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Loved by fans, reviled by critics, veteran director John Huston directs Michael Caine and an all-star World XI in this jingoistic film about war, football and Englishness-under-fire
Michael Caine stars as John Colby, a former professional footballer whose career was abruptly ended by World War II. Now a prisoner of war in a German camp, Colby passes his time playing football with his fellow inmates while the other officers plan elaborate schemes for escaping. When challenged by Max von Sydow's Major Von Steiner to put together a team to take on the guards, Colby agrees with the promise of extra rations for the team.
Back at Nazi HQ, they are quick to sniff a possible propaganda opportunity. Say what you like about the Nazis, you can't fault their marketing. The match is quickly upgraded from a small 'friendly', to a full-scale match against the German national football team. ("But we've never beaten the English at football." How times change.) The Hun, of course, have no intention of playing fair. They never do.
The English officers aren't pleased. Colby is accused of collaborating and aiding the German propaganda machine, until they realise the match has escape potential.
The allied team put together by Caine includes the luminous talents of Pelé, Ossie Ardiles, Bobby Moore and, somewhat bizarrely, Sylvester Stallone in goal. Being the good soul that he is, Colby insists that eastern European footballers are allowed to join Rambo and Co from the concentration camps. An officer and a gentleman, then. And we thought he was just a talented holding midfielder with a sweet right foot.
Huston's source material was the series of real-life matches played in occupied Ukraine between Nazi officers and Dynamo Kiev. The victorious Ukrainians were rewarded by being sent to concentration camps by the Gestapo.
Huston's old-fashioned escape movie really comes to life during the beautifully choreographed football scenes, and the uplifting score is reminiscent of both The Great Escape and 'Dad's Army'.
Stallone's aggravating presence as the brash American goalkeeper is the only real blight on a thoroughly enjoyable 'Boy's Own'-style yarn. The final match in occupied Paris is a joy of cinematography, while the crowd singing 'La Marseillaise' is enough to have you blubbing like Paul Gascoigne.
In a nutshell: A cracking good story and some of the best football action committed to celluloid have made this a Bank Holiday classic. Just pretend Sylvester Stallone isn't there. It's for the best.
By Ben Reynolds
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