Escape to Victory: Pele, Sylvester Stallone & war-time football fantasy

Pele Escape to Victory

A Christmas tradition in many households involves gathering round the television and some films in particular have become associated with the festive period.

John Huston's 1981 film Escape to Victory is one of those memorable shows, particularly in the United Kingdom and Ireland. 

A cult classic among football fans, it has absolutely nothing to do with Christmas, but evokes memories of that time of year for many and boasted a stellar cast that packed full of well-known footballers.

With the festivities in full swing, Goal takes a look back at the film that may well be gracing your screen during the holidays.


Escape to Victory, or simply Victory as it was billed as in the United States, is an action-adventure film directed by the highly respected John Huston set during World War II.

The plot revolves around the predicament of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) as they conspire to break loose from their German captors, while preparing for and playing in an exhibition game of football against them.

We won't spoil the story for you, but, there are echoes of the 1963 war epic The Great Escape - itself also a Christmas favourite - which, interestingly, also featured the actor George Mikell.


Michael Caine Bobby Moore Escape to Victory

The film boasted plenty of star quality, with multiple Academy Award nominee Michael Caine and Rocky actor Sylvester Stallone the leading men of the cast.

Caine and Stallone - who played Captain John Colby and Captain Robert Hatch respectively - were supported by the likes of Max von Sydow and George Mikell.

Notably, the cast included a number of famous footballers, including World Cup winners Bobby Moore and Pele, as well as a host of other professional players.

What footballers were in Escape to Victory?

The pool of footballers used in the film were drawn from across the world and many of them had enjoyed or were enjoying successful careers.

In addition to Pele and Moore, Tottenham hero Ossie Ardiles, former Ajax striker Co Prins and Polish star Kazimierz Deyna were among the glittering supporting cast.

Furthermore, England World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks was enlisted to aid with the choreography for Stallone's game scenes. It appears to have worked too, with Pele remarking in an interview with ABC Sports: "People are going to be very surprised, because he became a good player. Seriously, he catches well!"

Pele, who played a soldier from Trinidad and Tobago rather than Brazil, featured prominently and is to the fore some of the movie's most memorable scenes, including the finale.

PeleCorporal Luis Fernandez
Bobby MooreTerry Brady
Osvaldo ArdilesCarlos Rey
Soren LindstedErik Ball
Paul Van HimstMichel Flieu
Mike SummerbeeSid Harmer
Hallvar ThoresenGunnar Hilsson
Kazimierz DeynaPaul Wolchek
Werner RothBaumann
Co PrinsPieter van Beck
John WarkArthur Hayes
Russell OsmanDoug Clure
Kevin O'CallaghanTony Lewis
Laurie SivellSchmidt
Robin TurnerGerman player
Kevin BeattieStand-in for Michael Caine
Paul CooperStand-in for Sylvester Stallone

Stallone was effusive in his praise of his footballer co-stars and waxed lyrical about "the balletic qualities" of football while promoting the film.

"That ball comes in at close to 100 miles an hour and these players are running at almost full tilt, so when you slow it down you see the coordination and what is involved in manipulating the ball downfield," he told ABC Sports when reflecting on the work of cinematographers Gerry Fisher and Robert Riger.

"It's totally different to any other sport I've ever come across. You don't really realise the genius of Pele until you see it slowed down - how can anyone have 800 muscles coordinated at the same time? It's incredible. I boxed a little bit and played a lot of [American] football, but I've never quite come upon a sport that, you might say is universally accepted, but dexterious. You need intelligence, you need speed, you need endurance and you need guts. I really have a lot of respect for the game."

The Ipswich Town connection

Interestingly, a clutch of players from Ipswich Town played a part in the film, with John Wark, Russell Osman, Kevin O'Callaghan, Laurie Sivell and Robin Turner all assigned characters, while Kevin Beattie and Paul Cooper stood in for Caine and Stallone.

The film was released on July 30, 1981, two months after Ipswich won the UEFA Cup by beating AZ in the final. 


Michael Caine Bobby Moore Escape to Victory

While the setting for the match in the film is Stade Colombes in Paris, it was not actually used in the film.

Instead, MTK Stadion, home to MTK Budapest in Hungary, was used as a substitute for the iconic French venue.

The Parisian stadium was situated in an area that was deemed far too modern to function appropriately as part of a film set during World War II.

The MTK stadium bore a strong resemblance to Colombes in terms of design and, given that it was representing 1940s France, the fact that it did not have floodlights was ideal.