Spoiler Alert: I assume most people have already seen these films; as a result I discuss the plot as much as I can. I will not try to go into every detail but generalize as much as possible.
Film: The Game of Their Lives (2005)
‘The Game of Their Lives’ (also known as ‘The Miracle Match’ in some releases) is a dramatic portrayal of the 1950 USA World Cup team that defeated England in one of the biggest upsets in World Cup History.
The film stars a pre-Hollywood fame Gerard Butler and Wes Bentley portraying respectively the goalkeeper and the Captain of that Team.
The film was released in 2005, at a time where USA’s Professional League (The MLS), had been in existence for almost a decade.
Needless to say, the film did not receive a wide release (if any at all, I certainly don’t recall it) in a Nation where Soccer is still not a spectator sport despite vast improvements since the inception of the MLS some two decades ago.
In fact the film starts at the 2004 MLS All-Star game, which I presume is supposed to symbolize the advance of the game in the States since its modest beginnings.
We see real footage of players such as a young Landon Donovan and others playing in front of a vocal crowd and other shots of the stadium.
It is in this atmosphere that we see a reporter meet an old man (watching the game with his granddaughter) to conduct an interview. The man in question is none other than Patrick Stewart (Star Trek; Next Generation, X-Men Franchise) who portrays Dent Mc Skimming.
It turns out that Mr. McSkimming was the lone American Reporter who covered the 1950 World Cup and witnessed the historic event.
It is at this point that the film flashes back to 1950, where a younger Dent McSkimming, portrayed by Terry Kinney (from HBO’s 90s Prison drama ‘Oz’), is seen covering the Soccer Scene in St. Louis.
We are made aware that there is strong interest in Soccer in St. Louis (compared to the rest of the Country that is), due to the influence of the immigrant population, especially the Italian-Americans.
We are introduced to a trio of friends who make up the central characters in this film.
Scottish Actor Gerard Butler (300, etc,) portrays American goalkeeper Frank Borghi. During the day he works at his family-owned Funeral Home.
Typically following standard movie conventions his mother expects him to continue the family tradition and work at the Funeral Home, but of course Frank’s only passion is soccer.
We are also introduced to Frank’s two best friends: Gino Pariani (portrayed by Greek-American Actor Louis Mandylor) and Francis ‘Pee Wee’ Wallace (portrayed by Jay Rodan).
Through narrations (by the older McSkimming) we are told that told that Pariani and Wallace work well in tandem on the field.
A teammate of this trio in the local team is defensive hard-man Charlie ‘Gloves’ Columbo , portrayed by Louis Mandylor’s actual brother Costas Mandylor (from 90s Television Series ‘Picket Fences’ and the film ‘Mobsters’).
The last key member of this St. Louis soccer scene actually plays for a rival team. Zachery Ty Brian (remembered as one of Tim Allen’s sons in the Television Series ‘Home Improvement) portrays Harry Keough. He is a young man in love with his Mexican-American sweetheart and has learned to speak Spanish as a result.
After one of their local matches, the US Soccer Federation President Walter Giesler meets the team. He informs them that there will be try outs to select the USA World Cup Team (remember no Professional League).
Once again in following film clichés, not everyone on the team is enthusiastic about this adventure and some voice concerns such as ‘not being good enough’, ‘not ready enough’ etc.
Borghi seems the most enthusiastic to partake in the World Cup. His mother is less and refers to the game as: ‘boy’s games’ and ‘this soccer’.
He defies his mother and decides to participate and plans to skip the embalming classes scheduled around the time of the World Cup.
His understanding girlfriend who also works at the Funeral Home of course supports him (Her character will essentially disappear from the rest of the film).
Borghi now has to convince his two buddies Gino (who has his wedding scheduled) and Pee Wee (afraid of flying-It is implied that the root of his phobia stems from his Army service in WW II).
Gino is relieved after learning that Mr. Giesler has convinced his future Father-in-Law to advance the wedding date to accommodate their plans.
For the Try Out, the St. Louis selection plays against an East Coast Selection. The prominent member of that selection is Walter Bahr, portrayed by Wes Bentley, who a few years prior had stood out in ‘American Beauty’ with Kevin Spacey.
The others members include Clarkie Souza and Ed McIlvenny.
Ed McIlvenny is Scottish and is portrayed by 1990s USA International John Harkes, who has Scottish ancestry himself (In the film he only has maybe one or two speaking lines, you can draw out your own conclusions as to why).
We are also introduced to Bill Jeffrey who will manage the US World Cup Team. Bill Jeffrey is portrayed by the Welsh Actor John Rhys-Davies (Indiana Jones, Lord of the Rings, etc.)
