The beautiful game generally scores an own goal on film
IT may occasionally make for great drama on the pitch but football rarely makes the transition to the movie screen.
If ever I’m asked to name my favourite football flick I invariably say Thorold Dickinson’s The Arsenal Stadium Mystery, a forgotten little crime thriller from 1939. It starred Shakespearian greats Leslie Banks and Esmond Knight (remember them anyone?) and was more about a poisoning than sport.
Be honest: when it comes to soccer, movies ladle on the cheese. Cliché is cliché, and nothing does it better than football.
Let’s examine the evidence. Stars with an eye on recreating the speed and impact of the football pitch on film generally fail miserably. Richard Harris made his directorial debut with the turgid Bloomfield, about a waning football star playing his last game.
Ian McShane was Yesterday’s Hero – a talent goes bad as written by Jackie Collins. And our own Sean Bean got to trot out onto the pitch at Bramall Lane as a bona fide member of his own fantasy football team in When Saturday Comes.
Playing Jimmy Muir, a steelworker-turned-Sheffield United striker, Bean lived out his dream as one of the Blades. Director Maria Giese – a woman and an American – revealed that she wanted the scenes on the pitch to resemble gladiatorial combat: fast, dirty and painful.
It didn’t quite work out like that. But sport movies are notorious box-office turkeys. Rarely do they work on the basis of the sport alone. Instead, they require added punch (or boot) via an ancillary story.
Thus John Huston’s Escape to Victory was an attempt to ape The Great Escape through a propaganda match between allied PoWs and the Wehrmacht. The gimmick was that it starred Bobby Moore and Pelé alongside Michael Caine and Sylvester Stallone.
Mean Machine was a blatant rip-off of a ’70s Burt Reynolds comedy/drama which swapped American football for the beautiful game. Vinnie Jones was the fallen pro player who trains a team of prisoners and pits them against the guards in his prison.
Meanwhile, Goal! took its entire plot from The Big Book of Film and Television Clichés to deliver a veritable five-layer cheesecake covering everything from father-son strife to the tired old tale of a has-been living vicariously through his protégé’s glory.
Think of a football cliché and it’s present in Goal! Also present are David Beckham, Zinédine Zidane and Raul Gonzalez, all playing themselves and proving that what worked for John Huston in 1980 might work anew 25 years later.
Then again, I have a pal who swears by Gurinder Chadha’s hilarious Bend it Like Beckham, if only for Keira Knightley’s legs.
Maybe there’s something in footie movies after all…