As Euro 2012 fever GRIPS THE NATION, various MostlyFilm writers take an entirely random look at football on film.
Fever Pitch (1997)
by Philip Concannon
Even though it comes complete with a climactic twist that trumps anything a screenwriter could invent, the story of Arsenal’s 1988/89 title-winning season isn’t natural material for a film with broad audience appeal. With this in mind, it’s not surprising that Nick Hornby’s adaptation of his own book Fever Pitch attempts to yoke his own memories of that season to a standard-issue romantic comedy structure, with mixed results. Colin Firth plays likeable teacher and Arsenal fanatic Colin Paul, who gets romantically involved with his colleague Sarah (Ruth Gemmell), portrayed as an uptight shrew who views Paul’s obsession as nothing more than an adolescent interest he has failed to grow out of.
Thanks to some trite writing and Gemmell’s irritatingly prickly performance, the central narrative of Fever Pitch never does enough to make us care about Paul and Sarah’s dreary emotional entanglements, and the real value of the film lies elsewhere. Hornby’s book may have been focused on his personal experiences supporting Arsenal through their many barren years (in the days when the team didn’t even offer the compensation of entertainment), but the success of Fever Pitch lay in its universal appeal. It expressed truths about the nature of being a football fan that all supporters could relate to.
Despite the uninspired direction from David Evans, Fever Pitch does manage to capture much of what made the book work, and Hornby’s screenplay is noticeably sharper, funnier and more evocative when he’s focusing on Paul’s one true love. From his first experience of football as a means of bonding with his absent father to his desperate desire to see Arsenal win their first league title in 18 years, the film neatly articulates just why this connection is so important to Paul and other fans like him. Perhaps that’s why Fever Pitch‘s romantic angle doesn’t work; we know that this relationship will never last as long as his relationship with Arsenal, and as Paul is torn between Sarah and Michael Thomas at the film’s end, there’s never any doubt which one really matters.
The Firm (1989) and The Firm (2009)
by Niall Anderson
Football hooliganism only really surfaced as a subject for film when its real-life counterpart went underground. The days of open battles between large crowds in stadiums (as at Millwall v Ipswich in 1978, or Birmingham City v Leeds in 1985) were more or less ended in England by the Heysel Stadium Disaster and the heavier police presence it provoked. The fights continued, but with smaller numbers involved, and usually away from the ground. Sometimes – and how paradoxically civilised this sounds – the fights happened by pre-arrangement.
Alan Clarke’s simultaneously canny and bludgeoning TV film The Firm (1989) takes Heysel as its starting point. English clubs were banned from overseas competition after the disaster, so the 1988 European Championship in Germany was the first real opportunity for hooliganism to go overground again. The plot of the film revolves around which “firm” (or club-aligned hooligan group) will lead a national union of firms into battle.
It’s an aspect of the film’s canniness that it’s never clear how much anyone believes in this idea, not even Bex Bissell (Gary Oldman) who suggests it. The longer the film goes on, the more the idea seems like merely an ingenious excuse for deadlier fighting than usual. But the question of why these people are fighting at all is left hanging. It’s not poverty (some of the thugs are conspicuously well-heeled). It’s not territory (the firms involved are hundreds of miles apart). More centrally, it doesn’t seem to be about football. The film begins with a park kickaround, but apart from that The Firm has no football in it. The closest we get to a direct explanation for the fighting is when Oldman’s wife (Lesley Manville) asks him why he does it. “I need the rush,” he says.
This sentiment is pretty much the kick-off for Nick Love’s curious 2009 film, which is neither quite a remake of Clarke’s The Firm, nor the formal prequel it sometimes appears to be. The plot is practically identical – this time the national union of thugs is going to the 1984 Euros – and Bex is again the man to suggest this idea to rival firms. As far removed from the knifelike spiv of Oldman’s character as a baby is from a juggernaut, Paul Anderson’s leisurewear Bex is actually a bit of a softie. Oh, he’s uncouth as you like and he dishes out the violence, but he’s got a code: he’s always trying to teach you something. So it is that having handed out a major slapdown to 16-year-old Dom (Calum McNab), Bex is able to put his arm around the kid’s shoulders and buy him a pair of Adidas Trimm Trabs.
