When Pelé, Stallone, and Ipswich Town took on the Nazis at the beautiful game

Escape to Victory a cult classic despite Stallone wanting the goalie to score winner

Critics of Escape to Victory down the years have often suggested that disbelief needs to be suspended from the highest rafter while watching it, which, of course, is a slur on the film’s certifiable authenticity.

Who, for example, would even have blinked at Michael Caine, the 47-year-old captain of the Allies' prisoner of war football team, deliberately breaking the arm of Kevin O'Callaghan, his team-mate, fellow POW, Republic of Ireland winger and the Allies' goalie, so that Sylvester Stallone, an American serving in the Canadian army, could take his place in a team that included Trinidadian soldier Pelé, Bobby Moore and a chunk of Ipswich Town for a game against the Nazis in occupied Paris?

What might actually have stretched belief was the casting people’s original plan to have Pelé play in goal, which would have been a little bit like getting Michelangelo to paint your downstairs toilet. His not unreasonable objections to the idea prompted them to turn to O’Callaghan who, like Pelé, had never played in goal in his life.

He had a fine football career, playing for Millwall, Ipswich, Portsmouth and Southend, like he’d told his agent he’d only ever sign for teams that wore blue, as well as picking up 21 caps for Ireland. He suffered no little misfortune, though, injuries ending his hopes of making it to Euro 88 and Italia 90. Missing out on the game in Paris, then, when he allowed Caine to break his arm – “try and make it a clean break, will ya?” – so that Stallone, central to the escape plans, could head to Paris with them, was just one of many setbacks he experienced along the way.



Escape to Victory was his sole foray into the film world, though, his excitement at seeing his name in the closing credits somewhat tempered by the fact that it was spelt wrong: "O'Calloghan." Mind you, that paled next to the disappointment John Wark experienced when he attended the premiere. "I had two lines in the movie, one of which was 'I'm having the top bunk'," he told the Scotsman last year. "At the premiere with some pals I nudged them and said: 'Listen to this, guys, it's my big moment!' Only when I opened my mouth on the screen it wasn't my Glasgow accent. The buggers had dubbed me."

O'Callaghan and Wark were two of a number of Ipswich players who spent five weeks in Hungary in the summer of 1980 filming Escape to Victory, their manager Bobby Robson having passed on an invite to his squad from a friend in the film industry who was looking for real footballers to take part.

Kevin Beattie was another who signed up, although his hopes of winning an Oscar were somewhat diminished by the fact this his chief role in the film was playing Michael Caine's legs. Ipswich goalkeeper Laurie Sivell wasn't overly chuffed with his part either, ending up in goal for the Nazis because he looked "Germanic", while his fellow goalie Paul Cooper had the task of making Stallone look a natural between the posts. Cooper would have been forgiven for turning to drink.

The Ipswich crew were paid about £6,000 each for their work on the film, opting for a lump sum rather than future royalties because they reckoned the film was unlikely to have staying power. Gutted.

They assumed they wouldn't have to speak in the film, so when it turned out that they had a sprinkling of lines between them, they nominated Wark to approach the producer Freddie Fields to ask for more money. "I said, 'I'm here on behalf of Ipswich Town. I think we should get more money or we're seriously thinking about leaving.' Freddie just said: 'F**k off.' I told the boys, 'I think we need to stick to what we've got'."

A host of other internationals were hired too, among them Holland's Co Prins, Poland's Kazimierz Deyna, Norway's Hallvar Thoresen, Belgium's Paul van Himst and Manchester City old boy Mike Summerbee who, by then, had retired (confession: when Caine offered Summerbee "double rations" if he agreed to play for the team, some of us thought at the time that he said "double rashers", thereby explaining Summerbee's eagerness to sign up).

As an Argentinian, Ossie Ardiles looked a little lost in Europe during the second World War. As a Brazilian in the film, Pelé would have too, troops from his homeland not arriving in Europe until 1944, the film set two or three years before that. So . . .

Caine [on spotting Pelé doing keepie uppies]: “Where did you learn to do that?!”

Pelé [in the strongest of Brazilian/Portuguese accents]: “When I was a boy. In Trinidad. On the street. With the oranges.”

Audience: “What?”

Any way, having worked with luminaries such as Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Jack Nicholson, it's unlikely that John Huston (The Maltese Falcon, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Key Largo, The African Queen, The Misfits, etc) ever envisaged a day he'd be directing, say, Mike Summerbee, and while the film ultimately proved successful, earning triple its budget of $10 million (€8.4 million), he wasn't entirely proud of it. It doesn't even get a mention in his autobiography, and he later admitted he took on the project purely for the loot.

Stallone, by then a megastar thanks to the success of Rocky, only got involved because he wanted to work with Huston, although the $1.8 million (€1.5 million) cheque made the role quite attractive too. He had no interest in football, though, telling critic Roger Ebert, who interviewed him during filming in Hungary, that he thought it was a "a sissy sport . . . until they kicked the ball into my stomach and I crossed the border into Austria with haematomas on both hips".

It's hard to describe Stallone's goalkeeping style in Escape to Victory, it being kind of a cross between Jordan Pickford and Rocky, involving a lot of grunting and shouts of "YEEEEEEEAH!", him regarding most attempts on goal much like he would an Apollo Creed punch to the gut. Rumour had it that Huston initially wanted Clint Eastwood for the part, the mind left boggling over the thoughts of what style he might have deployed. He would, perhaps, have just shot the approaching ball with a Colt 45 before lighting a cigar.

Arm-wrestling contest

Stallone, by all accounts, wasn’t overly popular with the rest of the cast, refusing to mix with them and often taking off to Paris or London on his private jet for a break from filming. On the one occasion he deigned to be in their company, he challenged Beattie to an arm-wrestling contest. Beattie won with both his right and left arms. “After that, he didn’t speak to me again.”

Stallone’s insistence that he score the winning goal in the game didn’t go down tremendously well either, him taking some persuading that goalies don’t commonly achieve this feat. In the end he settled for saving the penalty that earned the Allies a draw (“He needed plenty of takes to get it right as well,” Wark sniffed), making him happy he’d come out for the second half instead of escaping through the tunnel under the team bath in the dressing room at half-time.

The high point of the film, though, apart from the Allies’ glorious kit and Ardiles’ showboating, was that Pelé overhead kick that made it 4-4. How many takes were required? Well . . .

O’Callaghan: “There was no practice – it was done in one take. Pelé was aged 41 at the time and still had that athleticism.”

Russell Osman: "For Pelé's overhead kick, Laurie Sivell made a magnificent save. 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 could save it."

Werner 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."

Take your pick. But no matter, it was a thing of loveliness, and beautifully shot too, considering things were a bit low-tech 40 years ago. As Roth, the former US international, recalled, “Huston put a cameraman in an old World War II motorcycle with a sidecar, we were running up the field following it and the smoke was belching out of the muffler – we could hardly breathe.”

Escape to Victory is oft inserted in the “cult classic” category, a term usually reserved for efforts that are so bad they’re good. Which might be a fair assessment in this case. But as for having to suspend disbelief – you didn’t watch E.T. and think, “Hmm, haven’t seen many cute aliens with illuminated forefingers mountain-biking through the air ‘round here recently”. You just go with it. With apologies to Kevin O’Calloghan, there’s no harm in taking a clean break from reality.