Behind the scenes of the greatest soccer movie ever made
When it comes to the best sports film of all time, each sport has its own candidate. Baseball fans will argue for films such as Bull Durham, The Natural and Field of Dreams. American football fans usually choose a film from their youth—from Remember the Titans dating all the way back to the original version of The Longest Yard. But for soccer fans, the conversation begins and ends with Victory (or Escape to Victory as it is known in Europe). Filmed nearly four decades ago on location in Hungary, the fictional World War II tale about a soccer game between a group of allied prisoners and Nazi Germany’s national team still enjoys a steady rotation on movie channels around the world. Perhaps that’s because the film had an all-star cast of soccer’s greatest stars at the time—headlined by the legend himself, Pelé. As Pelé filled stadiums of fans in the North American Soccer League, Hollywood looked to capitalize on the sport’s growing popularity in the United States. Academy Award-winners Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine were casted to star in the film, with legendary director John Huston at the helm. This is the story of how Hollywood teamed up with the soccer world’s biggest stars to make a film that remains a fan favorite.
Jeff Maguire, Oscar-nominated screenwriter for In the Line of Fire: Had they made the version of Victory I wrote, it probably wouldn’t be watched today by kids who love soccer. I was 25 years old, and I had just moved to Los Angeles. I wanted to set the world on fire and be seen as a serious movie writer. I worked on it with a partner, Djordje Milicevic, who was an aspiring director. I did a lot of research on World War II and the Nazis, and whatever I found was horrible. No matter what horrible thing I put in the movie, the Nazis had done way worse. My draft was pretty brutal in a lot of ways. The Germans were not treated well at all. When Freddie Fields and the other producers came in to work on the film, I think they realized that they were going to lose the German market if they went with a script that had really ruthless, horrible Nazis. They wanted to have some top German players in the film and attract a German audience. I had a lot of humor in it, but I also had people getting machine gunned ruthlessly. I always imagined this as an R-rated movie because of the violence. They brought in Evan Jones to rewrite our script. I thought they kind of dumbed it down to reach a larger audience. I remember one reviewer saying it was like World War II in a parallel universe, where the Nazis were decent guys, and that’s kind of how I felt about it as well.
Russell Osman, Ipswich Town center back: During the 1981-82 football season back home, the manager of the Ipswich club, Bobby Robson, called a players meeting and said, “Listen, there’s this film being made in June and July. Would anyone like to go along and make it?” He gave us a rough idea that it was a prisoner of war-style film with some football in it. As far as we knew, we were going to go and help out with the soccer scenes. We weren’t really sure who was going to be involved at the time. Six weeks was more or less the whole summer break for us. I was single at the time, and we had quite a busy season, a successful season. I think that’s why Bobby Robson was approached in the first place. I had nothing else planned, so we made that early commitment.
When we first arrived there, Bobby Moore was there, Mike Summerbee, Osvaldo Ardiles, so we knew they would be involved. The first day, they told us, “Make yourselves at home. You’ve got dialogue tomorrow with Michael Caine.” I said, “Wait a minute, we’re here to do just the football scenes.” And they said, “No, there’s a bit more than that. There’s a character to be played.” The next day, I’m sitting down, doing a scene with Michael Caine.
John Wark, Ipswich Town midfielder: We thought we were just going there to play football. We didn’t realize that we would have speaking parts. It wasn’t until we got out there and we saw Pelé, Bobby Moore, Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, that we thought, “Oh my God, this is actually a proper movie!’
Mike Summerbee, Manchester City winger and forward: The phone call came out of the blue. “Hey, Miguel, how are you?” It was Bobby Moore on the line, and that’s what he called me. “Fancy being a film star?” he said. My immediate thought was that he meant a football documentary or something like that. “No, I’m serious,” Bobby said. “This is a proper film, with Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.”
