||It's called The Beautiful Game in Britain, football that is, though if you're not a fan you may wonder what's so beautiful about it. Indeed, if you're not a fan, then maybe you're a film buff instead, which brings you to a quandary when the sport is brought to the big screen as a subject, for really the makers of such things are onto a lose-lose situation. This is thanks to the movie fans not being big fans of kicking a ball around for ninety minutes, and football fans getting hypercritical about the fictional depiction of their beloved pastime and therefore not being overly enthused about watching some namby-pamby picture that can't even get the basic details correct and convincing. On the other hand, there are a select few films that generate a degree of affection in both groups, and The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is one of those.
Made and released in 1939, this was from the decade when Arsenal were an all-conquering team and just before the Second World War arrived and scuppered their side's success - not the worst thing Hitler did, granted, but it does add a measure of poignancy about the sight of the players who would soon be enlisting for battle, as many of the nation's men would be. The sole nod to the upcoming conflict is a poster for a newspaper in the background warning "Hitler's Friends", but in the main it left the real world to the newsreels, as perhaps surprisingly, this was a comedy thriller. The humour centred around the lead Inspector, played by Leslie Banks, the British star who had scored a worldwide hit in the villain role of The Most Dangerous Game a few years previously, yet here was extremely eccentric and at times, very funny.
For instance, he was introduced putting a team of policemen through their paces: in tutus, dancing on a stage for what presumably was a rehearsal for a show and not for the Inspector's personal satisfaction (though it was that as well). Why has he been called away from this creative endeavour? Because, as we have witnessed in the first twenty minutes, a player at a charity match with Arsenal as the professionals and the made-up side the Trojans as the amateurs, has been murdered, collapsing at the titular stadium from the effects of poisoning! Anyone attending could be a suspect (well, not really), but the Inspector zeroes in on the dead man's girlfriend (Greta Gynt) who appears to know more than she is letting on, though as per your expectations, the actual culprit is one of the players to be revealed at the charity match's replay.
The details of the opening match are interesting to contrast with the game today, from the players who by and large stick to the rules (the one time the referee blows his whistle for a foul it looks like a legitimate mistake on the players' part) to the crowd, specifically one ageing cheeky chappie who shouts insults at the ref from the stands, "This grass needs cutting, the ref can't see!", that kind of supposed witticism that sounds a million miles away from "The referee's a wanker!" or whatever gets chanted at your local ground. Not to mention that the film exhibited some prime instances of nineteen-thirties British blokes, none of whom look a day under fifty and that included both football teams; even the Arsenal players who were authentic sportsmen looked as if they were about to retire to draw their old age pensions, rather than head off to war.
Material like this is the reason The Arsenal Stadium Mystery has endured among British football fans in a way that many a thirties film, be it a quota quickie or a prestige picture, would never be considered as worth watching by certain twenty-first century audiences. Its offbeat sense of humour is as much a motive for that as its comical to modern eyes view of the games, and if the murder plot is somewhat convoluted, you just go with it because Banks was great fun to watch, and how could you not appreciate a movie which ends with the killer revealed at the match replay, whereupon he springs into action and scores the winning goal? Really, that kind of lunacy was only comparable to Sylvester Stallone's heroics in the other favoured football flick of the Brits, Escape to Victory (1981 - or Victory as it was known elsewhere), where his goalkeeper was moved to score himself.
Well, Stallone was the star, and the rivals were the Nazis, so... and people wonder why that picture isn't taken seriously, at least The Arsenal Stadium Mystery was supposed to be intentionally funny. But the football film as a genre - soccer to North Americans - usually struggles to be taken seriously, which is fine when it's a comedy: Bill Forsyth's Gregory's Girl (1981) is ostensibly a football story, but he ditches that element well before the end in favour of teenage romance, though Mike Bassett: England Manager (2001) succeeded by being keenly savvy about its subject matter and including many jokes that even non-football fans would recognise as penned by talents who knew what they were talking about. Largely, however, the game is presented as no laughing matter, a focus for angst and much desperation to prove oneself on the pitch over and above all else.
Sean Bean in When Saturday Comes (1996) was merely an excuse for him to play for his beloved Sheffield United, and made the once-popular football comics like Roy of the Rovers look authentic, while Ian McShane in Yesterday's Hero (1979) represented Jackie Collins' attempt to craft soap opera dynamics out of the shenanigans that multi-million pound players got up to on and off the pitch, but was so downbeat that such absurdities were more enjoyable in The Bitch. The Children's Film Foundation got in on the act with Cup Fever (1965), a precursor to the World Cup held in England which was the subject of Sixty-Six (2006), a coming of age yarn, while the Scottish game was stuck with "explaining soccer to Americans" embarrassment A Shot at Glory (2000), with Robert Duvall's remarkable attempt at the accent. Bend It Like Beckham brought the women's game to the silver screen in 2002 and made a star of Keira Knightley, whereas the trials of being a fan of Arsenal brought Colin Firth low in Fever Pitch (1997), which takes us back where we began, with The Arsenal Stadium Mystery. Times have changed, but this merely makes that film all the more amusing.
[Network release The Arsenal Stadium Mystery on Blu-ray as part of The British Film line, and the disc has an image gallery as an extra.
Click here to buy from the Network website.]