"Victory," the latest effort from veteran director John Houston, which opens today at area theaters, represents a remarkable triumph of artificial obliviousness. The misbegotten hybrid screenplay struggles to cross the tradition of POW escape films like "The Wooden Horse," Stalag 17" and "The Great Escape" with recent rabble-rousing sports sagas like The Longest Yard" and "Rocky." The influence of "The Longest Yard" is reflected in the exploitation of an improbable soccer game as a climactic set piece: a team composed of Allied prisoners faces a German national team before a throng of implusive Parisians. Just the sort of spectacle the Nazis need, obviously.
The influence of "Rocky" is reflected in the presence of Sylvester Stallone, eternal Dead End Kid, who ends up playing goalie in the big game after the filmmakers convince themselves that they've finessed a motley assortment of detours and suberfuges in order to get him in position. As the incoming kicks head his way, Stallone fights them off with snarls and punches, suggesting that he's still in the ring.
The premise might have squeaked by if the contest had been kept within reasonable fictive bounds -- say, a game playes in the prison compoung that helped camouflage a mass escape. When the concept emerges as a fanciful wartime equifalent of the World Cup and is perceived by the baffling German sponsors as a dandy propganda spectacle, it is utterly out of the question. Moreover, it's manipulated for stale, preposterous kinds of suspense that merely aggravate the overriding insults to history and common sense.
From what we see of their environment, the POWs might simplify things by strolling off in broad daylight. Even the slapstick Germans who guarded "Hogan's Heroes" kept a tighter rein on mischievous, escape-happy inmates than the slack watchdogs in "Victory," Max von Sydow, the officer who first suggests a little exhibition fame to Michael Caine, whom he recognizes as a pre-war colleague from the professional soccer ranks, couldn't be a finer gentleman, German uniform notwithstanding. In fact, he's such an awesome example of the sporting internationalist that he rises to applaud the circus kicks of Pele while seated among fellow German officers.
Of course, if the filmmakers had been inhibited by any historical scruples, they might have found it impossible to rationalize the presence of Pele in this impossible game in the first place. Identified as a captured British soldier from Trinidad, Pele doesn't raise an eyebrow of prejudice on either side. Obviously, he's there to tempt contemporary soccer fans into the theaters. The movie keeps trying to cover clumsy tracks with bigger clumsy tracks. The game takes so many outrageous turns that the preparatory foolishness seems mere child's play in retrospect. The team must storm back from a 4-0 deficit with its star player injured. The star, Pele, must perform his greatest stunts while clutching broken ribs. Given an opportunity by desperately hand-working Resistance agents to make a clean break at half time, the team decides that no, it's more important to return to the field and show those domineering Nazis what championship soccer is all about.
The only way to defend the gibbering idiocy of it all is to say, "Well, sure it doesn't make any sense, because it's about a symbolic victory." Waht price symbolism! This plot subjects the willing suspension of disbelief to a merciless pounding. The would-be inspirational victory looks more like a symptom of fee-blemindedness.
Huston's direction, or indulgent nondirection, fails to allow for any deficiencies in the reckless plotting. The story just moseys along, with no particular urgency, humor or conviction. Huston suggests someone sleep walking across a minefield. The plot blows to ludicrous smithereens all around him, but the director blithely disregards the massacre. Huston doesn't so much brazen this one out as mellow it out.