Shep Messing, New York Cosmos goalkeeper: One day after practice, Pelé asked me and Werner Roth if we wanted to be in a movie he was making. He told me it was going to be a real movie with people like Michael Caine in it, and they would be filming in Hungary for about six weeks. At the time, my wife was four months pregnant, so there was no way I could do it. But Pelé wanted me to come to lunch at Tavern on the Green to meet some of the people working on the movie. That’s where I met Sylvester Stallone. They had wanted me to be the German goalkeeper and Stallone, of course, would be the American goalkeeper. After lunch, we went out on the grass, and I was trying to show Stallone what it was like to be a goalkeeper. He was really concerned about what was going on in my head. How do goalies think? So we threw a few balls his way. He was like a bodybuilder, really fit, but obviously he wasn’t a very good goaltender, because he had never done it before. So I was trying to give him a few tips. I told him, “Goalies always have a rule. When in doubt, punch it out.” So then we were sending balls his way, and he was punching every ball that came his way! Left hooks, right crosses…
Werner Roth, New York Cosmos defender: Pelé said, “They are having a difficult time casting a role for this movie I’m doing.” And I was always interested in film. At the time, the New York Cosmos were owned by Warner Communications. So, of course, who do I need to kill to get this role? Freddie Fields, who was a good friend of Ahmet Ertugan [President of Atlantic Records and founder of the New York Cosmos], was producing the movie. We went out to Los Angeles and looked at the script. Apparently, it was the story of a historical event that happened during World War II. I was interested in playing one of the allies, not the German bad guys. They said I could pick my part.
Maguire: There was a book written about a historical event that happened in Ukraine during World War II, but we weren’t aware of that story at the time. Yabo Yablonsky had written the original script for the film. I don’t know if Yablonsky was aware of that story when he wrote his script. He had given the script to his attorney, who was the same attorney that a producer named Al Ruddy had. Later on, Al Ruddy made The Longest Yard. Yablonsky and other people had always felt that Al Ruddy had taken the idea of The Longest Yard—prisoners who play against their guards—from his script, but he couldn’t prove that Al Ruddy had taken it. Ruddy was one of those old school producers that didn’t care who he ran roughshod over. His script was similar to The Longest Yard in that it all took place in one prison camp. We introduced the idea of them rounding up all of the top players in Europe and staging it in Paris. The escape was our idea as well. There was no escape in Yabo Yablonsky’s script. It was very similar to The Longest Yard.
Roth: We’re at dinner at the Intercontinental Hotel in Budapest, where they filmed the movie. It’s the director John Huston, Pelé, Freddie Fields and myself. My luggage had been left in Heathrow Airport in London, so I was wearing torn jeans, sandals, a t-shirt and wraparound sweater. Pelé picked me up at the hotel, and he was wearing a baby blue tuxedo! Everyone, even the waiters, were dressed in tuxedos! I thought, “Man, I’m going to make such a bad impression.” When I get to the table, John Huston was wearing a Mexican wraparound, so I immediately felt more comfortable. Huston said, “Look, we’re really having difficulty casting this guy, Bauman, the German captain, and we really think you are the right guy for the part.” I said, “No, he doesn’t really have a speaking role. He’s the bad guy!” Huston says, “I’m going to give you a scene at the climax of this picture.” And you know how directors make a rectangle with their pointer fingers and thumbs to create a screen? He pointed it at me and said, “It’s going to be you…” and then he pointed the frame at Pelé, “and Stallone! You! And Stallone!” How do you say no to that?
Summerbee: Bobby Moore and I flew out on a Hungarian Airlines flight to Budapest, and we sat at the very back of the plane. We thought we’d try out the Hungarian wine. We’d had a few when the plane landed, and outside we could see a real hubbub with lots of camera crews there. “We’re going to be movie stars,” Bobby said. We had a few drinks in us. By the time we got off the plane, of course, everyone had gone. We found out that Pelé, one of our co-stars, had been in first class on the same plane, and they had all come to film the arrival of the Brazilian football legend, the greatest player in the history of the game.
Maguire: When they told us they wanted to work Pelé into the movie, I protested, because there was no way the Nazis would have let a black guy play. He would have been dead as soon as he was caught, because they were as brutal to blacks as they were to gypsies and homosexuals, as they were to Jews. So I thought it was crazy to try to weave Pelé into it, which goes to show what I know because it’s become one of the best photographic records that we have of Pelé in 35-millimeter, and its great that he’s on film. It’s probably why the film still resonates today.
