Can We Not Film It?

Steve Norman is not only the host of the Failed Critics podcasts – he writes for the excellent football site Born Offside, and hosts their podcast as well (which he’s also persuaded our editor James diamond to contribute to). In his first piece for Failed Critics he examines the difficult relationship that football and cinema have had over the last century.

Football and cinema have been intertwined since the early part of the twentieth century when both were rising in popularity. With the Beautiful Game becoming ingrained in society, especially now in the United States with David Beckham hanging out with Hollywood’s finest, it’s no wonder it continues to find its way onto the silver screen.

Obviously more prevalent in British films than American, football can either be central to the plot, referenced in the background, or be some part of a characters persona.

The first film to really have football central to the plot was the 1939 Arsenal Stadium Mystery. Arsenal are set to play against a fictional side, the Trojans, and one of the Trojan’s players dies during the match having been poisoned. [Arsene Wenger claims not to have seen the incident – Ed.]

Shot at Highbury the film features many Arsenal players and their manager George Allison who has a speaking part. Match footage came from a league game with Brentford who actually wore a special ‘Trojans’ kit for the filming.

Many, when asked to think of a film about football will, almost by default, go for Escape to Victory starring Hollywood heavyweights Sylvester Stallone and Michael Caine and football heavyweights Bobby Moore, Pele and the Ipswich Town team of the time.

The film may be cheesy at times but is thoroughly enjoyable even with ‘Rocky’ being the least convincing goalie of all time. It has everything you would want from both a football film and a POW escape movie.

Another Michael Caine movie featured football as a plot device. In the Italian Job the heist takes place on the day of a game between Italy and England which helps add to the traffic chaos needed to pull off the robbery. Some of the gang escape the city disguised as football fans.

Mike Bassett: England Manager is another football film that should consider itself a triumph. A comedy starring Ricky Tomlinson the film is funny throughout, poking fun at football culture and ripping on the infamous Graham Taylor documentary ‘An Impossible Job’ (which spawned the catchphrases “Do I not like that?”, and “Can we not knock it?”) perfectly. Part of its success is down to it not being lowest common denominator stuff which often happens when football and comedy collide.

Football and Hollywood then met spectacularly, or at least it was meant to be spectacularly, for the GOAL! Trilogy. Santiago Munez is a young Mexican playing local football in America, he is seen by an ex Newcastle scout and given the chance of a lifetime, to play for The Magpies (apparently Newcastle were picked as they were both recognized and well liked outside of Sunderland).

The obvious plot hole is that this Mexican illegal immigrant to the United States who hasn’t received a call up at any level for either nation is granted a work permit to play in England.

The trilogy continues in Goal!: Living the Dream where Munez earns a move to Real Madrid and features all the stars of the team of the time.

To give the films credit they are watchable and the match/training footage does involve the actual players from the teams involved. Although not as good as Sky One’s Dream Team it is often believable.

The final film of the trilogy flopped though. It was meant to be big. Munez would be playing in the World Cup, maybe for Mexico, maybe for England as he’d married an English girl and somehow claimed citizenship, or for Spain through ancestry or some other contrived plot device.

However this big budget end to the trilogy never materialized and it ended up being a direct to DVD effort hardly featuring any of the favourites from the first two and generally disappointing.

Kes has one of the most iconic football scenes from film with the P.E. teacher (played by actor and professional wrestler Brian Glover) pretending to be Bobby Charlton and generally being a prat and trying to show up the children in his class. Gregory’s Girl involves a socially awkward teenager, his football team and…and…a girl joining the team.

There are plenty of terrible efforts as well – with a ‘soccer’ based remake of The Longest Yard titled Mean Machine starring Vinny Jones, and There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble being among the worst culprits. When Saturday Comes, starring Sean Bean as a factory worker who gets signed by Sheffield United, isn’t much better either.

Fever Pitch fared somewhat better. The film starting Colin Firth and Arsenal Football Club gets a credible 6.5 on IMDB and is a decent enough film, while Bend it Like Beckham received positive reviews globally and helped launch the career of Keira Knightly. Telling the story of a young girl who wants to play football but is deterred from it by her parents, it holds the honour of being the first Western-made film to be broadcast on North Korean TV.

Film-makers seem to find it hard to get football right. When they do the results can be very good, as seen in Escape to Victory and Mike Bassett: England Manager but more often than not they get it wrong and we end up with Green Street, all unconvincing Cockney accents and a hobbit as a hooligan.

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