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Pele, Stallone and the enduring legacy of Escape to Victory

3:00 AM EDT 3/28/22
Sylvester Stallone Pele Escape to Victory GFX
In an exclusive interview with GOAL, Manchester City legend Mike Summerbee reveals what it was like behind the scenes of the iconic football film

When Mike Summerbee received a phone call from Bobby Moore asking if he wanted to make a film about football, he didn't realise exactly what he was signing up for.

“I thought it was going to be a documentary,” the former Manchester City star tells GOAL. “And then I ended up flying to Hungary and spending six weeks in Budapest making 'Escape To Victory'.”

More than 40 years since its release, the film is now seen as a cult classic, and one of the greatest sports movies ever made.

Set during World War II, 'Escape to Victory' tells the fictional story of a team of Allied prisoners of war who agree to a football match against Nazi Germany as a pretext for their prison break.

Directed by the Oscar-winning filmmaker John Huston, the film had a stellar acting line-up including Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone and Max von Sydow.

But what was unique about the casting, was the proliferation of footballers.

Summerbee and Moore had known each other since they were teenagers and roomed together on away trips with England, so it was hardly surprising that the centre-half persuaded his good friend to come on board.

However, there were also roles for Ossie Ardiles, Ipswich Town players John Wark, Russell Osman and Kevin O’Callaghan, another City legend in Kazimierz Deny and, most memorably of all, Pele.

“The footballers wanted to be actors and the actors wanted to be footballers,” Summerbee recalls.

“It was a different world being involved in acting because we didn't really think it was going be such a major film but it was such a great experience.

“We've been interviewed on television before football matches but that’s not like making a film. We just went along with it.”

Set in Paris, the filming actually took place in Hungary during the summer of 1980 before the start of the new season, although Summerbee had just played his final professional game for Stockport County.

At the time, Hungary was part of the Eastern Bloc and there were restrictions on what the cast and crew could do when the cameras weren’t rolling, but many of those involved ended up enjoying plenty of gin and tonics, and the potent local wine, back at their hotel.

“Budapest is a beautiful city,” Summerbee says. “Everything was restricted but we were okay; we weren't bothered.

"We stayed in a lovely hotel and there was amazing Beluga caviar; we had it for breakfast. It was that cheap we bought loads of it and brought it back with us.

“We enjoyed each other's company and the actors helped us be actors and we helped one or two of them be footballers.”

Locals were stunned by the arrival of Pele but the Brazilian superstar was part of the family on set and was affectionately known as Eddie, short for his full name Edson Arantes do Nascimento.

Pele and Moore had an enormous respect for each other going back to the famous match between Brazil and England at the 1970 Mexico World Cup.

But Summerbee said all the cast became friends and they would often have a kick-about before the day’s filming started.

He and Caine became friends and later, when he ran his own bespoke shirt making business, the actor became one of his clients.

They helped each other on the set, with Summerbee, who played PoW Syd Harmer, delivering two lines of a dialogue, while Chelsea fan Caine was helped with his footballing choreography.

“Michael is such a nice man and easy to get on and we were friends through the film, like everybody else,” Summerbee says. “When I was in Los Angeles, I went to see him and we had lunch together with our wives.

“I had a few lines but that wasn't a problem at all. Some of the actors were behind the camera when you were talking just to help. Michael didn't have to do too much on the field – a little bit but nothing spectacular.

“Pele was just a normal guy and everybody just got on with it.”

What has helped the film to stand the test of time is the storytelling but also the credibility of the footballing scenes, which are far more believable than those seen in many other sporting movies.

Care was taken to make them as realistic as possible, with Stallone even getting help from former England goalkeeper Gordon Banks to make his action scenes seem more plausible, although that didn’t stop him from dislocating a shoulder and breaking a rib after throwing himself to the ground to make a save.

The plot was different too.

So often sporting fiction can lack suspense, with the hero of a story inevitably rising to success in the final act, but there is much more to Escape To Victory than the actual match.

For example – spoiler alert – the Allies don’t even win the game, which ends in a 4-4 draw.

At the time, Stallone, fresh from boxing movies Rocky and Rocky II, had wanted to score a winning goal but, given he was the goalkeeper, he had to be told that it would be too far-fetched.

It’s that integrity and accuracy around the match action that has helped 'Escape to Victory' endure for so long.

“We helped to make that football film with the experience that we all had,” Summerbee adds.

“The goals were all done and then we helped to make it realistic. It is still being shown now so that shows it was pretty successful as a football film.”

Indeed, four decades on and there remains an audience for one of the best sporting movies ever made.