Summerbee: We had to buy visas just to get into Hungary—twenty dollars each. We found a taxi and were introduced to the world of Hungarian F1 drivers. Every cabbie was completely mad in Budapest; every journey was a race, even if it was only a hundred yards. The view was great at the hotel, where they put the pair of us (Summerbee and Bobby Moore) on the top floor in adjoining suites. This was more like being a film star.
Roth: I was in Budapest for six weeks with Pelé, my old buddy, and half of the Ipswich team, who played the allied team. We hit every pub that you can imagine in those six weeks. I was at the set every day to watch John work. I had such a small part, I didn’t even have a car, but John Huston was at the same hotel, so he would give me a ride to and from the set every day. I would listen to him talk about his objectives for the movie. I sat in on all the dailies. It was a great experience.
Osman: We had a few days off occasionally. Mr. Stallone would decide he needed a few days off, and would head to Paris, while we would wait around to film again. When he’d come back, we’d pretend that nothing happened.
Michael Caine, Oscar-winning actor: “I like Sly. We used to get away together whenever we could. We would race to the airport on Friday nights, waving our credit cards and shouting: “When’s the next plane out—to anywhere?” Usually it was Paris or London. We would go eating, drinking and falling down a lot. He’s a good man!”
Osman: When we’d get bored, we kicked the ball around. You might have your army boots and full army kit on, but you still enjoyed it. With guys like Bobby Moore, Pelé, Osvaldo Ardiles there, these were world class players. If you weren’t needed until the afternoon, you might go and have a drink around the corner and chill out, and we did that in the evening as well. We’d go to different restaurants, and Pelé would come with his manager and his guitar, have a beer or a gin and tonic. They would play the guitar. It was all good fun.
Summerbee: We didn’t call him Pelé. To us, he was Eddie, because that’s the name he likes. His real name is Edson Arantes do Nascimento. One thing I noticed was that all of the actors wanted to be footballers — and all the footballers wanted to be actors. We used to have a match every morning, just messing around, and the actors would join in. But I think we learned more from them because anyone could kick a football.
Wark: Pelé was 40 at the time, but he was still unbelievable. We were all international players, some of the top players in the world, and even when we were playing Piggy in the Middle, he would be taking the mickey out of us all the time, and he was much older than we were. It was hard to believe how talented he was.
Roth: We were always kicking the ball around. There was a lot of downtime. As often as not, half of the Ipswich team would be down at the local pub, and the assistant director would have to get them back on the set.
Wark: We were on the set from seven in the morning to seven at night. As footballers, we weren’t use to that (laughs). It was actually quite boring at times, just hanging out. Then suddenly, you’re needed for a few minutes here or a few minutes there. I used to play chess with Ossie Ardiles just to keep busy. At night, we’d go back to the hotel for dinner and drinks. Can you imagine just sitting at a table with Pelé and Bobby Moore, Michael Caine and Ardiles, just talking about life. What a great time it was!
Summerbee: There were no acting lessons; you just had to look and learn. At six o’clock the next morning [after we arrived], they took us out to the set where the POW camp had been mocked up, thirty miles out of the city. They cut our hair short and gave us our uniforms and a script. We went into one of the POW huts that doubled as a cafeteria for the movie in the mornings. Michael Caine was there. He already knew Bobby. The actor Max Von Sydow was there, and Stallone and Pelé. They had no idea who I was at the start, and I wondered if I would be out of my depth.
Maguire: The producers really took it easy on the Nazis. In my script, the Max Von Sydow character was pretty brutal. He had been humiliated because of this injury he had received in Africa. I had a whole back story on how he had been slated to be a great general, and he can only get around with canes. We also had a character who was based on Leni Riefenstahl. She was an actress, and then she became a director and a favorite of Hitler’s. She did the movie Triumph of the Will, and she did Olympiad. We had it where the Max Von Sydow character makes it this grand spectacle, working with the Riefenstahl character to film the Nazi dominance over the Allies.
