lows of acting in films like The VIsitor (which I love, but…man, night and day).
Sylvester Stallone started soccer training while filming Nighthawks under England’s World Cup-winning goalkeeper, Gordon Banks. After a dislocated shoulder and breaking one of his ribs, Stallone said that soccer been harder than fighting in the Rocky movies. Apocryphically, it’s said that he wanted to score the winning goal at the end of the film and it had to be explained that goalies don’t get to do that, so the penalty kick scene was added in.
Maybe Sly was right! Since this movie was made, goalkeepers have abandoned the net and gone forward for a last-minute set-piece such as a corner, adding to the team’s numbers in the area near the goal. As a yinzer, I can only assume that this is like pulling the goalie in hockey. Manchester United Peter Schmeichel actually scored a goal in 1997 under these conditions.