The Film of Our Lives?

The USA's famous win over England is soon to hit the cinemas

Sean O'Conor

The Game of Their Lives.

When we at last get to see this film called "The Game of Their Lives" after the famous Belo Horizonte legend, it should be a night to remember.

Due for release later this year, the movie, based on the book by Geoffrey Douglas, will give belated cinematic recognition to one of sport's greatest upsets and, hopefully, enlighten some more American football-ignoramuses to the extraordinary achievement of that day in Brazil and spur an interest in football amongst them.

The book is a pleasant, easy read as Douglas paints a lyrical picture of hard-working blue-collar American boys, glowing with the goodness of their honest toil as they embark into the unknown and achieve the impossible.

The team's bedrock, Douglas stresses, was an inner strength gained not from the gung-ho US bravado we see so much of these days on TV, but from their upbringings in a vanished post-war America of close-knit European communities in inner cities like The Hill of Saint Louis, where many of the team came from, and where scenes from the movie adaptation have been painstakingly reconstructed.

That is the book's undoubted strength and also perhaps its weakness, as the match itself and the contrasting football cultures of the US and England in 1950 are not covered in as much depth. Indeed, any reader picking up the book expecting a riveting account of the football and little else will be disappointed.

The film will have to concentrate on the off-field goings-on if it wants to succeed, as there is one constant in putting football on the big screen: It doesn't work.

Tales of fictional teams are always a damp squib on the big or small screen as the real thing, improvised, fast-flowing and unpredictable, is always more exciting than an imagined imitation.

Only the joyously naff 'Escape to Victory' ('Victory' in the USA) is remembered fondly by football fans. Surprisingly directed by the great John Huston, the 1984 film of the all-star allied soccer team, featuring an American goalie in Sylvester Stallone, defeating the Third Reich has taken on love-hate cult status in the same way as 'The Sound of Music'.

At last summer's Confederations Cup in France, US fans mischievously started up chants of 'Victoire!' in direct homage to the movie. For what is the world's number one sport it is interesting that not more football films have been made but clearly film companies realize that they have that fatal flaw.

The Game Of Their Lives.

There have been soccer-related movies like 'Fever Pitch', Wim Wenders' 'The Goalkeeper's Fear of the Penalty Kick' and the Israeli film 'Cup Final', when a Jew and a Palestinian strike up an unlikely friendship based on the Beautiful Game, but otherwise very little.

In the States, domestic sports have been translated many times to the big screen since the early days of Hollywood, up to baseball's 'Field of Dreams' and American Football's 'Any Given Sunday'.

Ice Hockey got a famous treatment from Paul Newman in 'Slap shot' whilst basketball got the same in 'Hoosiers'. The team responsible for that one are behind 'The Game of Their Lives', which bodes well.

Although the filming was done largely in 2003 and earlier this year, the producers could do worse than to have a look at a German film given limited release this year.

'The Miracle of Bern' tells the tale, on the 50th anniversary, of the dramatic 1954 World Cup Final when Germany came down from 2-0 against the Mighty Magyars to win the trophy and revive the spirits of a nation destroyed by losing World War II.

Like 'The Game of Their Lives', 'Das Wunder von Bern' was about a team winning against the odds. It also successfully mirrored the World Cup campaign with kitchen-sink depictions of post-war German family life and struggling lives in the steel-town of Essen, home to the winning goalscoring hero Helmut Rahn.

The scenes of miners, pubs and kids kicking a ragged old ball around wasteland with an industrial brick backdrop could have been any number of British cities in the 20th century. The closing shot of the team's victory train gliding through a bucolic vista of wheat fields with farmers with pitchforks and horses and girls in billowing dresses waving at their heroes as they headed into the sunset was straight out of American Midwest mythology.

When the little boy who lived a Kes-like loner's existence in Essen is finally re-united with his shell-shocked and consequently disturbed and abusive father, the two take off on a crazed drive to Bern to make the final as his father and footballer Rahn believe he is a lucky charm.

When he sneaks into the stadium with the score at 2-2, the ball runs out of play to him, he makes eye contact with Rahn and the rest is mythology.

Although by no means a memorable movie, 'Miracle' did not fall into any potholes of hackneyed dialogue or ridiculous football.

The game was reasonably well recreated, minus the lack of German hacking to get Puskas out the game. The only cringeworthy moments came not from the film but from the subtitles, which betrayed an American soccer-ignoramus at the helm. Why opt for Americanisms like "on defense", "offensive line" and even the baffling "out of the bounds" and "the 18-yard zone" when universally understood English football phrases already exist? I was waiting for a translation of the German word for penalty, 'Elfmeter', as 'an eleven yarder' but thankfully I was spared.

'The Game of Their Lives" is happily in English so avoids those annoyances but a fear remains that despite the directorial and acting (Wes Bentley of 'American Beauty' is the lead) talents, the film may turn out to be too crass or alternatively laughably inaccurate.

It is easy to forget that England are in the film too and American filmmakers have a poor track record of depicting us Brits on the big screen as anything other than toffee-nosed upper class twits. Whilst American creation myths dwell on them being 'the people' versus the aristocratic British imperialists, the British redcoats in 1776 and the England football team in 1950 were as proletarian as they come.

The England team was as working-class as you could get and we will not be amused if Tom Finney or Jimmy Armfield, for instance, are portrayed speaking in plummy accents. Maybe I am needlessly worried but having waited so long for this film, I expect much.

I hope too that they find the space to record one of the greatest comedy moments of World Cup football when the American physio ran on to treat a player, but en route tripped up and knocked himself out when his bag of chloroform burst open.

If it manages to match "The Miracle of Bern" it will have succeeded. The sport needs more recognition and acceptance in America and this film will help gain it respect as a sport with tradition in the States and not an arriviste media-hyped immigrant game.

At least it will surely be no 'Escape to Victory' and we in England will, despite the celluloid reminder of one of the blackest days in English football history, be able to have a good chuckle at Sheffield Wednesday, West Ham, Derby and Nottingham Forest veteran John Harkes acting on the big screen. He can't be more wooden than Vinnie Jones now can he?

Sean O'Conor

The Game of their Lives

Directed by David Anspaugh
Screenplay by Angelo Pizzo
Based on the book by Geoffrey Douglas

Starring Wes Bentley, Gerard Butler, Gavin Rossdale, Richard Jenik, Louis Mandylor, Jay Rodan
Released 2004
Shot on location in St. Louis, USA and Brazil

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