Roth: One of the best scenes that Pelé had was the pregame preparation of how the allies prepared to meet this goliath of a club, the German national football team. There was a scene with a blackboard, where Michael Caine was wielding the chalk. Half of the team was sitting in the bunks, and Michael Caine is doing his strategy, Pelé jumps down from the upper bunk, and says, “Coach, give me the ball here, I do this, this, this, this, this, goal! Easy!” Pelé completely made that all up on the spot. He totally ad-libbed that. It wasn’t in the script.
Caine: They (Bobby Moore and Pelé) gave me advice all the time. Bobby’s first tip was: “Don’t get in the other team’s way, otherwise they’ll kill you!” And Pelé showed me how to kick the ball properly. We were wearing old clobber from the wartime period, remember, and the boots and the ball were both far heavier than today.
Maguire: I had a scene originally where the Allies try to escape even before the game. I had read about attempted escapes and uprisings in camps during the war. There was an episode where long before the game, the Allies were determined to escape, so they dug a tunnel, similar to The Great Escape. I thought it was a riveting scene because when the Nazis would discover a tunnel, they would flood it with water to destroy the tunnel. So the guys would be in the tunnel as the water is flooding, and one of the players, who is Polish, goes in an essentially sacrifices himself by holding the water back with a board, while the other guys climb out of the hole into their hut. He dies, and it’s terrible because you’ve become emotionally attached to him as a character.
Summerbee: The greatest difficulty in making Escape to Victory was trying to make the football action seem authentic. The secret of this was that they put great actors in and then great footballers to make it look like a proper game. There were three phases: the build-up to the game, the game itself, and the escape. In the build-up, the actors were teaching us how to make it look as if we were acting. Michael Caine insisted we all had some words to say, and that pleased us.
Osman: Once we started filming the football, it started off being a little too choreographed. We had a soccer sports director doing the directing of the football scenes originally. No disrespect to him, but he didn’t understand the game as well as the players did. They had some of the best players in the world there. Players like Werner Roth, Pelé and Bobby Moore, they would have a chat and tell them it’s better if we have an idea of how you want the game to go, and then we’ll make it happen. Let the game of football start to take shape, and we’ll work in what we need to work in.
Roth: Robert Riger was an incredible sports photographer and filmmaker. He and Roone Arledge created Wide World of Sports. He would place cameramen in the most dangerous parts of sports, like along the course in downhill ski racing. Although he wasn’t a football aficionado, he researched everything, and came to Budapest with a choreographed script. He asked Pelé, Bobby Moore and myself for a meeting the first day he arrived to talk about how to shoot the action footage. If the action footage isn’t believable, very little else can be. For him and John, this was the crux of getting it done right. John’s understanding of the choreography came from baseball and American football, which was the game he loved, where players have much more control of the ball, and thus, the action. He was trying to choreograph what was in the script. Pelé, Bobby and myself said right from the beginning that it’s not going to work, because you don’t have that much control as a soccer player. If you try to do that, you are just going to confuse players. So he said, “The first weekend, let’s try shooting it my way, and we’ll go from there.”
The first day he wanted to shoot a confrontation between my character and Pelé. There’s a scene where Pelé has been injured. He has broken ribs, and he does a one-on-one with my character, and I keep punching him in the ribs. He put a cameraman in an old World War II motorcycle with a sidecar. So the motorcycle is on the field in front of us, with the cameraman in the sidecar. We are going to be running up the field following the motorcycle, and Pelé is going to keep dribbling, while I defend him. We start, and the smoke is belching out of the muffler of this motorcycle. We can hardly breathe. In the dailies you can see the smoke from the motorcycles. It’s like two players enveloped in fog.
After that weekend, Bob realized that this wasn’t the way to shoot the game action. Everyone looked like we were waiting for the ball. We came up with a strategy where we put three or four cameras on the field in strategic locations and just played the game full out. We didn’t follow any scripted material. In the editing, they would incorporate the attacks and the shots and misses and near misses and all that stuff. So the reason you got such great football footage is because we were actually playing. There’s one or two scenes where if you look closely, we may not be playing full tilt, but most people can’t even tell.
