As a propaganda stunt, the Nazis arrange a football match during WWII between the national German team and a squad made up of Allied prisoners of war. However, the POW team see the game as a chance to attempt an audacious escape.
The match itself mirrors the events of the war: The Germans dominate the initial stages (thanks to a little judicious refereeing) and before you know it, the Krauts are 3-0 up. Even worse for the Allies, one of their leading players, Luis Fernandez (Pelé), is injured after a brutal challenge and soon the Nazis are winning 4-0.
A little determined rearguard from the Allies sees Terry Brady (Bobby Moore) score shortly before half-time, to the delight of the hitherto stony-faced French crowd.
At half time itself, Hatch (Sylvester Stallone) has a plan for the POWs to escape from the dressing room into the sewers of Paris.
But there are greater things at stake here than their freedom, and to the surprise of the British officers who’ve organised the escape, the Allies take the field again for the second half . . .
A lovely flowing run and finish by Carlos Rey (Osvaldo Ardiles) pulls the score back to 4-2 and as the French crowd and the players become more excited, the resulting bewilderment in the German defence leads to a third Allied goal, scored by Poland’s Paul Wolcek (Kazimierz Deyna).
The Allied comeback is almost complete when a shot hits the post and Doug Clure (Russell Osman) scores off the rebound, but it’s disallowed for offside.
The hobbling Luis Fernandez, his chest still badly bruised from the earlier tackle, comes back onto the field, and scores an overhead kick from Terry Brady ‘s cross, past the hapless German goalkeeper Schmidt (Laurie Sivell).
Major Karl Von Steiner (Max von Sydow) is moved enough to stand up and applaud the goal scored against his own side.
The French crowd, ecstatic at the Allied comeback, chants “Victoire!” constantly through the final minutes.
In the whimsical climax, the crowd breaks out of the stands and smothers the Allied team, who ultimately make their escape through the mob as they flee out of the Colombes Stadium.
Blessed with one of the silliest scripts in recent memory, this is a triumph of pre-production planning.
Can you imagine what this corny prisoner-of-war picture would have been like if producer Freddie Fields had not secured the services of Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, Max von Sydow and a squad of international footballing legends (including Pelé, Bobby Moore, Mike Summerbee and Tottenham Hotspur’s legendary Argentinian Ossie Ardiles)?
It’s pretty obvious that director John Huston didn’t quite know what to make of it all, but his sure touch and Pelé’s football choreography turn this into a rousing romp, made all the more enjoyable by the shocking performances of the players.
It’s escapist entertainment in every sense.
The film was shot in Hungary (apart from the climactic football match) and most of the action takes place in the prison compound which was built on a three-acre site a few miles outside Budapest.
Paul Van Himst
Pieter Van Beck
Major Karl Von Steiner
Max von Sydow