Invictus: Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman serve more Mandela magic

Nelson Mandela hands the World Cup to Francois Pienaar in 1995 (Photo courtesy The Sun, UK)

Updated: 6 Dec 2013 Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela (1918 – 2013): Thank You and Goodbye!

If a run-away genie granted me a wish to clone any single living human being, I’ll have no hesitation with my choice: Nelson Mandela — undoubtedly the greatest living statesman on the planet.

One might argue that Mandelas are not born; they are made. A combination of personality and historical circumstances create the rare phenomena like him.

In July 2008, when Mandela turned 90, I quoted the American film-maker, social activist and blogger Danny Schechter — who filmed Mandela’s struggle to end apartheid and restore democracy in South Africa — as saying: He (Mandela) is one of those leaders who not only helped free his own country and people but became an icon and symbol for freedom in the world. At a time when darkness seems to be descending again, with the economy on the edge amidst protracted wars and pervasive abuses of powers, he is the one person that people the world over look to as a symbol of that saying that ‘another world is possible.’ He is not perfect – who is? He has taken great risks, and made his share of mistakes, but the love and adoration he inspires speaks to how special he is – even as he sees himself as part of a collective, a movement…

The Mandela story has been told many times by many film-makers, writers and journalists. Few other leaders have engaged the popular culture and media’s attention — while both in and out of office — as Mandela has, and with good reason.

One poem + two men = Rainbow Nation

The latest film inspired by Mandela is Invictus directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. Both actors have just been nominated for Oscar awards – for best actor and best supporting actor respectively. But the film’s exclusion from the 10 nominees for best picture has surprised and disappointed some.

Invictus reconstructs the events in the life of Nelson Mandela at a crucial time for himself and country: after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, during his term as the rainbow nation’s first black president. The film revolves around how he campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his rainbow nation. (South Africa’s team eventually won the championship.)

Here’s the plot summary from IMDB:
The film tells the inspiring true story of how Nelson Mandela joined forces with the captain of South Africa’s rugby team to help unite their country. 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 rugby team as they make their historic run to the 1995 Rugby World Cup Championship match.

Read Wikipedia’s plot summary

Watch official trailer of Invictus the movie:

The film’s title comes from the fact that Mandela had the poem Invictus, by English poet William Ernest Henley, written on a scrap of paper on his prison cell while he was incarcerated. The story is based on the John Carlin book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation.

A legend plays another legend

I can’t wait to see Invictus, for it has one of my favourite actors playing one of my greatest heroes. Morgan Freeman is such a versatile and accomplished actor. Having played the US President and God in past movies, this is clearly cut out for him.

As Clint Eastwood explains: “As an actor, Morgan has the same presence when he walks in the room that Mandela has as a politician. Morgan has a certain bearing and charisma. He was built to play this role.”

The Guardian (UK) preview noted: “So convinced by Freeman’s performance was Mandela’s personal assistant that when she stepped on set, she wondered how her boss had made it to the shoot without her. Freeman plays Mandela with all the expected wisdom and fortitude, but it’s the twinkle of mischief in his eye that makes you feel you’re not just watching the man, rather than a virtuoso impression.”

The Guardian calls Invictus “a startlingly powerful film: a clear-eyed look a recent history, an awe-inspiring tale of prejudice overcome, a study of power – and a rousing sports movie.”

Note: In the movie, Mandela gives the “Invictus” poem to his national rugby team’s captain Francois Pienaar before the start of the 1995 Rugby World Cup. In reality, Mandela provided Pienaar with an extract from Theodore Roosevelt’s “The Man in the Arena” speech from 1910.

Invictus, by William Ernest Henley: Never say die!

If you and I think we have problems, we should consider the case of English poet William Ernest Henley (1849–1903).

Wikipedia says Henley became a victim of tuberculosis of the bone at age 12. A few years later, the disease progressed to his foot, and physicians announced that the only way to save his life was to amputate directly below the knee. But he persevered. In 1867, he passed the Oxford local examination as a senior student, and led an active and productive life till he died aged 53. (According to Robert Louis Stevenson’s letters, the idea for the character of Long John Silver was inspired by his real-life friend Henley.)

In 1875, when Henley was 26 years old, he wrote a poem from a hospital bed. It originally bore no title, and wasn’t published until 1888. It was Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who named it “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”) when he included the poem in The Oxford Book Of English Verse (1900).

So here is Henley’s words of resolve and courage, speaking to us across the gulf of time:

Invictus is also the title of a remarkable 2009 film directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon. The film is a look at the life of Nelson Mandela after the fall of apartheid in South Africa, during his term as president, when he campaigned to host the 1995 Rugby World Cup event as an opportunity to unite his countrymen. The title comes from the fact that Mandela had the poem written on a scrap of paper on his prison cell while he was incarcerated.

And here’s an image that echoes the same fighting spirit…