Wark: It was actually us against a Hungarian first division team, so that’s why it looks like a proper game. Everybody was playing hard, getting stuck in, that’s why it seems like a proper game on film.
Caine: I was the only non-footballer in the team, so everyone used to attack me—particularly the Hungarian team, who were playing as the Germans. But I had some good things with Bobby Moore and Pelé. They made me look good every now and then, just to show I was better than they were, because I was supposed to be a better guy than all of them. You get in some funny situations in movies.
Wark: Kevin Beattie, one of my Ipswich teammates, basically was Michael Caine’s legs in the film. You would see Michael Caine jogging on the field in some scenes, but when he really had to run, it would be Kevin, because Michael wasn’t fit enough to play in the games.
Osman: The goals happened quite naturally. As players, we would say, OK, now we have to dominate the game for the next five or ten minutes. In a way you have to try to allow us to score. It all went exceptionally smoothly, and it was a credit to the players involved.
Wark: I remember they would stop the game from time to time so they could move the crowd into a certain part of the stadium and you could see them. That’s what made the stadium look full. If we were trying to score a goal, they would move them behind the net, so you could hear them roar.
Maguire: We thought it was always ludicrous that these guys had a chance to escape at halftime and then said, “No, let’s go back and win the game.” I felt like this was a war. These guys are officers, and one of their sworn duties was to try to escape. The players are aware that they are not in the best of shape. They haven’t been fed that well and they are being used for propaganda purposes. The whole idea is that they are going to go out and be humiliated by the Nazis, so they don’t even want to go out and play the game. But along the way, somebody refuses and gets shot in front of them. Eventually they said, look we are getting fed better so we at least look like we can play, let’s use this as a way to escape before the game even happens. Then everything goes awry in the tunnel. Then they have to try to escape at halftime.
We had written a whole brutal scene where they escape through the sewers of the stadium. The resistance sets up a men-at-work scenario going into a manhole and down into the sewers under the guise of being repairmen. They get to the stadium to help the players get away. Someone makes a mistake that tips the Nazis off that these aren’t repairmen, so the Nazis send soldiers down into the hole as the players are escaping. So it’s crosscutting between the Nazis entering the hole and the players trying to escape. Are they going to find them in time? So when the players try to escape, they are confronted by the Nazis who open fire on them. The resistance is also armed, and they fire back. The players get caught in the cross fire between the resistance and the Nazis. Several of the players are killed, and its emotional because some of the players you’ve become attached to are gone The rest make it back to the locker room, bloodied and wounded. And that’s when this brutal Nazi officer who put the whole thing together tells them they have to go out and play, or they will get killed right now. And we know at the end of the game that they’ll be executed anyway. One of the players killed is the goalie, and that’s why the American has to get in goal for the second half. And so it becomes that we have to win this game to avenge having our comrades killed underground. So they win the game, we think they are going to die, and that’s when the crowd sweeps them away.
Osman: The only soccer scene that was choreographed was Pelé’s overhead kick in the second half, and the final penalty shot.
Wark: If you look closely on Pelé’s goal at the end of the game, Bobby Moore is crossing the ball in. Bobby was one of the greatest defenders of all time. (laughs) He wouldn’t be the guy crossing the ball in, but I guess they wanted him to be part of the final scene.
Osman: For Pelé’s overhead kick, Laurie Sivell, the Ipswich goalkeeper who was in goal for the German side, made a magnificent save (laughs). It was a stupid thing to do, but it was a natural reaction for him. I believe the second shot went over the net, and the third time, there was no way Laurie couldn’t save it anyway.
Roth: I think Pelé must have done about a dozen takes on that particular shot. I do remember that he took one that was beautiful, brilliantly executed, and they were reloading the cameras, so he had to do it again.
Wark: The shot they used of Pele’s goal, it went right into the top corner. I don’t think there was anyone else in the world who could make that kick the way he did as quickly as he did it.
