A cinematic triumph
Greatest US victory retold with precision on the screen
When Jamie Foxx won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of Ray Charles in "Ray," Phil Anschutz was the first person he thanked. And Anschutz should receive most of the credit for generating the cinematic version of "The Game of Their Lives," the story of the United States' upset victory over England in the 1950 World Cup, to be released this week.
But "The Game of Their Lives" likely would not have happened without the on-field influence of one New Englander and the literary talents of another. John "Clarkie" Souza, formerly of Fall River, performed a key role as a midfielder in the 1950 game, maintaining possession with brilliant dribbling as the US protected the lead in the late going of the 1-0 victory. And University of Massachusetts adjunct professor Geoffrey Douglas brought out the story in a 1996 book that has been adapted for the screen.
The match was played in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, the final score so shocking that news services credited England with 10 goals. The underdog story is a global version of "Hoosiers," and the director (David Anspaugh) and writer (Angelo Pizzo) are the same. But the match has seldom been placed in proper perspective, mostly because the English were content with having avenged and nearly forgotten the defeat.
Anschutz is the most financially committed investor in Major League Soccer, and this film was intended to publicize the league. Anschutz wanted a contemporary scene, so the story is told in flashbacks by the late Dent McSkimming (Patrick Stewart), the only US journalist to cover the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.
McSkimming enterprised the story, paying his way to Brazil after the trip was not approved by his editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
"[Stewart] is excellent, one of the strongest points of the movie," said Douglas. "I had suggested they build the movie around McSkimming, but he wasn't originally in it. They hired Stewart late and shot more footage, put in voiceovers. It opens and closes with Stewart at an MLS game playing a sportswriter who is asked about the greatest team he ever knew. But the nice touch is that the five guys who are still alive are also on the screen at the end."
"The Game of Their Lives" was recently called by Sports Illustrated the best soccer picture ever made, and it is almost certainly an improvement on 1981's "Victory," which demonstrated just how difficult it can be to pull off a sports movie. "Victory" seemed to have a can't-miss formula, but the film's failure probably became a cautionary lesson for prospective soccer movies. Not even an iconic director (John Huston), actors such as Michael Caine, Max Von Sydow, and Sylvester Stallone, an incredibly tragic and fact-based inspiration for the plot, or the best soccer players in the world (Pele, Osvaldo Ardiles, Bobby Moore) could salvage the film, which revolved around a soccer match between Nazis and Allied prisoners of war in World War II.
But there have been significant technical advances in moviemaking since 1981, and soccer-playing technique has improved in the United States, as well, making casting easier. Those involved in game footage performed at the collegiate Division 2 level or higher. Zachery Bryan (Harry Keough) played in Olympic Development Programs, Costas Mandylor (Charlie Columbo) was with Panathinaikos in Greece, and Richard Jenik (Joe Maca) played for Old Dominion.
The "Victory" players were so famous it was difficult to separate them from their real-life identities. Some "Game of Their Lives" players -- Holyoke native and former MLS midfielder Nelson Vargas (as John Souza), former Revolution midfielder John Harkes (US starter Ed McIlvenny), and bit players Clint Dempsey and Pat Noonan of the Revolution -- could be recognized locally but have low profiles nationally.
The casting of Jimmy Jean-Louis as goal-scorer Joe Gaetjens could be controversial. Though both are of Haitian descent, Gaetjens traced his roots to Europe. Gaetjens's story is the most mysterious and tragic of those involved in the game; he was abducted by the Tonton Macoute (a death squad) in 1964 and never seen again, believed to have been shot to death.
Game footage, overly staged in "Victory" and a weakness in nearly every soccer movie, is apparently a strength in "Game."
"I am a very bad person to ask about the movie, because I know the story and what was left out," Douglas said. "They explain the difference between American rough-and-tumble style of play and England's finesse. They don't show much of Souza, and he played an enormous part in the game -- saved the game, some say. When the others were puking up their guts, he was making the ball stand up and talk, dribbling around the English players.
"But it is easier to do something like `Chariots of Fire' -- two or three guys on a track -- than have 11 guys on a soccer team, with all those plot lines going on. It's a fast movie [about 1 1/2 hours] and the game action is fast, but it is realistic. The goal happens fast; they probably could have used slow motion on it, but it happened that way in the game and maybe they were trying to be accurate. [US goalkeeper] Frank Borghi is shown making a lot of saves, and it's pretty dramatic, the ball caroming off the post. It makes it look like no American ever touched the ball.
"All the guys who played in the game say that if the teams played 100 times, England would have won 99. I tried to talk to some of the English players from then, but they didn't want to talk about it. It is still a sensitive subject in England. It was a real disgrace for them, something like the US [basketball] Dream Team if it had lost 10 years ago to Bermuda.
"They do that part well in the movie; you see the frustration of the English. They speed up, they get sloppy, and they lose a little bit of poise. Borghi is still making circus saves and the ball is caroming off the post, but you see the English coming apart a little.
"I would like to do an essay on the making of the movie. Fifty-five years later, these guys are getting recognition. But then they went down to Brazil and played a game and had no concept of the enormity of what they did because it wasn't considered in the US. They came back and people didn't even know they had been gone. They were met at the airport by wives and girlfriends. It wasn't until the '70s that they started getting calls from reporters, and now there is a book and a movie."