Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
Robben Island, Table Bay, South Africa: Francois Pienaar is standing in the window of Nelson Mandela’s prison cell – his home for 18 years. In “Invictus”, it is there that Francois is reminded of the poem Nelson Mandela shared with him as a source of inspiration.
“Invictus” tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team, Francois Pienaar, to help unite their country.
Following 27 years of imprisonment, newly elected President Mandela knows his nation remains racially and economically divided in the wake of apartheid. Believing he can bring his people together through the universal language of sport, Mandela rallies South Africa’s underdog rugby team as they make an unlikely run to the 1995 World Cup Championship match.
“Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire,
it has the power to unite people, in a way that little else does.”
– Nelson Mandela
To the rest of the world, the 1995 Rugby World Cup was just another world cup - four years on from Australia winning the trophy having beaten England 12 - 6. But to South Africa it was a turning point in their history - a shared experience that helped to heal the wounds of the past as it gave new hope for the future. The architect of this benchmark event was the nation’s president, Nelson Mandela. Its builders were the members of South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks, led by their captain, Francois Pienaar.
President Mandela and Francois Pienaar came together with their individual hopes—the president, to unite his country; the captain, to lead the nation’s team to World Cup glory—into one shared goal with the motto “One team, one country.”
It was British-born journalist, John Carlin, who wrote “Playing the Enemy” in 2008 that inspired “Invictus”, and led to an Oscar® nominated movie directed by Clint Eastwood, produced and starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, and featuring Matt Damon as Springbok Captain Francois Pienaar.
Carlin explained “What you have to understand is that the green shirt of the Springboks was a powerful reminder to black South Africans of apartheid. They hated that shirt because it symbolised, as much as anything else did, the tremendous indignities to which they were subjected. Mandela’s genius was to recognise that this symbol of division and hatred could be transformed into a powerful instrument of national unity.”
South African-born Anthony Peckham who wrote the screenplay grew up under the shadow of apartheid, so had a unique insight into the time: “Mandela realised he had a perfect opportunity to address the part of the electorate that had not voted for him…that, in truth, feared him. White South Africans followed the Springboks religiously, so to use the forum of the World Cup was brilliant. But it wasn’t just a game; it was the fact that Mandela embraced a team that black South Africans hated and almost by force of will dragged all of the people into following them.”
“The rainbow nation starts here. Reconciliation starts here. Forgiveness starts here.”
– Nelson Mandela in “Invictus”
The South African Springboks were never supposed to reach the final. Because of apartheid, South Africa had been banned from participating in international sporting events for years, and therefore suffered from a serious lack of experience on the world stage. They were the underdogs, but as the host country of that year’s World Cup, South Africa automatically qualified to compete.
The rest, as they say, is history.
“Playing The Enemy” became a script in the hands of Morgan Freeman and Clint Eastwood, originally called “The Human Factor”, and within two years “Invictus” hit the silver screen.
Clint Eastwood - a man who demands perfection, cut no corners and employed the services of Chester Williams, the only black member of the 1995 Springbok team, to coach the rugby. And rugby players were brought in from clubs all over South Africa to make the sport look authentic. Every element of the matches was to look as true to the actual championship, right down to the haka performed before the final match by the formidable All Blacks; the New Zealand Rugby Union sent an expert, Inia Maxwell, to train and supervise the scene. His own son, Scott Eastwood played Joel Stransky - the Springbok fly half responsible for the winning drop goal, but was a complete rugby novice so had to train relentlessly to understand both the game and perfect a drop kick.
And so to the movie itself. “Invictus” is the first film that I can name in history that has done justice to the great sport of rugby. And it also tells a heart-warming true story that leaves you uplifted and exhilarated by the end. Yes of course there is a certain degree of artistic licence, but it is a Hollywood movie afterall, and how else would one condense one year into 2 hours and 14 minutes.
The script is excellent, and the attention to detail quite striking; the accents are almost perfect [with the exception of Morgan Freeman - though you don’t notice too much as his mannerisms would have you think it is Mandela on the screen], the rugby choreography spot on, the soundtrack absolutely appropriate, the costumes are perfect - to the extent that the material for the match shirts was specially woven to match them to the actual kit from 1995 as it is no longer available. Even Ellis Park was redressed to take it back to how it looked 15 years ago. President Mandela’s personal assistant, Zelda la Grange, was present during filming at a house in Cape Town used for the interior of Mandela’s home, and she commented “I know the house so well and they recreated it to perfection. The environment even felt the same. “
There will be tears, and laughter, wry smiles, and genuine pleasure all round. Of course the scenes on Robben Island were going to be moving, but another situation that surprised me was the relationship between Mandela’s ANC and Special Branch bodyguards who came together under the most strained of circumstances.
And apart from Matt Damon who is an outstanding Francois Pienaar, despite the lack of height and prosthetic nose, one particular actor that stood out above all was Adjoa Andoh who plays Brenda Mazibuko, Mandela’s chief of staff.
Everything about the movie is impeccable. I’m sure you will find a scene or two that could have been omitted - once you have seen it as many times as I have - but that can easily be forgiven. I’ve seen the film with rugby supporters, film critics and complete rugby novices who like the movies, and the same verdict was heard each time - it’s a damn good film of a damn good yarn.
If you missed it on the big screen - it’s a shame - especially one scene at approximately 1 hour and 36 minutes, but add this one to your DVD collection…it will probably be the best we ever see of rugby on the silver screen.
"How do we inspire ourselves to greatness when nothing
less will do? How do we inspire everyone around us?"
– Nelson Mandela in “Invictus”
And I leave you to enjoy the trailer, and our exclusive interviews with Clint Eastwood [Director], Morgan Freeman [Actor: Nelson Mandela/Executive Producer], Matt Damon [Actor: Francois Pienaar] with a snippet from Francois Pienaar, and Zak Feau’nati [Actor: Jonah Lomu].
[Click on images for interviews]