Escape To Victory: It’s that film from the 80’s isn’t it? It’s not real though, is it?

The Main film theme

So as part of my continued posts for WUHstry’s remembrance of WWI, I bring you my new post.

Trailer for Escape to Victory

Escape to Victory, one of the best football films that never fails to provide entertainment and pride for all football fans. The 1981 films boasts a brilliant cast, with cockney Michael Caine playing Captain John Colby, a former West Ham player whose career was cut short by the Second World War. Sylvester Stallone plays an American goalkeeper Hatch whom the team have to define the true rules of football and who tries to allow for the escape of the team. Not only did it boast some Hollywood a-listers, but a top list of footballers, the marvellous Bobby Moore, Mike Summerbee, the magical Pele and not to mention Ossie Ardilles, a man who will forever be known for this:

Ossie’s Dream Song

The film for all those that haven’t seen it (how have you not :O), it depicts a group of mixed allied prisoner of war soldiers given the chance to take part in a Nazi propaganda campaign which depicts the allied forces vs. the German National football team. Whilst training Stallone’s character attempts an escape from the POW camp and heads to France, managing to plan for an escape of the team from the national football stadium in France. As we follow the team through training led by Caine’s character, we see that this match will of course be a mismatch, with the allied forces fitness being far from great, something highlighted through the release of some players from Concentration Camps. As Stallone’s character gets recaptured and then made the team goalkeeper, we see the rather unlikely heroes decide against their escape once the match is played. After getting outplayed in the first half, they then fight back in the second and thrive off the French National Pride feelings and fight back to level the match. Well worth a watch!

The Ending to Escape to Victory note from about 8 minutes more your hair will stand on edge, even more so when the French sing their national anthem

So your probably asking, what does this have to do with History? Well after reading the September 2014 issue of football magazine Four Four Two, I was enlightened to learn that this great film did actually have some foundation and was loosely based upon events from the First World War. As many who read the blog know, I have regularly spoke of the effect that football has upon soldiers, keeping up morale and allowing them a timely distraction from the perils of war. The camp Ruhleben in Germany was no exception, with soldiers taking part in football to keep them occupied whilst being prisoners. Ruhleben, on the outskirts of Berlin, was a normal internment camp surrounded by barbed wire, armed guards and left the prisoners in squalor with poor rations and no expectations of freedom. The camp itself was a former racing track and horse stable, which was still littered with straw and manure, a great location which would soon hold 4,500 men in 11 dingy barracks. It is no surprise that the conditions were appalling, with prisoners living in horse boxes and hayloft’s packed together so tightly that they couldn’t move, living in the clothes they arrived in.

Image of the Ruhleben camp in 1918

The huts themselves had cold concrete floors, and roofing that allowed rain and snow to fall through. A barrack would share cold water, and given coffee for breakfast, soup for lunch and tea in the evening, perhaps given bread if they were really lucky. This often lead to food poisoning and other illnesses, which would then be poorly treated by prison guards who would spit on prisoners and force them to eat out of swill buckets. Yet how did such a poor camp would then go onto build such a good community spirit amongst the captured, leading to the opening of a library, a hospital, shops, outfitters, tobacconist, greengrocers and that’s just the shops. It then led to a theatre with productions, a magazine, gardening clubs and other related things.

Image of the Horticultural society

But let’s get back to the football; the magic of football at the Ruhleben let to even General Van Kessel, Kaiser Willem II’s right-hand man to appreciate the spirit of the prisoners and respected how the football had drawn such respect and supporters. But let’s go back to the beginning of the war, when the German government called for the arrest of any British males still in the country. One of these males was football coach Steve Bloomer, a Derby County legend, who had been coaching at Berlin’s Britannia Club (now Berliner SV 92). Although Bloomer did try to leave the country, the borders had been closed so he could not escape, meaning he was dobbed into the police by his German colleagues and taken to Ruhleben. He wasn’t the only ex-professional there though, with many in Bloomer’s position of being coaches in the country, including Fred Pentland, an ex England and Blackburn Rovers star, and John Cameron, a Scotsman who played for Everton and Tottenham. All three players recognised that football could help raise morale in the depressing circumstances.

An Image of one of the many teams at the Camp

What followed this conversation was using tied-together rags as a ball and a small competition which saw teams named after English clubs play each other. The final between Ruhleben Spurs and Oldham Athletic was seen by many spectators. With the success of the competition, the camp got together to make a better system, a mini-society, with the doctors, the shoemakers, the carpenters and teachers providing for the camp. As one player, Captain Powell noted ‘Sport was the antidote to that danger’, the danger in this case being ‘barbed wire disease’, leading to nervous breakdowns. Due to the success, the prisoners were sent a rubber football, and later built a tiny pitch on the camps racetrack, cutting the grass and using tape measures to check its the right length, using whitewash to mark out the pitches, and making goal posts from planks of wood. This and receiving proper footballs and kits led to a rather successful Ruhleben football association being set up in the camp on the 22nd March 1915. With matches such as England vs. the rest of the world, leagues amongst the barracks and cup competitions, football really allowed for the prisoners to get some enjoyment and belonging from being in the camp. Football was so important in the camp, it helped to influence the theatre productions, one being Stiffy the Goalkeeper, a comedy. As the success of football in the camp continued, it attracted at one time 4,000 spectators to be in the crowd. Even the German guards got caught in the moment, one stated how it ‘Amazed him to hear two football teams cheer each other, after their match was over, on the playing fields.’ All this highlights the importance of football in WWI, and how it did boost morale.

Image of a team from the Ruhleben camp

 So there you have it, when you next watch Escape to Victory, remember that this was actually based upon a true story, how allied Prisoners of War did have to live in squalor, and that the love for football, the fact that they could be entertained, allowed them to pull through. The camp said to have played 300 matches over 6 weeks, highlighting just how much time was put into it. Although they may have had enjoyment, the harsh reality is that these brave men gave their lives fighting for their future, and it was not all fun and games. However it does make you wonder if a wonder goal like the one scored by Pele in the film could have actually been scored by one of the prisoners. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed it.

Pele’s Equalizing Goal in Escape to Victory

The sources I have used in this piece:

  • Escape to Victory- Released 1981 by Warner Bros
  • Paul Brown’s Article- The Real Escape to Victory, FourFourTwo, (September, 2014).



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