Osman: Overall, I thought Sylvester Stallone did a good job. It was difficult sometimes. You could see how excited he was when he made saves. You see in the final scene, he makes the save, and we’re all supposed to go hug him and congratulate him, and he’s spinning around like a whirlwind. You didn’t want to get pole-axed in the jaw trying to hug him. You didn’t want to get knocked out by Rocky.
Roth: For the final sequence, the game footage was shot over a number of weekends, and culminated in a penalty shot between Stallone’s character and myself. So they filmed the stadium scenes, and they filled the stadium with local people that they attracted through these game show contests. They would give people tickets, and at the end of the day, they would pull tickets and give away mopeds and televisions, and that’s how they got their 6,000 fans that were supposed to represent these 30,000-40,000 fans. So I am supposed to take the penalty and Stallone saves it. Everyone is supposed to run on the field, surround the team, camouflage them in a variety of jackets and coats, and crash through the gate. The whole premise of the film’s ending is the escape of the allied players into the streets of France with the resistance, who would scurry them off into hiding.
Even though Robert Riger was in charge of shooting the action footage, John Huston directed the last scene himself. He goes through it with translators, speaking through bullhorns to connect with those 6,000 fans. They laid out this last scene. It’s a Sunday afternoon, the end of the day, and he has these huge erector-set things with cameras up in the sky for the shots. There is only going to be one take. All of these fans are supposed to storm out of the stands when the game is over, right? So the game ends, the final gun goes off, they storm out of the stands, across the track, and they stop just short of the touch line. Nobody would step out onto the field! The good communists, they couldn’t actually believe that they wanted them to run on the nice grass field. “Cut!” John goes totally berserk! When he gets into the car, he is fuming! Now they have to reschedule the whole shoot for another weekend, and communicate to the fans what they want again. I think the next weekend he got the shot he wanted, but everyone had to stay in Budapest for another week.
Wark: The final scene was actually quite scary to shoot. The fans all run on the field, and it’s like a stampede, and we had to run with them. You were afraid that you might trip and get trampled. It was really scary. We’re footballers. We were trying just not to get injured right before we had to go back to our clubs. After that scene, we were done. I think we were in Hungary for six weeks. After the film came out, they had a premiere at Ipswich, and I was watching it with two of my teammates. I told them, “Here come my lines!” I had two lines in the film, and when I heard them, I said, “Wait a minute. That’s an Edinburgh accent.” After all of that, they had dubbed my voice in the movie!
Osman: It was a remarkable experience. If it wasn’t for that, regardless of my football career, I probably wouldn’t be talking to you today. The film has a cult status in its own way. Every year around Christmas, I’ll get text messages: “Your bloody film is on again.”
Wark: People always ask if we get royalties for the film: Our coach at Ipswich, Bobby Robson, had negotiated our fee for the movie. We thought it was just to play football. When we realized that we had speaking parts, the boys asked if I would go to the head chap and ask for more money. So about two weeks into filming, I went to see the producer, Freddie Fields, at the hotel. I said, “I’m here on behalf of Ipswich Town. I think we should get more money or royalties or we’re seriously thinking about leaving. And Freddie Fields just said, “Fuck off!” (laughs) I told the boys, “I think we need to stick to what we’ve got.” It’s funny when you think you have a little pull.
Summerbee: Decades on, it is still being showed on television here in Britain and all over the world. I remember one day I was walking on a beach in Portugal and people started shouting to me, ‘Hey, Syd, how are you, Syd?’ I knew then it was a cult film.
Wark: I played football at top level for a long time with Ipswich Town, Liverpool, Scotland. But most people don’t talk about my career, they talk about the movie. We went to Portugal for a golf tournament last summer. It was me, Russell Osman, Ossie Ardiles and Kevin Callaghan, and people were wanting pictures with us. Oh, you were in that movie. It wasn’t because we were top footballers. It was because we were in Escape to Victory.
Michael Caine quotes courtesy of Arise Sir Michael Caine: The Biography by William Hall
Mike Summerbee quotes courtesy of Mike Summerbee: The Autobiography by Mike Summerbee