In the first half of this try-out, the St. Louis selection is struggling but after a pep talk at halftime by Borghi, Pee Wee and Gino start playing better and impress the selectors. Columbo ‘Gloves’ commits repeated fouls, but Bahr intervenes so that he will not be sent off (since he would be off the squad altogether were that to happen).
At the end of the try-out, Pee Wee and Borghi witness Bahr having a chat with the Manager and US Federation President about presumably team selection.
The St. Louis contingent takes offense to Bahr’s privileged position, where he is to be the Team Captain.
In the end, the main St. Louis contingent (Borghi, Pariani, Pee Wee Wallace, Keough and Columbo) make the Finals squad.
They all attend Gino Pariani’s wedding before heading off via train to New York City (after saying their tearful goodbyes to their loved ones).
Once they reach the hotel, tensions mount between the opposing factions, as Bahr has been placed in charge of the organization of team practices to the dismay of the St. Louis contingent, especially Pee Wee.
An angered Pee Wee even makes a derogatory comment about Bahr’s German ancestry (remember just a few years after World War II).
As part of the preparations, the squad plays against a semi-pro local team Brooklyn Galatians. It is clear the East Coast and the St. Louis players do not mesh well as a unit. The weak link is the center forward whose play is incompatible with Gino and Pee Wee. This sentiment is shared by Bahr, who convinces the Manager to include the Haitian striker Joe Gajtens in the Team.
It is at this point that Bahr extends an olive branch of sorts to Borghi and includes him in the team planning to have the team united, since Borghi commands respect with his St. Louis teammates.
That night both Bahr and Borghi meet up with Gaejtens (working in a restaurant) and convince him to join the Team.
The next preparation opponent for the Americans is an English League XI with English International Stan Mortensen (portrayed by Bush Frontman Gavin Rossdale).
There is some comic relief with Gaejtens seen praying (Voodoo style) and stretching and exercising in strange fashion.
Of course the English selection dominates and wins. In the second half, under the pouring rain, there is a melee at the end as the frustrated ‘Gloves’ Columbo pushes an English player.
On the way back, Borghi refuses to take the team bus and prefers to walk back, since he feels at fault for his display. In a very cheesy and predictable scene, Bahr and many of the other players also get off the bus and choose to walk with him as a sign of unity.
The next day, there is an Official Post-Match Luncheon with the English Selection, along with the FIFA and US Soccer Officials.
At this Luncheon, Stan Mortensen proceeds to make a very condescending speech about the Americans (In a glaring factual error, when he is introduced, there is a reference made that he has scored a hat trick in the FA Cup Final, but in reality that hat trick was scored in the 1953 FA Cup Final).
Prior to departure, Pee Wee is extremely nervous due to his fear of flying. Borghi, therefore, asks Gaejtens to do his ‘voodoo thing’ and prepare a drink to help Pee Wee for the flight.
On the flight itself, Gaejtens is seen doing his voodoo prayers much to the annoyance of Pariani, who feels it’s disrespectful to other faiths. Gaejtens proceeds to explain the importance of voodoo to him and his respect to other religions. (This is a completely irrelevant conversation that has nothing to do with the story, and anyway Gaejtens never practiced voodoo, we shall get to this later..).
The plane goes through extreme turbulence and the only relaxed person appears to be Pee Wee who is completely high on the concoction that Gaejtens had made for him and is unaware of his surroundings.
They finally arrive in Rio and of course they are housed in a modest hotel. We learn that England is the bookies favorites for the Tournament with the odds of 3 to 1, while USA is not even listed.
Within the team there is still some residual resentment from the likes of Pee Wee and Columbo from the St. Louis squad against Bahr.
That night instead of talking tactics and strategy, Bahr decides to go out on the town with the rest of the squad because ‘we stick as team’.
The Players as a Group go out to an outdoor Restaurant and see couples dancing. There we are subjected to yet other pearl of wisdom from Gaejtens who goes on to explain the similarities between Samba/Tango with Football.
It goes without saying it’s a cliché-ridden speech about teamwork as related to dancing.
After being sneered by some of his teammates, he ‘proves his point’ by asking a young beautiful woman to dance with him to the amazement of the rest of the team (how this is a powerful scene is beyond me).
The following morning, they arrive at a US Air Force Base (they are to be flown to Belo Horizonte).
Before doing so they are greeted by General William Higgins. He informs them of the impending Military conflict in Korea by adding ‘never is the red, white and blue more important’ than now.