Love’s The Firm is much closer to the ground than Clarke’s. (Clarke almost certainly wouldn’t have known a Trimm Trab had it booted him in the face.) Love’s film is also open to the idea that the solidarity between a firm’s members might be real on its own terms, as opposed to a disguise for some other social lack. In allowing that belonging to a firm might genuinely be attractive, Love is also better on what those attractions actually are: the sense that you’re testing yourself, week after week; and that the high stakes involved (life and limbs) are a kind of moral justification in themselves.
This is a Nick Love film, though, so none of this actually works dramatically. His competence as a director seems directly in proportion to how excited he is about a scene, which in turn means that he tends to cram his films with things he likes, but which don’t quite belong. Perhaps relatedly, there is a distinct lack of artistic nerve on display: a consequence-blind sentimentality that mirrors and even exceeds that of the film’s characters. It doesn’t matter how bad these geezers are: they’re geezers, and geezers need the rush. Geezers being the one constituency Nick Love seems at pains to avoid offending.
Characters and plot aside, Love’s film also shares with Clarke’s a distinct lack of football, and, more crucially, any sense of why such groups form around a football club. The Clarke film – an urgent report on things as they were when the film was made – survives this lack of perspective, but Love’s film – being for all intents and purposes a period piece – is flattened by it. English football hooliganism has developed its own distinct culture over time, but it is not especially distinct in origin. The idea of a special group of supporters (true believers, if you like) among a larger body of supporters is replicated wherever professional football is played, reaching its peak in the displays of Italian Ultras since the 70s. That the Ultra ideal is essentially modelled on the ideas of loyalty and fidelity that bind together actual football teams is something that passes by both Clarke and Love.
Similarly, while the Ultras are unusual in their explicit dedication to political causes (usually hard Right or Left) and by their view of themselves as essentially campaigning organisations, you don’t have to scratch the skin of any national football culture to find an underpinning of political dedication, however dubious. Nick Love isn’t interested in any of this, while Clarke, if he was ever interested, brushes it off as an irrelevance.
In one sense, though, Clarke was right. What keeps his version of The Firm fresh nearly a quarter of a century after it was made is that it’s a study of types of people who are recognisable outside of a hooligan context. Gary Oldman’s Bex, in particular, is an authentic modern monster: nearly as aggressive selling houses as he is taunting his rivals. You can imagine him leading other lives, but behaving exactly the same. Played by Oldman with the kind of loose charisma that comes from an actor knowing he’s in practically every shot, he is terrifying and magnetic: a born leader of men, always to bad ends.
Escape to Victory (1981)
Football is not a matter of life and death… it’s much more important than that. In John Huston’s 1981 Escape to Victory, it’s a powerful propaganda tool for the Nazis to display German superiority over a team of Allied PoWs.
Victory (U.S. title) is part-sports film, part-prison escape film, and all cheese. The cast is a mix of actors, footballers and Sylvester Stallone that provides us with some memorable scenes: Pele’s tactical team-talk, the arm-break, Sly’s penalty save, and Ossie Ardiles’ overhead flick (hands up if you tried to copy it, and failed).
The film is loosely based on the true story of Ukrainian team FC Start and their historic game in Kiev in 1942 against a team from the Luftwaffe. The events surrounding that match are shrouded in myth and mystery, and have inspired numerous books and movies, including the 1962 Hungarian film Két Félidő a Pokolban (Two Half Times in Hell).
Despite its cheesiness, the film appeals on a basic level. Sly plays Escape Hatch, Caine plays Captain Victory (not really). Sly knows nothing about soccer but blags his way into Caine’s team to attempt a daring escape (is there any other kind?). There’s a game of football, good triumphs over evil (well, SPOILER ALERT, draws with it) and our heroes pull off an unlikely prison-break. Max von Sydow cries.
This is often voted the best football film of all time. I’m not so sure. But if you like football, it’s a must-see. Where else will you find some of the greatest footballers of all time being bossed around by a pot-bellied Michael Caine in a 2-3-5 W-M formation against a team of Nazis? There are worse ways to spend two hours on a wet Bank Holiday.
When Saturday Comes (1996) and Offside (2006)
by Indy Datta
Everything feels borrowed in writer-director Maria Giese’s 1996 debut, the story of a 25 year old brewery worker (Sean Bean, 36 at the time of filming, and as nimble and speedy as the Angel of the North) belatedly taking the step up from Sunday league football to the professional game, for his beloved Sheffield United. The title itself is an impertinent steal from the – still bracingly independent in 2012 – football magazine. Giese’s attempt to paint a gritty portrait of the northern working class in the mould of This Sporting Life founders from the start. That grim opening vista of cooling towers, the M1 and the Meadowhall shopping centre (a shot also seen in Chris Morris’s Four Lions) definitively places the film’s period as the post-Thatcher years, but in Giese’s world, the men of Sheffield still mostly work down t’pit rather than, say, in a call centre for HSBC – while their wives fret at home in curlers and slippers.
When, towards the end of the film, Bean’s character gets his big chance (having conquered alcoholism and won back the love of his life – Emily Lloyd, for some reason) it happens in front of a sellout crowd at Bramall Lane, filmed during the half time break in a real game. Shooting this section, which boasts the film’s few atmospheric moments, took longer than expected, and not just because Bean (playing a tricksy right winger) moves with the quicksilver pace of an arthritic Worzel Gummidge impersonator, but also because every time the film’s purported United captain touched the ball, the crowd booed, as he was played by Mel Sterland, who had played nearly 350 games across the city in blue and white. Well past his best by this point, although Wikipedia tells me he was still playing for Boston United, it’s hard to see why Sterland was cast: it can’t have been for his line readings. It may have been because the 35 year old Sterland looked, if anything, creakier than Bean.
Giese is an American, who married a Yorkshireman and based When Saturday Comes on the impressions she formed on her visits to England. But the real problem is not the accumulation of unexamined second-hand clichés, it’s the fact that Giese didn’t have the talent to breathe any life into them.
Better film makers than Giese have been defeated by football – it’s a commonplace observation that films find it hard to capture the physical drama of the game. Jafar Panahi’s Offside – although, like When Saturday Comes, partly filmed at a real game (in Tehran; a world cup qualifying match for the Iran national team), chooses not to show any of the game, other than in the background. Instead, Panahi concentrates on capturing the atmosphere of what it’s like to be at the stadium.
Or more precisely, what it’s like not to be allowed into the stadium. Offside follows the story of a group of girls and young women collared while trying to sneak into the game, from which women are banned, and held in a makeshift pen just outside the stadium. The women are kept tantalisingly within earshot of the sounds inside, until the vice squad come to collect them and place them under arrest for their defiance.
The first Jafar Panahi film I saw was The Circle – a formally rigorous study of the Kafkaesque gauntlet of petty oppressions women run in everyday life in Iran. I found it a tough sit at the time, and didn’t see another film by Panahi (now famously a victim of the Tehran regime himself, banned from making films and placed under house arrest) until This is Not a Film earlier this year. That turned out to be one of the best films of the year so far, a lightly witty and movingly optimistic piece of resistance art, and it’s hard not to fall in line with the consensus and agree that Offside must be one of the best films about football ever made. Panahi beautifully (and amusingly) sketches the tensions but also the common humanity and understanding between the (mostly educated, privileged) Tehrani women who cross-dress to defy the ban and the soldiers who are set to guard them, mostly poor and rural, more worried about not fucking up and thus extending the term of their military service than convinced of the righteousness or fairness of the ban.
The film ends with a long sequence set in a minibus as the soldiers drive their prisoners across town in the midst of real celebrations taking place on the streets of Tehran after a real Iranian World Cup qualifying victory. As the film ends, among the mounting euphoria of the victory, the narrative spills out into the streets. Ey Iran plays on the soundtrack, there is dancing, fireworks, joy unconfined. Is football the legitimate cause of the euphoria, or is this just the sound of a safety valve venting? The Tehran regime and Western viewers will make different assumptions as to the authentic interpretation – what the general Iranian viewer would think is unknown as the film remains banned in Iran – but what you’re seeing on the screen is real, and the realness, if appropriated, registers. There’s borrowing and borrowing.