The other reason they are there is that they are going to receive their uniforms. A running theme in the film is that Gino Pariani repeatedly asks the Management about their uniforms and the replay is always ‘We are working on it’ and these episodes are played with a comedic tone.
Gino Pariani is the first to receive these new uniforms. Then one by one, the players receive their uniforms with touching inspirational music in the background.
Borghi is the last one and receives his all red goalkeeping jersey.
The scene is completely overplayed with emotions that do not befit the actual event.
Onto the big match and the Americans learn that England Star Stanley Matthews is not playing. Again, this event is portrayed as if the English are taking the Americans lightly and want to rest one of their stars and of course in reality that was not the case.
After Bahr discusses the team tactics (where is the Manager?), Borghi gives a predictable inspirational speech with music in the background by repeating clichés such as ‘no one out there knows us’, ‘do not think we belong here’. Etc.
In yet another film convention, before heading out Pee Wee who had been at odds with Bahr smiles at him and tells him ‘have a good game out there’.
And to make the standard clichés complete, before the kickoff Pariani gives Gaejtens a nod, now respecting him.
Before the kickoff, Stan Mortensen, the England Captain, tells Bahr ‘let’s have a good contest out there and not another war’, to which Bahr replies ‘if this was a war you’d already be dead’.
Again this is a completely needless exchange that in all likelihood never happened, especially with two nations who were allies in a War just years before.
Of course the match itself has been repeated in books and print in more than half a century and as a result there is practically no suspense for the audience.
Briefly stated, the English completely dominated and hit the post and the bar and seemed headed for a large win. Like most films dealing with Soccer, we mostly see close ups of the players interspersed with some brief high shots.
Before halftime, against the run of play Bahr crosses a ball in the box following a throw in. The ball reaches Gaejtens who heads in the Historic winner.
The second half is more of the same as the English continue to dominate and again hit the post again.
There are mostly repetitive shots of Borghi saving from England’s attempts.
These actions are described from the ‘exciting commentary’ of the BBC Radio journalist in the stands.
The last action of the match sees Borghi save England’s last attempt by deflecting it over the bar.
The referee blows the whistle right after and the Americans have won against all odds.
The Brazilian fans are shown running into the field to celebrate with the American players (not sure if this really happened, I could not find any supporting information confirming this).
The film now flashes forward to the 2004 MLS All Star Match at the beginning of the film. Prior to kickoff we see the remaining survivors of that 1950 squad being introduced at the center circle and greeted by the players. They are Gino Pariani, Clarkie Souza, Harry Keough, Walter Bahr and Frank Borghi.
The Film cuts to black and ends.
Where to begin with this film? If only the sports clichés were all that it had against it. There are so many factual errors that go against any good intentions the film might have had.
More importantly there is no epilogue to explain the fates of so many of the players involved, most importantly Joe Gaejtens who disappeared and assumed killed by the Haitian authorities in 1964.
The central theme of this film is that Dent McSkimming (as portrayed by the older Patrick Stewart) is narrating the events as a witness.
The real McSkimming passed away in the 1970s.
Another error is the fact that the other Group matches in this World Cup (vs. Chile and Spain) are completely ignored.
In the film we get the impression that the match vs. England was USA’s first match in the Cup. It was in fact the second match. The USA lost its first match on June 25th, 1950 vs. Spain (1-3). The match with England was a few days later on June 29th.
Another point of contention is that while it is true that Walter Bahr was USA’s Captain, for the match against England Ed McIlvenny had been given the captaincy (As a favor due to his Scottish background).
The film makes many references (that are I assume supposed to be comical) that the unfortunate Joe Gaejtens practiced voodoo. By all accounts it is assumed that he was a devout Catholic.
In addition, Stan Mortensen did not participate in that tour of USA with the English League Selection (setting aside the unlikelihood of such a speech in a post-match banquet).
Events in the film are over dramatized with music and clichéd dialogue that do not appear to be worthy of such distinction (the Uniform scene at the Air Force Base, walking instead of taking the bus, etc..)
All this aside, truly what could be gauged from this victory? The events at the MLS All-Star match seem to indicate that the game has made inroads in this country. While that may be true to some extent certainly this match in 1950 had no bearing at all in the sport here.
Once they returned to the States, the game was for all intents and purposes restricted the Immigrant communities and arguably is still not the spectator sport that most would have hoped for.
This was a one-off event that is footnote in the history of the sport even in USA that has been over dramatized in a movie that certainly did not do justice to the people who were involved in it.
This film will most likely be remembered as one of Gerard Butler’s early works (that he is probably embarrassed about and would cringe if anyone mentioned it).